Balancing My Burdens

As a high school English teacher, I have heard hundreds of stories, and I’m not just talking about the melodramatic novels, plays, and memoirs we are sometimes forced to share with our students.

The burden of our students’ stories is something that all teachers must carry when we enter this profession. We must balance this burden in the midst of administering tests during most of our planning days for a month, attending staff meetings where we are told that we don’t deal with student trauma well enough right after attending staff meetings where we are told we’re not pushing them towards the test fast enough, right after being in class with students who are off-the-walls doing handstands (literally) or thinking about suicide (literally), right before being in class with students who don’t speak a word of English and all my paras are–you guessed it–testing, and these new Arabic-only students have come here with hearing impairments, broken hearing aids, and no money.

I have tried to balance this constant bombardment of burdens with my other role, my most important role in this life: being a mother to three daughters who will soon fully enter the male-dominated maelstrom we call a society.

And?

Most days I feel I fail at both. Some days I drown the sorrow with wine. Other days all I can feel is the freezing fresh air of a ski slope and a million tears of joy. Every day I feel the comfort and strength of the man I love, one who doesn’t contribute to the maelstrom.

Today is definitely one of the darker days. One of the days when I know that I have brought more of a burden than the average teacher onto myself by taking in this beautiful, kind, brokenhearted boy, who, amidst a series of relatively good news in recent weeks, had to share his whole sordid life story with the immigration lawyer today, had to explain the scars on his wrist, his thumb, his forehead, and the weight of his mother’s words behind those scars, had to hear that seeking asylum is an unwinnable case (never mind that just before the meeting he showed me a video exposing his hometown as the most dangerous city in the world to live, overrun by gangs) and that it will be two years if he’s lucky, three if it all goes well, and a 20% chance of never, that he will get. A. Work. Permit.

Not a Green Card. Not a driver’s license. Not an invitation to take a citizenship test.

A work permit.

Then to drive this teary-eyed, always-singing boy home for him to play his Spanish love songs all night long, to pluck along with his new guitar (a gift from my father, another man who doesn’t contribute to the maelstrom), for him to happily heat up some of the sandwiches he collected from the food bank to fill his unfillable teenage-boy stomach.

Then to have my middle child walk into the kitchen after her babysitting job and burst into tears.

Not because the triplets were whiny, not because the three-year-old threw toys at her again, not because babysitting isn’t her favorite thing.

Because they told her, after three weeks and mostly taking over the job from her baby sister (who solicited it to begin with) while Rio has play rehearsal, that they no longer wanted Rio to do it because she’s better.

Because she and I, this middle Mythili, haven’t been getting along lately because she’s fifteen and hates her mother, because she’s been calling me out for being too loud, too embarrassing, too forward, too judgmental, too ME, and because in this moment of inconsolable tears over thinking about what to say to Rio, Mythili and I are on the same painful page.

Because Riona has been hearing her whole life that she’s… too quiet. Too afraid to try new things. Too low to be in the regular group but too high to qualify for services. Too old to learn how to walk. Too immature to fit in with her sisters. Too messy.

Because Riona, after two hours of play rehearsal after eight hours of school after walking to and from school after doing her chores, made this iconic picture of her favorite things: the TV show Friends, an artist’s brush, a sunset background, and six–not five–cats, each with a symbol inside representing the members of our family: a pot for our papa chef, a heart for her mama, a music note for our five-weeks-in singing son, a star for our oldest dancer/actor/gymnast Izzy, a pencil for her artistic Mythili, and a paint palette for herself, the aspiring art teacher.

This is just one day, one story. One of the hundreds of stories that will make their way in and out of this heart within this cat, this heart between Bruce and me.

And I wonder which one will break me. Crying over my kids. Or crying over my kids.

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 piƱata 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.