I Just Have One Question

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.

Bruce: “Yeah…?”

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.”

Me: “Yes…?”

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.”

Fabian: “…”

Social worker: “We don’t have to decide today. You can think about it. It’s always an option for your future. OK?”

Fabian: “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.

One Box of Paper

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.

 

Lockdowns

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.

  • A fun thing you did over break: I went to the hot springs, celebrated my birthday with my great family. I have three more sisters and a new mom and dad who make my life perfect. 
  • What is an unusual or interesting fact about you?  I was adopted by a great family. 

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.

 

 

Migration

I tried to be an immigrant once. I failed miserably because I’m too damn American. A privileged white woman. And because it was so fucking easy just to come home after a year.

In the attempt, I cried for months. I wrote constantly about the struggle of it all. The relinquishment of our family home. The endless paperwork. The cancellation of a dream job for something that was meant to barely sustain a recent graduate, not a family of five.  Saying goodbye to the colleagues and collegiality I had shared for seven years. Saying goodbye to my family, my friends.

But it was just a farce, really. I didn’t fully fulfill my lifelong dream of Spanish fluency because I spent the majority of my days teaching English and the remainder speaking to my English-speaking family. And the money? The dream? The travels across Europe?

Nothing, I learned in those magical ten months, compares to human relationships. The relationships we’d just begun to develop with my clients, my colleagues, my friends in Spain before we had to board a plane and return to our “life.”

I tried to be an immigrant once, to step into the shoes of someone who has to drive across the country for a visa. To find an apartment. A phone plan. A rental car. A school for their children. In their second language.

I failed.

I bought five plane tickets and flew us back to America before we could blink.

Wouldn’t that be nice? To determine, after a time, that it’s just not right? That you could more or less return to your life and be the better for it? That you could pick up right where you left off, master’s degree in hand, Skype-interview-secured position waiting, to the life that you thought you wanted to leave behind?

Well, my students don’t have that choice. They have witnessed everything you can imagine and everything you couldn’t begin to imagine. They have come here with a singular thought: I cannot, I will not, return. I have stepped on that plane, that train, that three thousand miles of pain, to make this dream a reality. 

They come here to relinquish everything about what has shaped them as human beings. Their language, lisping and loving. Their food, aromatic and elegant. Their weather, pungent and tropical, arid and hot. Their religion, every day and every way. Their families. Their communities. Broken or torn, perfect or imperfect, but never enough.

And they know that they cannot look back. That, no matter the circumstance (murdered parents, no literacy, shadows of abuse, a $10,000 bail set on a cousin who came to rescue them from a detention center only to be placed in one himself), they are here. To stay.

They are the brown faces you see on every block building your garages. Hammering  your roofs. Serving your dinner. Teaching your children Spanish. Driving your Uber. Replacing your sewer line. Packing your meat. Running your school district.

Their children are your children. Impatient. Anxious. Determined.

They have come here, across the border, across the sea, across their history, to be reborn. They are no longer Hondureños, Salvadorans, Congolese, Burmese, Asian, Mexican, Iraqis.

They are intertwined into the fabric of our country, building the bridges, picking the food, bringing us hope.

And they’re not in the market to give up. To buy a plane ticket home.

To be me.

How humbling that is, to think of staying, of giving up everything for a different life. Of never being able to return.

Of never wanting to return.

Can you imagine?

And this is why my daughter has made this card. Why I have spent my evening in Walmart searching for gifts that will never replace a loving family. And why I am so heartbroken and so grateful that my students will never be me.

Have you ever tried to be an immigrant? It is impossible to imagine. To describe. To understand.

All we can really do, as her smile suggests, is build a bigger table. Open our hearts. And welcome those who may never have the privilege to look back.

 

 

 

Minutes

“Did you see that three blocks down, they’ve torn down a house and are building a mansion just like this one?” I complain on the drive up Florida Ave., noticing another mansion in place of a 1940s war home. “It’s happening. Right in our neighborhood.” Our neighborhood of 1960s NON-war, perfectly-good homes.

“Mama, all you do is complain. Do you realize that? You complain about everything.

