And so I became one of them...in her eyes...on that day...
Last week I had a painful experience that completely changed me as an educator. But before I tell you the story, I want to share with you about how I identified myself:
I’m a Latina woman living in the USA. I’m bilingual (Spanish & English). I’m an American citizen. I live in multiple cultures and pride myself in navigating different social and cultural contexts. I’m an immigrant.
There are many parts of me but these parts of my identity have always helped me connect at deeper levels with our Hispanic population in the USA schools. I can relate to their personal stories and they can relate to mine. We share a language (Spanish) and we also share similar (but never the same) journeys. When you put all of these together, we are able to make a connection right away. I honestly never struggled as an educator establishing relationships with my students. It will only take a read aloud, a conversation, an introduction, and we would have understood each other without too many words. That has been the case for the last 18 years. Until last week.
Every year, as new students enter the school system, I dedicate some time reading, understanding and getting to know the child to the best of my ability. How do I do this? Well, accessing all the literacy and language data available at the beginning of the year only tells me one part of the story. I also make sure to check the student’s cumulative records to see if there’s anything else I need to be aware of. Another way I learn about students is by having lots of conversations with them during and throughout the year. I also like to invite new families to our school for a “welcoming meeting” (more on that on another post).
On this particular day, I was in the office reading the Cumulative Records of several new students when I came across M’s file. My eyes went to the section of “previous schooling” and right there I read, “Detention Center Facility, Texas”. I read it again. And again to make sure I read it correctly. From my work within the community in my city, I knew that 6 families are here who have been separated from their parents/siblings. And right now, I was holding the file of one of them. My heart sank and raced with questions (what kind of support do they need? who should I reach out to? does she feels safe in our school? what does she need? will the family want us to know this information?)
I knew that I needed to work with M because I was demonstrating in a coaching session for another EL teacher how to access student's prior knowledge and schema. That day, the EL teacher and I walked to M’s classroom to pick her up and work with her. In my head I was aware that…
This child might be sensitive to strangers after what she went through
Having conversations in the hallway while we all walk together will be very important to help her feel at ease
Our common language: Spanish will bound us together
I need to very intentional about introducing myself and explaining my role to her.
When we got to the classroom, the EL teacher called M and explained that she will go to the teacher’s classroom to get some work done. I was standing in the classroom with my badge clearly visible so she will know I’m a staff member. I was smiling like I would usually do. As the EL teacher and M approached to me, I kneeled down, got to her eye level and introduced myself in Spanish. I showed her my ID so she can see my last name and photo and I said that we will read together.
I told her we would walk together toward her EL teacher’s classroom so we can work without interruptions.
I started asking simple questions like,” how are you today?” “do you like our school? what parts of our school do you like?”
She nodded her head. She kept looking at my badge. She scanned me from head to toe. Over and over.
When we got to the EL teacher’s classroom, I read a book to her. I tried to have conversations.
She barely responded or warmed up to me.
We finished our session together. I said goodbye and I told her I would probably see her again soon since I work with her EL teacher so closely.
Again. Not much reaction.
I walked away feeling depleted. I didn’t make a strong connection with M. Of course, I told myself, “she doesn’t trust anyone”. Days later, I’m sharing this story with my friend (also a fellow Latina) who works for Catholic Social Services and who volunteered her time at a Detention Facility center in Texas for two weeks. She said to me, “Stella, the immigration officers that she saw in the facility look like us and sound like us. They are Hispanic immigration officers but they don’t think like we do when it comes to immigration policies”
And there it is.
The truth. All exposed. All at once.
One day, I will be able to make sense of all the different ways that the separation of immigrant families have impacted the social, emotionally, and cultural well being of these children. I’m still learning and understanding all the deep roots of pain it created. But for now, I understood one thing: my identity as an immigrant, Latina, Spanish speaking woman did not help me that day.
For that moment, I became one of them. In her eyes and ears, we all look the same, we sound the same. And we remind her of what she encountered that summer in Texas.
Teaching is not only my craft but education is my advocacy. And M just gave me many reasons to keep doing this work with more love and more patience. This advocacy journey just began.
Image by Velizar Ivanov via Unsplash.