Stapled to the wall of my classroom is a world map, around which dozens of cards are posted. On these cards are the introductions my students wrote on the first day of this school year. So much has changed for them since September. Lately, I find myself going back to read these cards over. They are my reminder that these humans are just kids, despite the very adult stories they carry. Some I had already known for a couple of years, and some I had only known for a day, when I asked them to write a few basic facts about themselves. This map, framed by teenage words, is nothing more than a symbol for the community and trust that we build every day. Our journey together is never linear. For every step forward, there are often two steps back. While we grind our pencils down to nubs writing essays and sweat over annotating short stories, we have conversations. We talk about life goals, past mistakes, fears, and relationships. We talk about making better choices, changing the world, what it means to have faith, and being good people. The one thing we never do, is give up. The one thing we consistently focus on, is that no one can take away our education. The one thing we never, ever let go of, is hope.
In my class of mostly undocumented students, we’ve been talking about hope. We’ve been talking about triumph over adversity. We’ve been talking about staying focused when fear, hate and uncertainty swirl around you. We have plunged head first into the pools of Maya Angelou’s fierce words of perseverance.
As one of my senior girls said, “We’re not going to quit and give up. We’re going to keep coming to school and focus on graduating.”
Brave hearts speak volumes over fear. Loving hearts defy hate. These kids have both in spades.
A world exists for them that does not for me. I’ve never had to move from place to place every few months, hoping to evade the gangs that want to end my life. I’ve never had to see my father gunned down off of his bicycle in the street. I’ve never had to watch my family starve through a destitute economy that has left no jobs to be found.
My life has never been so at risk that I would risk it further for a chance to see my child survive.
I’ve never had to crawl into a trunk, hoping for freedom, unsure if the trunk would ever open again. I’ve never had to walk for two days without food or water. I’ve never been left on the side of the road to die because I injured my foot and became a liability. I’ve never had a gun pointed at me on a train, forced to watch another be gang raped. I’ve never been so dehydrated that I’ve dropped to the ground to guzzle water filled with sewage.
In my public school ESL classroom, teenagers fill the room with noise, hormones, and laughter. They talk too much, they forget their pencils, they get in trouble for playing with their soccer ball in class. They call me Miss, Seῆora, Maestra, and Mom. They shake my hand and hug me as they file into class. They are as thoughtful as they are chatty. They are as hardworking as they are forgetful. They are as emotional as they are dedicated to their education. They are typical teenagers, like any teenager in any classroom around the world. Sitting in their desks, bent over their composition notebooks, the stories that they harbor are not evident.
Their stories come out in pieces, quietly over time. Even in sharing their stories, they are not defeated. They are matter of fact. They are hopeful. They are determined. The grace of God shines through their sense of humor.
They often work after school and on the weekends, helping to support their families. They dream about going to college to become nurses or entrepreneurs. They are examples of focusing on love instead of hate. They are a constant reminder that God, not a man, is in control. I am thankful for these kids and their families. I am thankful for the ways in which they inform and stretch my world views. I am thankful for their young hearts that rise each and every day, never giving up their fight for safety and freedom.
There are these amazing women at my school. They are strong and dedicated to their job. They don’t have the luxury of sitting at a desk, or of sipping their morning coffee as they work. These women sweat, pushing cartloads of coolers around our sizeable campus, struggling to get through doors and around corners. Bending, pushing, picking up and setting down, these women deliver coolers of breakfast to each and every classroom before the day begins, coming around again just twenty minutes later to retrieve the emptied coolers. It’s a thankless job that is a substantial blessing for our students, who due to a new initiative, receive free breakfast every morning at the start of their first period. Free breakfast for 2,700 plus students. Every day.
It’s incredible how food changes the atmosphere of a first period classroom. Gone are the days of hangry, tired students who act out or can’t concentrate on their work. After just ten minutes of eating and chatting, these young adults wipe up their mess, dispose of their trash, and deposit the empty coolers outside of our classroom door. They work together as a community, to care for those who are caring for them. And then they are ready to learn. It’s awesome.
I know of the hardships and trials that many of our students face. I read about their struggles in their writing. I listen to their traumas when they need someone to talk to. Despite this, I had no idea how many of our students come to school hungry, and I never considered how that might effect their day. Ironic, considering how quickly I spiral into a dizzy, irritable mess if I go more than three or four hours between meals. I was incredibly blind.
I think about my own little human, for whom I’m able to buy enough food to feed her voracious appetite, and I become emotional. My little human whose current breakfast of choice is two sunny side up eggs with a green, fruit smoothie on the side. My little human who happily consumes her food, plus any goldfish or Lara bars that she manages to sneak from the pantry, while I finish getting dressed. My little human who is able to arrive at school with a full belly. I could neither raise nor feed this little human without a village behind me, and it’s embarrassing to admit that it is only just occurring to me that schools are an integral part of the village that support our children. I love that there are people who worry and care enough about the children in their village to create a program that provides each child a free breakfast, before expecting them to be able to focus on learning.
The woman who usually deposits my class’ breakfast coolers is a breath of fresh air. Despite the laboriousness of her task, she greets me each morning with a smile and a wave. We get to chat sometimes, about motherhood, work, our kids, and the cleaning we need to do over the weekend. Just two mommas bonding for a few minutes before we each go about the rest of our day. A few weeks ago she complimented a cobalt blue skirt that I was wearing. We both loved the color. A few days ago, she beckoned me to my door, and as I opened it she handed me a pair of cobalt blue earrings. She said she had seen them and they reminded her of my skirt, so she got them for me.
I couldn’t have been more floored. A simple act of love and thoughtfulness. A momma taking care of another momma. A woman supporting another woman. A village.