I think for a moment. We’ve been in the car for five minutes, and this is my first complaint. Give me SOME credit.

***Three hours later.***

My youngest has her exhibition night. She presents a video with her BFF about the endlessly inevitable impacts of Westward Expansion on Native peoples. She has drawn a calming coloring page with polygons for her math class. She has developed a filter to determine how best to eliminate toxins from drinking water.

And now she is participating in a Socratic seminar, sitting in a circle with her classmates, discussing “technology,” the parents hovering on the outskirts.

In the blink of an eye, the topic moves from the dangers of texting while driving to the dangers of guns. A very well-spoken and adamant eighth grader sitting two seats down retorts, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. My father is in the military, and soldiers have learned how to handle guns respectfully. With control.”

It is 19:22 on a Thursday night. I have sat through two 90-minute classes and two meetings and one long-short drive, fixed a put-together-leftover-dinner, walked the dog, walked to this “perfect” school, and begged my husband to join me for this one last event, only to realize the intense permeation of these ideas.

***Three hours earlier***

“Do you see it, girls? Right there. The original house is gone. Only the scaffolding for a mansion in its place.”

“And what’s wrong with that?” my oldest, money-hungry oldest, demands.

“The best part of living in this neighborhood is how real the people are. How middle class they are. NOT rich. Not taking everything out from under the rest of us.”

But all the people taking everything out from under the rest of us actually surround us. They are in my youngest’s classroom. They are five miles away, intentionally driving an RV into a hijabi woman, mother and aunt to the most precious students one could ever imagine the joy of having in a classroom. They are this thirteen-year-old’s mother, who intervenes in the Socratic seminar when some students suggest that in other countries, there are no school shootings. That in America, maybe we should focus on mental health rather than providing guns to all citizens.

A bulldog, she shadows her daughter, raises her voice, raises her hefty body in a darkened stance, and indirectly threatens the eighth graders. “We as human beings… We are ALL human beings, right? You as a human being have the responsibility to get help if you have mental issues. You have the responsibility. No one else. Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.”

I have to turn away. Suck in my breath. Stare at the wall. Clench my fists. Her teacher visibly notices my discomfort, walking towards me but not saying a word.

When I arrive home, all the news of the day is a heavy weight. My two girls who graduated nineteen months ago, who walked across Eritrea for fear of persecution, leaving their parents and home behind in search of a better life, who came to our country because their aunt lived here, who couldn’t tell me till the end of the year that the words of The Good Braider were so true for them, the protagonist counting her minutes on her cell phone, working extra hours to buy more minutes, were so true to them because they had to do the same to call home to their mother… And now?

And now some bastard who saw a hijabi Black woman walking home in the middle of a Wednesday from an ENGLISH CLASS rushed across two lanes to murder her?

But guns don’t kill people. People kill people, right?

“You’re not friends with that girl, are you?” I ask my baby daughter.

“God, no, Mama, she’s just awful.”

“OK, I’m just making sure because …” And I begin my rant about guns, the same rant they’ve heard their whole lives, the same rant that causes my middle child to hold up her hand and shout, “Enough with your opinions, Mama, it doesn’t really matter,” and then I hold up my ever-evil, ever-heartbreaking social media page where my close high school friend has to report that her Muslim son was threatened by a classmate to be shot that very afternoon, and I shout back, “It ABSOLUTELY matters, and this is why.”

It’s true. I complain about everything. I complain about injustice, and I will complain about it every minute of every day until the day I die. Injustice in the distribution of wealth. In immigration atrocities. In gun violence. In violent death from the gun of a soldier in the Middle East to the tires surrounding me in ever-so-fucking-golden-Denver.

I wish I could buy more minutes, too, just like Viola in The Good Braider. Just like Jumea and Salihah, who crossed mountains and oceans and discrimination to be given a chance that has been taken from them.

I wish I could buy more minutes of their smiles. Of how hard every immigrant I know works to build those mansions. To make this American Dream a reality. To put this darkness into perspective.

These are my minutes for today. My notes. They may sound like complaints, but they are tinged with the hope that someone will listen. Someone will donate. And someone will see that people don’t have to kill people.