a scary moment
can instantly change to love
if you choose your words
a scary moment
can instantly change to love
if you choose your words
On the phone with the immigration lawyer four weeks ago: “I just have one question. What can we do at the school to get this boy out of a homeless shelter?”
“He needs someone to offer him a home and then we can begin the process of going through family court and applying for an SIJS visa.”
Five minutes later, calling my husband (which I NEVER do) in the middle of a school day:
Bruce: “What’s up?”
Me: “I just have one question.” Loooong pause.
Me: “Would you be willing to take this boy into our home?”
Bruce: “This boy who’s been in your class for three weeks and we know nothing about?”
Me: “… Yep.”
On the phone with the social worker, one day later:
Social worker: “Our ultimate goal is to place him with a Spanish-speaking family, although it doesn’t always work out that way. He told me that you might be willing to take him, and just so you know, I already Googled your house and everything I could find out about you. And I just have one question.”
Social worker: “How do you feel about taking in a teenage boy when you have three teenage daughters living at home?”
(This was the easiest of these questions to answer).
In an email to the school psychologist, counselor, registrar, and social worker: “I just have one question. How does one take in a student in a situation like this?”
Response: “We don’t know.”
In my living room, three weeks later, meeting with the Undocumented Refugee Minor team of five adults–an interpreter, a bilingual social worker, a coordinator from Lutheran Family Services, a Guardian ad Litem lawyer, and a caseworker from the Department of Human Services. My puppy jumps from couch to couch, hovers on the floor with toys he begs them to throw, sniffs in their on-the-floor bags. Fabian holds the laser pointer and fiddles with the dog’s rampant scavenges for its source in the depths of the hardwood floor.
Social worker: “The primary goal of this program is to reunite you with your family. Let’s talk about all the family members you have in the U.S.”
So begins a lengthy discussion about every reason why his four family members cannot take him. One with a crime, one with a house too full, one in prison, and an uncle in Connecticut he doesn’t know.
Social worker: “Let’s talk about the uncle you don’t know. What if you went to visit?”
Fabian: “It’s too far.”
Social worker: “We could buy you a plane ticket. Pay for a hotel.”
Social worker: “We don’t have to decide today. You can think about it. It’s always an option for your future. OK?”
Fifteen minutes later, the meeting is coming to an end.
Social worker: “Now you both have the chance to ask any questions that you have.”
My quiet son, with red eyes and pulling his hands away from his downturned face, looks up and says, “Solo tengo una pregunta.”
We wait for the interpreter to repeat his words.
Fabian: “I just want to know how many times you are going to keep asking me to reunite with my family. Because I was in a homeless shelter for four months and no one in my family did anything for me, and I don’t want to reunite with them.”
Every mouth in the room: Silence.
I just have one question: What would you do?
Knowing that his journey across four borders and a lifetime of woes has ever-gratefully placed him in your living room. Knowing that you will lose sleep over this, waking in the middle of the night to police sirens thinking that ICE is coming, worrying that he will hate you, that he’ll turn back and re-cross those borders, that he won’t fit into your family. Knowing that when he sits in your classroom with all the others, they might make somewhat-joking, somewhat-bitter commentary about “your son.” Knowing that your daughters will get jealous over him being allowed to watch a movie on a weeknight or having a specially-made dinner and a piñata for his birthday. Knowing that people in your life are going to question every aspect of this choice (“College is coming up… can you afford this?” “Are you sure he’s not a criminal?” “Are you worried about having him in a house with three teenage daughters?”).
Knowing that for every day of your life, from the moment when he raised his face and asked his singular question, you will never forget its weight on your soul, on your humanity.
I just have one answer: love. It is the only response that is worth listening to out of every possibility. It is the only way to get through each of the borders that we must cross, each of the dark memories that plague us all, each of the questions we have always asked about what we could do.
We could love each other just a bit more.
my son shares his home
with diagonal slices
of sweet plátanos
the pic of the day:
shattered shards of icy glass
in a parking lot?
a partner ski date
with never-gets-old peak views
and perfect powder?
or my son’s bracelet
two weeks into this new life
we’re building from scratch?
it’s my dilemma:
choosing the best words, pictures
to capture this life
That’s right. You are witness to this. That is one box of paper. It costs $28 on Amazon, according to the research of ninety-two teachers who’d Googled it by the end of the afternoon.
One box of paper to last each one of us the semester. One box of paper that the new facilities manager surprisingly found out he had to deliver to every classroom and teacher office in addition to his regular duties of CLEANING AND REFILLING SUPPLIES FOR THE ENTIRE SCHOOL.
One box of paper that will probably, without a curriculum or a single textbook, last me a month.
One box of paper that won’t even make enough copies for one of the two SAT practice tests our school thinks we must administer to students who have yet to write a singular cohesive sentence in English.
One box of paper to “save on resources” so that we can “better serve our students.”
This is what it has come to.
“It’s going to be like cigarettes in prison.”
“I’m sorry…” nicest person in the building says to a teacher in the copy room, “I just can’t let you have any of my paper.”
Every office, every classroom, every kid knows and is talking about this paper.
This. One. Box. Of. Paper.
It’s almost as if the dictatorial mantra of Trump has trickled down into my classroom. Should I bomb Iran and destroy hundreds of lives to distract them from my impeachment? Should I allow states, especially border states, to choose whether or not to accept refugees? Should I take away one of the few resources that teachers have left?
Why the FUCK NOT?
“Use your Chromebooks. We’re a one-to-one school.”
The Chromebooks that have books on them that the kids won’t read because three tabs later there are twenty games and a soccer tournament?
