What happens to students who have always been unprotected? We believe that this story by Stony Brook University student whom circumstances have forced into the protection of others, while he himself remains unprotected, says it all. We invite you to join a movement of students writing for our time. For more information, click here.
My footsteps reverberate against the hollow floors of the housing project as I slowly make my way down its dimly lit corridors. Behind the surgical mask tightly wrapped around my head, my breath is hot and shallow and discomfort rises in my stomach like bile; I choke it down. I continue taking step by step. It’s so quiet, all that I can hear is the sound of spray from the disinfectant that is being blanketed throughout the building, and the material from the Tyvek suit going back and forth between my legs. As anxiety builds, everything in my mind begins to close in; every single possible thought is just beaming at me, thoughts popping up to the rhythm of my steps. The sound of dry retching echoes down the hallways, filling them like a cloud of smoke.
My upper lip begins to sweat, and I can feel my breathing growing more rapid by the moment. The thought of how I have sacrificed so much to reach my final semester of college. The countless days where I would wake up at 7 a.m. to get ready for college that was an hour drive away. Having to stay on campus until 4 p.m. most days and then having to rush over and have my managers be annoyed that I’m 10 minutes late to my serving job, constantly understanding but still bothered. The countless sleepless all-nighters I would pull to get as much work done as I possibly could. The abundance of times I broke down in tears after work because I would still have tons of schoolwork left. All the times my mother would come home tired from long 12-hour days. The countless times it all just felt like too much. All culminating to this final semester, the semester that I thought my mother would finally see her first college graduate walk across that stage and accept his degree. It hurts to think that a college graduation picture would mean the world to her, but even that kind of simplicity has been taken away from us.
I suppose it is a mixture of the claustrophobia from this surgical mask, Tyvek suit, and narrow halls that just seem to swallow me whole, almost as if I’m walking towards the unknown abyss. And even though it feels like there is no light at the end of the tunnel, I slowly see a slight glimmer of light shining through a crack in the door at the end of the hallway. I don’t get too close—the social norm has become “6 feet apart.” From the door all I can see is a fragile elderly woman, struggling to stand on her cane, but still with enough strength to yell out with enthusiasm, “Thank you for keeping us safe, sweetie.”
“It’s my pleasure,” I respond, while simultaneously smiling under my N95 mask, not remembering that she can’t see my facial expressions. But with just that, I am able to catch myself and remember that I am one of the lucky ones.
I’ve been dealt a hand where I have to make the most of my time, even if it means spreading myself too thin. I have to work as much as I can to make sure I can pay for my monthly school payments, car, food, insurance, lawyer, while simultaneously getting the best possible grades. As much as it feels like the walls are closing in when I have no time to do everything, I do it so future mothers don’t have to worry about where to get their next meal after getting fired with zero notice from their cleaning or factory job because they are “just some other immigrant worker they can get at the corner store.” I do it so future generations don’t have to constantly look over their shoulders and worry “Am I next?” So the children of immigrant parents don’t have to come home feeling like lost puppies, wondering whether their parents had left or had been taken.
I do it so future parents don’t have to work two to three jobs to make sure they can merely survive. I do it so future generations don’t have to suddenly be surprised when all their friends can apply for scholarships and financial aid loans, while they are stuck getting denied left and right because they don’t fit the characterization of “legal resident.” I do it to make sure that future generations don’t have to go through the same obstacles as current immigrants.
As I continue from the 25th floor downwards through the fire escape stairs, spraying down all elevator buttons, railings, and doorknobs en route, I begin to slowly sweat more and more from the heat that has slowly been generating from running down multiple flights of stairs and the suction of this Tyvek suit clogging up my skin from breathing. This feeling reminds me of the brutality of wrestling practice. How we would run around the school halls, up and down stairs, sprinting back and forth, and all of this done solely as a warm-up. And then I would continue to get ready for actual wrestling practice, which was a completely different demon. The amount of blood, sweat, and tears shed in that wrestling room could only be compared to the trials and tribulations of life. As my coach would say: “Once you have wrestled, everything else in life becomes easy.”
But what do I know? I haven’t even reached a quarter of my life, I have yet to experience the true rawness of life. Or have I experienced it so young that it now no longer shocks me.
I was six when they told me I was going on vacation to the United States, sending me off with my older brother and grandmother from my mother’s side: my father and grandparents hugged me tightly, tears trying to be held back so hard but I could see their watery eyes, glistening like the stars on a clear night while lying in a hammock at my favorite beach, La Costa Del Sol. Ugh, the way I was able to see the rocky cliffs on one far end and the beautiful palm trees on the other, and all the amazing restaurants on the beach in between, seeing the beautiful sunset as I held onto my grandfather while the horse we were on softly kicked the salty ocean water up in the air. Not realizing at this moment that it would be the last time I would feel their physical touch. As I got on the airplane, looking back, waving goodbye screaming, “See you later!” Oh, the naivety.
The same naivety I had towards assuming that life couldn’t just be switched to a complete 180 degrees difference, in assuming that the natural potential of chance occurrences was not to happen in my lifetime, assuming that I would just continue having my waiter job and graduate in the summer. I should have known better, considering my situation. This pandemic has managed to bring our entire economy to its knees, and millions of people have been laid off from their jobs because of it, myself included—although, I now have to walk each and every single floor and disinfect public housing complexes.
With each step I take, I’m just counting my blessings that I have somehow managed to find a job in a time when most non-essential workers are getting laid off. Counting my blessings that I’m not one of the people I see getting carried out from this place in an ambulance. As I proceed with every floor, I make sure that my gloves don’t rip and that I don’t touch my face, but it’s just so hard with constantly having sweat dripping down my face. Trying to proceed at a timely manner, the faster I finish a building the faster I can continue onto the next one and so forth. My goal is constantly to work as efficiently as possible so I can head home as soon as I can to make sure I can start doing my school work, because gosh, is this switch to online learning and zoom classes just so different. As if regular classes weren’t hard enough, now we are essentially required to self-learn. Not only did the chance to walk for graduation get taken away from me, but also the chance to learn in classes correctly. Such simple things that we always took for granted. Being forced to self-discipline with balancing a completely new work schedule and online classes that were never meant to be given online.
All these twists and turns along with the added anxiety from the fact that I’m just so uncertain of how things will play out with being in my situation. Uncertain of how this affects my status. The thought of if I don’t find a job, constantly popping into my mind. Very reliant on this degree now; this situation showing me how easy it is to lose a job with no security. Oh, how easy it is for it all to start coming down.