Despite the inequities of our public education system–that is, the ones that organizations like TFA are trying to address–I think sometimes we forget that there are many world citizens that can only dream of the quality of education that even some of our nation’s worst-performing schools provide. In particular, I am thinking of the many students who are immigrants, either from Africa or Central America. I’d like to share some of their stories.
My school, by virtue of its location in an immigrant hub of DC, is one of the most ethnically-diverse high schools in the district (i.e. it is not all-black). As a result, I get to hear about the many different life paths that my students have taken to be where they are now, here in DC. Many–no, most–are fascinating.
I’d like to share one of my students’ autobiographies (with his permission, of course) that shows just the kind of dedication that many of my students have towards achieving success, no matter the obstacles. This autobiographer is a dual-sport athlete (football and soccer), works the late shift at an Adams Morgan club until 3am and still manages to show up to class eager to learn (though rarely well-rested). I present to you OG’s unedited autobiography (written for his social studies class, but typed up and printed in my English classroom):
My name is [OG], I born in El Salvador in August 12, 1990. I star school in ma country until 8th grade. I lived with my grandmother, grandfather and my aunt. My mother came to the United State when I was 2 years old. The life in El Salvador was not easy in that time. We were a family with a low income. How ever after my mother came to this country with the help of my uncle, I can say that everything change for us. We hade the money to go to school, buy our uniforms, and also bocks. I grow up with my grandparents, they teaches me so many things, such us, how to swim, work in the agriculture, fishing and also hunt animal. Well I mostly liked to hunt and go fishing with my cousins. I hade a very good life in El Salvador, I hade basically everything I need. However the money is not everything I child need in life. I saw many pictures of my mother, she use to send us pictures every Christmas, or whenever she had some body who can she send them with. I remember that I use to ask my mother, “When would you come back”? She always said soon baby. I didn’t know how hard was for her been without us. I just know that I could do anything to be with her. In April 20, 2005 I decide to immigrate to this country I always want to do it.
My mother didn’t want to let me do it, however I told her that everything would be ok with the God help. I was just staring the school year, I was in 8th grade. So I couldn’t finish. I still remember the face of my grandparents when they find out that, I would come to the United States. However the understood that I wanted to be with my mother, my last school day I remember that was one of my hardest days, it was because I didn’t know if I would ever see them again. Finally the day that I was basically waiting my whole life came. I was so happy, I think all I pass to meet my mother was nothing. I like to take risks, so I say to my self “soon I’ll be with my mother and my little brother. I was the youngest one in the group, I can say that everybody treat me good. I didn’t walk at all. I was always with the guiders. One of them hade his daughter with him, she was like 2 years old. We were always in a car, bus or something like that. I remember that for me was like a field trip, I guess one of the longest one that I have ever make.
In May 2, 2005 at 5am I was already in Houston Texas. I have some family there, they receive me. My mother sends me some more money to buy a ticket at the grey house bus station. I get the bus in the evening. In May 4, 2005 at 6am I was in Washington DC. I call my mother and I told her that I was in the bus station. She was so happy and went to pick me up. I couldn’t get into the school in the time; it was because school was almost over. I decide to star working with my uncle in his landscaping company. I worked there the whole summer. My mother didn’t want me to work. However I wanted to make my own money I said. In august 1, 2005 I come to [__] high school to make a Test, that Test was to see if I hade enough knowledge to be in high school. They say I can go to 9th grade as a new comer. I was in ESL classes for 2 years. However I was one of the most outstanding students in ESL. My teachers decide to put me in regular classes. I been here 4 years and with the help of the wonderful teachers that I have meet here, now I’m ready to graduate from high school and hopefully go to college.
MA is another student whose story astonishes me. After being absent from class for the past 2 months, he came to me on parent-teacher conference day in order to tell me about his situation and negotiate a way for him to pass my class. Here’s why:
3 years ago, MA moved to the US from El Salvador with his mother in search of a better life. Things were relatively smooth until his mother asked him to drop out of school and work to support his family. When he told his mother that “I need my studies” she became furious. In January of this year, she kicked MA out of their house.
MA is now semi-homeless. He is currently living at a friend’s house in DC but knows he can’t stay there for too much longer. To save up money to live on his own, he’s been working a 10am-10pm shift at a McDonald’s across town. Because of this, he has been unable to attend school and, more importantly, unable to attend my English III class, which is what he needs in order to graduate.
MA also told me that “I don’t have papers.” As an illegal immigrant, MA has other hurdles to jump; he knows what this means for his future. He told me that he has recently placed his faith in the DREAM Act–a proposed law that will provide “conditional permanent residency” to undocumented immigrants who meet certain requirements. MA said it best himself: “I dream about the DREAM Act every day.”
I didn’t really know how to respond to MA’s story. It was simultaneously disheartening and anger-inducing, yet inspiring. MA and I found, with the approval of my principal, an alternate way to help MA pass English III. He is, no doubt, going to have to work hard, both at his job and with his work, in order to do it. But I have faith.
Hearing OG’s and MA’s perspectives made me wonder about the many other immigrant students (I have Eritrean, Ethiopian, St. Kittian (?), Jamaican students) whom I know work tirelessly each day to receive a quality US education. In fact, despite the (many) flaws I notice in my school, I also see that we have much to be thankful for. We don’t have a situation anywhere near as bad as this, or even this. Instead, we have programs that arguably do much to help immigrants (and non-immigrants) succeed.
Yet, even if the United States is in a better relative situation than some other countries, there is still much–much–that needs to be done. Even though we should celebrate big stereotype-stomping gains here in DC, we should recognize that we must do more.
I leave with an excellent short film that also sketches the immigrant experience (albeit in a different country). Today, I also leave the country for a much-needed winter break at home in Asia (as long as this storm doesn’t delay my flight).