The Chromebooks that my Newcomers can’t small-motor-skills manipulate because some of them have never even learned how to hold a pencil?
The Chromebooks that enhance every screen addiction that has taken this generation away from face-to-face conversation?
One. Box. Of. Paper.
What else is there to say? I better stop typing now, because if you were interested in printing this post, I don’t think it would fit on one page, and every page is worth a lesson.
And I only have one box of paper.
This evening, though it took him three times to ask me the question in his perfect Spanish due to my completely butchered understanding, I think I was able to answer him with a too-easy level of coherence.
“Why in that one class did we have to climb under the desks and turn off the lights?”
“Welcome to America, the land of the free, the land where gunmen enter classrooms and kill students and we have to spend our lives practicing for the possibility of that moment.”
“But couldn’t a gunman just blow open the door?”
The irony of everything is in his words.
Couldn’t we just pass gun control laws or have background checks instead of practicing lockdowns?
Couldn’t we have immigration policies that wouldn’t leave 17-year-old refugees in homeless shelters?
Couldn’t we raise our sons to be like this one, so grateful that in the course of seventeen days, he has completely changed our lives and filled our home with laughter and love, instead of raising sons who think the only solution to life’s problems is to shoot someone?
He is here now, in my house, safe after his first American lockdown. What else will he see in a year, in a lifetime, as he adjusts to this new world? As he tries his best to catch up with a semester of learning English that he missed, where we started with the alphabet and now are writing sentences that he struggles to understand, relying on the other Hondurans in the class to translate? As he sits in my ninth-grade advisement class listening to me ramble on about graduation requirements that all of us know are inaccessible to him?
What else might he write, between now and when he leaves our house, that could be more beautiful than these crumpled-up words that we threw into the basket, a silly icebreaker activity that was designed to help the students get to know each other and that completely failed in my ever-introverted advisement class?
The task was to read the messages aloud and try to guess who the author was.
But I couldn’t read his words aloud. Not after the lockdown. Not in my broken translation. Not for this emotionless class to hear.
Because I wanted to feel those words deep in my soul, how beautifully imperfect and ever-so-perfect.
Just five minutes after crumpling the paper back to him, the dean came to the door asking for him and his backpack. My blood turned to ice in an instant. I have been teaching for far too long to know what the combination of those words means.
What could have happened between when I saw him getting his coffee from our kitchen this morning and that moment? What could they be looking for? How could they be so wrong?
Every question in the world popped into my brain, and I held back his three friends to ask what had happened in period 2. I told them how scared I was about the backpack request in particular, and they all responded, “No te preocupes, Miss, nada pasó.”
The next seven minutes became my own terrifying lockdown. Because he is not just one of the hundreds of kids they have pulled out of my class in the past sixteen years.
He is my kid.
When he returned during passing period, I couldn’t even let him go to math class without giving him a hug of one hundred percent relief after he told me that his social worker had picked up all his documents from the homeless shelter, and he needed to bring his backpack to keep them safe.
Tonight, I could have told him, if I were less opinionated, that we have lockdowns to keep us safe.
But when you’re in a lockdown, you’re not thinking about safety. You’re thinking about your life. All you’ve been through, all you might never see. You’re thinking about all the kids’ faces, all the struggles of the world, everything bundled up into the silent, dark corner of a classroom, the silent, dark corner of our society.
You’re thinking about the people you love. The people who write kind words on soon-to-be-crumpled paper. The social worker who texted her gratitude one last time right after meeting with him. The family surrounding you who took him into their lives without a second thought.
“Look, Miss,” his friend grinned at lunch, gesturing towards him in the hallway. “No necesitaba preocuparte… Su hijo está bien.”
Yes. Both of our lockdowns have been lifted.
And my son is just fine.
It was cruelty that put him here. The cruelties of poverty, of corruption, of one governmental thievery after another. Our government to theirs. Their government to their people.
It was cruelty that put him in a cage, that gave him no choice but to keep on keeping on, train after train, burnt house back home, left-behind baby sisters, parents unable or unwilling to give him what he really needed, really wanted in life.
It was cruelty that led him to my classroom and into the basement “bedroom” of our home.
But today, there was no cruelty. Only the miracle of another turn around the sun. And this eighteen-year milestone is so much more than the tres leches cake my youngest prepared, so much more savory than the two pot roasts we spent half the day cooking, more than the intricately-decorated banner, the piñata he never could hit as a kid.
Today, there was only humanity.
The humanity that bleeds through the cruelty even when you think it isn’t there. In programs established by past presidents that a team of social workers, caseworkers, and even a famous poet worked tirelessly to get him into before his eighteenth birthday, when suddenly, and for completely arbitrary reasons, our government labels young boys adults.
The humanity in lawyers working day and night, in the middle of Christmas and New Year’s while visiting family, who are willing to send emails and make phone calls and answer every stupefied gringo-I-don’t-know-the-law question.
The humanity in my friends who sent gift cards, cash, and prayers, to thank me for bringing this boy home.
Cruelty brought him here. But humanity has won.
If you combine C & H, you’ll have nothing but sugar. Pure sweetness.
And that is what I want you to taste as you read this post, as you click on these links. The sweetness of humanity. It may seem to be hiding behind the C, but without it, what would we have?
Certainly not a game of spoons. A party of smiling teenagers. An artist’s pencil.
Or a speck of hope.
Blow out these candles with us. Sing this song in broken Spanish. And relish these sweet dreams. They are yours. They are his. They are all of ours.
And they are sweeter than any cruelty you could imagine. Just taste them. Take a moment to taste how sweet our world could be.