where shall we begin?
by building community
wherever we can
where shall we begin?
by building community
wherever we can
a scary moment
can instantly change to love
if you choose your words
he asked if he could stay here
with his new family
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.
My creative writing teacher (I will always refer to her as such even though I graduated nearly twenty-five years ago) asked us (her forever students) to send her a quick email about an important gift we gave or received this holiday.
Maybe I could snap a quick pic from the tree on Christmas Eve, filled with makeup, watercolor markers, jeans, and long-sleeved blouses for my three teenage daughters. Or of Christmas morning with the magical Apple Watches, so coveted by my Apple-only family.
Or the earrings my mother made me or the gift card to Colorado Gives from my sister.
But none of these things could begin to compare with the gift that this year has given me. The gift of this man in my life who would do anything, anything to prove his love to me. Marry me when I was just a baby. Follow me to Spain. Learn how to ski nine months and one lesson after tearing his ACL. Read every post. Drive overnight through the midwest so the entire family could sleep.
Take into our house a boy who doesn’t belong to us and in every way belongs to us.
You have watched the news. You have seen the stories. You have donated money. You have screamed in frustration at the cruelties and injustices inflicted on others by our government. By ourselves.
But have you stood in front of fourteen Newcomers and come to understand how brightly they still see our country? Have you had a hallway conversation with a boy who informs you that, after five days of walking, twenty-five days of train-hopping and pigeon-killing, two days of washing windshields in Mexico City, five days waiting to cross the Rio Grande in the middle of the night on a raft, one week in a detention center and four months in a home for unaccompanied minors, and four months in a homeless youth shelter, he is still looking for a home?
And that, no matter what, he cannot, will not, return home?
What would you do? What might you ask your husband to do? Your three ever-spoiled, ever-adaptable, ever-loving teenage daughters?
Would you keep scrolling past the images of children under space blankets on concrete floors?
Or would you realize that this boy is standing in front of you, in your school, in your class, in your life, without a home? A family? And do something? Anything?
I cannot take a quick pic of the past two weeks, the entire time that has passed between my knowledge of his status and his soon-to-be permanent placement in our home. The phone calls, the emails to every last human I could think of who might help him. The two-hour meeting with the Department of Human Services, his Honduran father on the line, ready to relinquish all rights. The background checks, fingerprints, home visits, all within a day. His arrival to my home with three garbage bags filled with clothing and no coat. The shy first meal that he took to the basement to eat. Alone. His quick smile and ever-present hope that this place must be a better place. His immediate love of our three pets.
I cannot send Mrs. Clark a quick email about my gifts this year. There are too many to count, they are the uncountable nouns I teach my Newcomers: love, hope, future, desire.
They are all in this union that the caseworker asked about today: “Married for almost twenty-two years? Tell me, how do you do it?” “Patience and love. Patience and love.”
They are here, in this boy, unwrapped, ready to be our brother, our son, part of our world.
These are my gifts. I’m sorry this is such a long email, Mrs. Clark.
for this moment of our lives
go beyond torrejas
beyond this sweet sauce,
this Christmas stocking for you,
beyond this moment
go beyond twenty-two years
when we were babies
when we were in love
as only the young can be
and he promised me
what promise, you ask?
to open our home with love
when it is needed
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 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.