Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Immigration Debate and Kids

Because of S.B. 1070 and the recent visit of the president of Mexico, the issue of illegal immigration is receiving a lot of news coverage. The article and news clip in the link below tugged at my heart, and reminded me of experiences in my pre-law school career.

As an undergraduate, one of my two majors was Spanish. Before I went to law school, I was a grade school teacher for several years. Most of that time, I was a bilingual education Kindergarten teacher in a public school located in an impoverished neighborhood outside Houston. At least at that time, the school district was largely staffed by politically conservative white folks. Most of the students were Hispanic; many of them were recent immigrants from Mexico.

I had a lot of respect for my co-workers. They had big hearts and were incredibly dedicated to the success of our students. The teachers and staff made so many personal sacrifices and worked so hard for the students. Despite many significant obstacles, our students performed very well on standardized tests. While I was on staff, our school was recognized by the state multiple times for its success.

Most of my colleagues were Christian, female, and staunchly Republican. A number of them also lived in the vicinity of where The Urban Cowboy took place, and spoke with an unmistakable Texas twang (i.e., the Lone Star equivalent to a Southern drawl). My colleagues were polite when my class wrote to the White House and received a portrait of President Clinton. The principal had it framed and hung in the library. The process was repeated (with admittedly more enthusiasm) when my class wrote to our state governor at the time, George W. Bush, and we received his portrait in the mail. This high honor prompted many of my co-workers to share with me their high opinion of Governor Bush, as well as their hopes that he would run for president eventually.

In the district where I taught, parents had to prove residency within the district boundaries to register their kids for public school. However, the district never asked about citizenship or immigration status. Despite the politically conservative climate among the staff and faculty, I don’t recall anyone ever questioning the wisdom of that approach or suggesting that it was in any way improper for us to educate the children of illegal immigrants. The attitude seemed to be that the children were currently in the local community, the families seemed to be there for the long-term, and so we ought to give the kids the best education possible.

A sizeable number of our school’s students were from families from Northern Mexico. Indeed, this was a widely acknowledged fact. Our school would celebrate Cinco de Mayo with a parade or assembly. And the staff regularly fretted about a sharp drop off in school attendance just before and after long weekends. To make the most of the holidays, the families would sometimes leave Texas a few days early or return a few days late from visiting family in Mexico.

Some of the moms of my students would occasionally share with me little snippets of their former lives in Mexico. A number of them had taught in rural elementary schools, and valued education very deeply. They often spoke to me with the respectful title “Licenciada” which denoted the fact that I had a college degree. The kids in my classes were generally just five years old and had fewer memories (if any) of Mexico. However, many students would speak nostalgically about the “ranchitos” where their “abuelos” lived.

I never pried about immigration status, that was irrelevant to my job and it was frankly none of my business. But occasionally my little kindergarteners would tell me things that gave me hints. I remember one little fellow was sad at Christmas time because he had never met his “abuelita” or his “primos.” He told me matter-of-factly that his family didn’t have “papeles” so they couldn’t go back to visit Mexico. That broke my heart. I’m a big proponent of grandparents, it is horrible to imagine a child caught up in a tangle of immigration laws being deprived of the love and nurturing of his grandma.

One of my memories of my time teaching little kids in the Texas bilingual education program was how American they were. They loved Mexico and their relatives who still lived there, but these kids’ homes and their futures were clearly in Texas. They were thrilled to read the canned letter we received from President Clinton. And they were delighted to read the more personalized one from Governor Bush, who in answering our class’s questions told us Eric Carle was his favorite author and enchiladas were his favorite food. (This made a deep impression on my pupils, who had enjoyed The Very Hungry Caterpillar and shared the governor’s penchant for enchiladas.)

Perhaps because of the traditional climate at our school, we were all required to put our hands over our hearts and face the flag every morning without fail as children in the principal’s office led everyone in the Pledge of Allegiance over the PA system. (On Fridays, we also had to stand at attention while a recording of either the national anthem or Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to Be an American” were played.) Everyone took it very seriously. No goofing off! Reciting the Pledge was a solemn occasion every day. As part of an ESL lesson early each year, I would always teach my kids how to pronounce all the big words and to understand what we were saying when we did the Pledge. Towards the end of the school year, the administration would have a handful of kindergarteners lead the school in reciting the Pledge. I remember the principal always complemented my little charges with respect to the good job they did. She always remarked that they enunciated the big words of the Pledge much better than many of the older kids in the non-bilingual classes, and they never forgot the words.

Matthew 21:15-16

But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple area, "Hosanna to the Son of David," they were indignant. "Do you hear what these children are saying?" they asked him. "Yes," replied Jesus, "have you never read, " 'From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise' ?"

No comments:

Post a Comment