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A few days ago I blogged about what was probably the highlight of my “teaching career.” (An apple a day…) It was in response to a prompt asking folks to share something about themselves that others don’t know. Thinking about that post I realized there was one thing I should have said that I didn’t, and it’s that I learned WAY more from those kindergartners than they ever learned from ME!

That was never more true than a few years later when I hired on to tutor second grade in the public school system. Dee Elementary, the school I was sent to, was one of the poorest in Ogden City School District. A great many of their students were children of migrant workers and parents who were in the states illegally. It was something I hadn’t realized until in class one day the teacher was reading a children’s science fiction fantasy during story time and asked if anyone knew what an alien was. One of the kids raised their hand and said, “My parents are aliens!” It took a minute for that to sink in. Fortunately Mrs. Waite, the teacher I was working for, went on to explain the difference to the kids.

immigrant kidsChildren from the migrant families usually disappeared for awhile at the same times every year. Their parents were seasonal workers and had to go where the work was. Eventually they would find their way back to the area and back to class again. They were getting a spotty education at best.

The other group of kids, the ones whose parents were here illegally, they could disappear unexpectedly at any time. Some would return eventually, some would never come back. Mrs. Waite explained that immigration had probably caught up with their families, either literally, or the families got wind they were looking for them and hi-tailed it elsewhere to keep from getting caught.

These kids were desperately in need of a stable environment, education, and a little attention. They were like sponges soaking up whatever you could give them. Whereas the teachers there were used to the comings and goings, it made me sad.

Had you asked me before that year my stance on immigration and how it should be handled I would likely have said I had no clue. Or even if they were here illegally, then they should probably be sent home and made to go through the same channels as folks trying to get in the country legally. Truthfully I don’t think I’d ever spent much time fretting over it. God knows I should have. We certainly had to jump through our fair share of hoops to get our daughter her green card. Immigration wasn’t the most pleasant of government agencies to work with – even if the child was only seven! But that year changed my mind. I began listening to the stories these kids would tell in class about how their families had come to be in the states.

There was one little boy in particular whose parents were here illegally, whose story amazed me. He related how his mother had tried to bring him and his younger sister across the border on foot. They were to meet their dad who had come here illegally months before to find a job. My disbelief grew as he told me about walking for days and not having enough to eat. The worst part was his 18-month-old sister had gotten sick early on and in the end she passed away somewhere in Mexico while they were still miles from the U.S. border.

Now I’m a easy mark for a sad story, so I was a little skeptical the day he shared that with me – until I talked to the teacher afterward and found he was telling the truth. I simply couldn’t get my head around it. I think emotionally I moved from horror to numbness then grief very quickly. Looking around that room I wondered how many other kids had similar stories to tell.

immigrant familiesI did a lot of soul searching after that about the whole problem of illegal immigration. They’d just had a big round up of illegal workers at a meat packing plant near us. We knew from the news broadcasts that it broke up many families as some of the children had been born in the states and were U.S. citizens. Understandably their parents did NOT want them sent to Mexico. It dawned on me for the first time the lengths these parents were willing to go to in order to find a place where their kids would not just have a better life, but a safer life.

After that I knew I could never be on board with the wholesale returning of illegal families with children to Mexico or other countries. Did I have an answer or even a suggestion as to how to do things better? Heck no. But in my mind and heart the problem had moved from being a legal issue to a moral one for me. And 12 years later, we’re no closer to knowing how to fix it.

That little boy, whose name I can’t remember, disappeared from school at the end of April. Mrs. Waite told me not to worry, that eventually he’d be back. Unfortunately, as much as they wished to help, the teachers there knew they weren’t in a position to do anything about it. Ultimately they had learned to let these kids go. “You almost have to become numb to it,” Mrs. Waite said, “or it can cripple you as a teacher.”

Sometimes first-hand knowledge CAN cause a 180° turn in your thinking. Next time you’re tempted to think poorly of a homeless person you see on the street or hear about a mother with five kids who is on welfare, don’t assume ANYTHING about how that person is. Instead, go walk with them for a little while and listen to their story. You just might change your mind.

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In response to the May 31st Daily Prompt: 180 Degrees
Tell us about a time you did a 180 — changed your views on something, reversed a decision, or acted in a way you ordinarily don’t.