Stories For Liberation: “Niños, Go To Class!”

(Painting/"Ninos, Go to Class"/Gwynne Duncan)

How can schools protect students, when our country refuses to offer protection? How can teachers and school counselors nurture achievement and learning, making sure that they fulfill the dreams of the parents who sacrificed so much to journey to a place where their children might enjoy higher education, when everything might be taken away at any moment? This “ordinary” morning in the life of a school counselor pleads for answers that we must all act to secure.

Niños, Go to Class!”
By C. Perez

“Good morning,” I hear someone say as I walk into the building on a cold winter morning.

Feeling melancholy, I found myself wondering: What is so ‘good’ about it? How can this be a ‘good morning’ if my students and their families are dealing with the loss of what could be their only pathway for legal status? TPS, DACA, DAPA are acronyms that to many do not mean much, but to my immigrant students, and their families, they represent safety and a prosperous future.

I look around, scanning the halls for any of my students. Will they be too scared to come to school now? I ponder. Everything around me looks the same. The posters are where they always are, the secretaries are working, and my mailbox is full; however, something doesn’t feel right. I can’t shake the sense of loss, so I mourn.

“Morning,” I respond flatly, refusing to use the word “good.” As I get closer to my office door, I see a few students, eyes downcast, already waiting for me, and I sigh in despair.

Walking towards them, I think about a student and his older brother who migrated here fleeing from violence. In agitation, he described life back in Central America, “Allá uno no puede ni ir a la escuela tranquilo. Ahí lo paran y lo obligan a estar en las pandillas y uno no puede salir de la casa para ir a la escuela // Over there we can’t even go to school in peace. There, we are stopped in the streets and the gangs force you to join them, so you can’t leave your house to go to school…”

I could see his thoughts reflected in my mind’s eye as he painted a vivid picture of pandilleros on the corner of his school preventing him from entering the building, keeping him from his education. Despite the trauma they had endured, the brothers looked at me with hope and optimism; the older brother quickly adding, “I don’t want him [younger brother] to work, I can support us both. I just want him to study and graduate since I did not have the same opportunity.”

A selfless, loving act by a young immigrant.

How does one rationalize the fact that immigrants, with this same sense of selflessness, respect and work ethic, now face the very real possibility of being forced to go back to a country they have not lived in for decades? Their sole purpose being to achieve stability, peace and safety for themselves and their families. Their sense of security shaken, they puzzle over how, and why, they may be banished from this country they now call home. They are now frightened and anxious about the inevitable.

I exhale as I prepare myself for what’s to come, sure that I’ll be bombarded by students and phone calls.

“Pasen,” I say to the students, welcoming them into my office, hoping it will be their usual morning “hello,” but knowing it most likely isn’t.

Looking crestfallen, they walk slowly towards my office.

“Miss…” one of them says in a very cautious tone with a slight look of desperation and uncertainty, “¿…esto significa que nos van a deportar? …does this mean we will get deported?” The uncertainty of their futures put together in one question for me to answer.

My eyes flood with tears, my heart skips a beat, and my mind races. My previous reservations turn into anxiety and no amount of mental prepping could have equipped me to answer this heartbreaking question. What do I say? I think about the brothers, my students and their families, as I contemplate a reassuring response.

A few encouraging words could mean the world to these students. The morale was low. I did not know how to instill hope when I was feeling hopeless, too. Yet, there I was, charged with the near impossible task to somehow make it all better.

They looked at me as if my answer would somehow differ from what they heard on the news. They look at me desperately, wanting me to wave a magic wand and guarantee them that everything will be okay.

Several seconds ticked by as I formulated my response, my students’ expectant eyes beseeching.

“I can’t answer that… but I can tell you that the best thing you can do is study, stay out of trouble, and come to school.”

This was the generic answer I’d compiled to this question, a question I had to answer countless times that day. As I heard myself say those words, I thought about the times my students have expressed sentiments of fear. I felt hollow and powerless.

How could I expect them to focus in school with such a disheartening problem weighing on their minds? I’ve observed these same students, barely able to keep their eyes open because they worked late, rose early for school, and had other family responsibilities. Some live on their own, pay their own rent, buy their own food, cook their own meals with no support from parents or relatives. Now, they are worried and constantly looking over their shoulders, afraid that their time is up. Despite it all, here I am telling them to focus in school?

They look at me with confusion. Did they think I was going to say, “No, you’re a good student, they can’t deport you?” Except, I couldn’t promise that. So, what else could I say? What can I do?

Niños, go to class!” I say to them as the first bell rings, feeling defeated.

I sit in my office staring at the empty chairs they left, envisioning the face of every student who has sat before me. Thinking of their hopeful families grateful for an opportunity to change their lives. As an educator, it is my duty to protect all my students and assure they have what they need in order to access their education. Yet, I can’t guarantee their efforts will pay off. What can I do? How do I help them?

From this side of my desk it’s easy to say, “Do well in school, come to class.” But these students worry; worry about being deported, worry about rent, food, family obligations, they’re dealing with family separation and trauma.

What can I do?