I teach beautiful human beings, who happen to be immigrants. Please stop calling them “illegals”

The Immigrant by Michael Murphy, Wonderspaces, Austin, TX

I’m a teacher. My students are beautiful. They’re funny. Their hearts run deep. They’re so sweetly empathetic. They may lose their minds when I take up their phones – heaven forbid they go more than 5 minutes without snapchat! They may mouth off when they have a bad day. They may find their missing assignment they accused me of losing at the bottom of their backpack in a wad of crumpled papers. But they are the best kids.

They are the hardest working students on campus, learning all day in a language that is not their native tongue. That in and of itself makes them heroes in my book. I can’t imagine how exhausting the anxiety, stress, and brain overload must feel at times. These kids are so freaking intelligent too. And so talented. They are musicians, dancers, and artists, and have accomplished adult tasks that I didn’t even attempt to navigate until later in life. It seriously blows my mind. They work after school, save money to buy their own cars, and help pay bills. I didn’t do any of those things in high school and I barely did some of those things in college. Many take on these responsibilities while missing family members that are far away.

They live their lives with grace and grit. They find the spaces in school and in our community where they are seen and valued as individually unique and complex human beings. They’re aware of the one-dimensional, racist labels that fear manufactures and carelessly breathes into life, but they do not let these words of hate define them. These beautiful souls bring layers of pain and hope and dreams and laughter and tears and love into my classroom. God is there, in all of them.

I had this one precious student, I can’t remember if I taught her for 2 or 3 years, but she was my self-appointed classroom manager. There was this group of extra rowdy boys in the same class, and she would put them in their place before I could even raise an eyebrow in their direction. I’ll never forget the way she would suddenly whistle and yell, “Cállate y escucha a la maestra!” And they would snap to attention. She was such a boss. She’d eat lunch in my room sometimes. She was often exhausted from working full time to support herself, but she came to school everyday and fought for her life and education with everything that she had. Even on her most difficult days, she had a smile and laugh that would light up the room.

She was kind to everyone, and I could always rely on her to help bridge cross-cultural friendships in my classroom. I prayed hard for her. There were many other amazing teachers, counselors, and administrators that did as well. After she graduated, she radiated joy. No longer burdened by both school and work, she created a beautiful life on her own terms that she loved. She came back for visits several times, and she’d always bring me an apple, orange, or pear. On her last visit, she brought me a picture from the ESL banquet we throw for seniors at the end of every year. She gave me a hug, told me how happy she was, and handed me the wallet size print. She had written “mi corazón” on the back. She thrived on showing love to others.

This sweet young woman has been in a heaven for a couple of months now. She was 20 years old. There was an accident at the construction site where she worked and her chest was crushed instantly. Her story is not defined by dehumanizing labels. Her story is one of greatness, a journey of adversity, perseverance, and acceptance. Her story is one that all of us who had the honor of knowing her will carry in our hearts forever.

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