Props To Immigrant Parents

I know it’s a time-honored tradition among teachers to complain about parents. Everyone knows “that parent,” the one that thinks their Little Darling can do no wrong and that attacks their teacher for holding LD accountable for any of his/her actions. I don’t feel like “that parent” was as common when I was a kid as they are today, but that could be a mix of naivete and nostalgia talking. Whatever.

Me, though, I’m lucky. My students have amazing parents, and I have buckets of respect and admiration for them. My Spanish never feels strong enough to fully express those sentiments, and it’s the same problem when I’m using an interpreter to speak to parents in other languages–something just seems to get lost. So I hope that my high regard comes across through the way I treat their kids.

I’m going to speak in many generalizations in this post. Please be aware of that, and know that I’m aware of it. I don’t believe in lumping groups of people together; everyone has their own unique story. However, in my ten years of teaching and working with immigrant families, there are things that have shown up way more times than I can count. I want to honor those stories, hopefully without stereotyping or cheapening them.

Parents sacrifice for their children. All good parents, to some extent or another, sacrifice for their children.Mine certainly did, and continue to! But I’ve never seen better examples of sacrifice than among my students’ parents.

There’s this nutty idea out there that people come to the United States to have a free ride and be taken care of. So ignorant!! When my students’ families moved here, most of their parents knew perfectly well they were trading one hard life for another. They left behind their homes, neighborhoods, all the places they could move about freely without worrying about language or culture. Back home, they could blend in, which is a luxury people in the majority culture never really appreciate.

Coming to the United States meant leaving behind family–it seems like every couple of months, I have another kid coming to school sad about the death of a grandparent they never got to meet. Many families don’t have the paperwork that would allow them to go back and visit. It blows my mind. I know an awful lot of people my age who wouldn’t dream of raising their kids in a different state than at least one set of grandparents; it’s hard to raise kids without your built-in village. Imagine picking up your baby and saying goodbye to your parents, knowing it’s likely forever. Never getting to take your kids to visit grandma and show them the house where daddy grew up, the street where mommy walked to school. No matter how dire the situation back home, it’s still home, and leaving is tough.

In the United States, these same parents will work around the clock, trying to keep rent and bills paid, food on the table. I know kids who literally go days without seeing their parent(s), because they’re always at work. Endless hours on the job, yet many will never climb any ladders into better positions or receive benefits beyond a basic income. Some will be cheated out of pay, and find themselves without options for legal recourse. They’ll spend the rest of their lives paying taxes into the system, and never collect a social security check. And they’ll do all this in the constant shadow of fear that ICE is going to show up at their door and take it all away.

Why choose to be poor in a country that doesn’t want you, where the language and culture always seem out of reach, where there’s not much future for you, when you could have stayed home and at least been a more familiar flavor of poor? For your kids. And for their kids. Whether those kids are being saved from drug traffickers, or abuse, or gangs, or violence, or extreme poverty…. I meet kids who haven’t been to school in years, because it wasn’t safe, or just wasn’t available. Getting your children into the United States means getting them the right to an education, regardless of social class or ability, and that’s reason enough to hope their future will be brighter. Safer. The generation after them will have even more reason to be optimistic. It’s never going to be an easy life in the United States for that first generation, but if it means giving your kids a chance, you do what you can.

When parent conferences happen, I don’t have to suffer many attacks from “that parent” defending Little Darling. The parents in my classes almost always start by asking ¿Como se comporta mijo/a? (How is my child behaving?) We’ll discuss academics in a minute, but first and foremost, they want to know if their child is being polite and respectful. Even when my report is glowing, there’s still a good chance that I’ll watch the parent turn to their child and lecture them about the opportunities they have and their responsibility to work hard, to be somebody, to go further in life than their parents ever could. I know the kids have heard this lecture a million times, but they don’t roll their eyes. They repeat the same phrases when their parents aren’t around; they’re listening.

Somehow these moments always take me back to high school English, reading The Great Gatsby and writing essays on the American Dream. But how much could Fitzgerald really teach us about the American Dream? Like most of us students in that AP classroom, he started out with all kinds of privilege. I remember that even as I wrote my essay, I felt like I was missing something. I could say all the right words to define the Dream, but I couldn’t quite grasp its significance or connect the bootstraps talk to my core identity as an American. It didn’t fully resonate for me yet.

It wasn’t until I was the teacher in my own classroom that I finally had a solid answer to the long-ago essay question–YES, of course the American Dream is alive! As long as we have immigrant parents willing to bet everything on America and the chance it offers their children, the American Dream lives. As long as the “tired…poor…huddled masses yearning to breathe free” keep accepting our invitation, the American Dream lives.

I’ve been on the receiving end of many thank yous from parents. Not one has ever given me a Pinterest craft project or a Starbucks gift card. (I don’t care about the artsy crafty teacher gifts anyway… although I’m happy to accept gift cards if anybody’s feeling generous!;)) I do occasionally get some amazing tamales. (Tamales are better than Starbucks anyway…) But the thanks is soooooo sincere. Sincere, and even laced with a little insecurity about being able to offer their children enough support in school. They just want all the best for their kids, so they trust that the school is providing it, and they’re full of appreciation for anything and everything that I do…. This, of course, makes my guilt-reflex kick in hardcore, and I walk away feeling inspired to find ways to serve their kids better than what we’re already doing.

Without kids of my own, and most likely none on the way, I get to throw all my mothery energies into my students. For better or for worse, those instincts need some sort of outlet. 🙂 I feel lucky that these parents share their incredible kids with me, and I learn so much about parenting from them. I love listening to the kids talk with pride about their families, where they came from, and how hard their parents work for them. The toughest kids turn into total softies when they talk about wanting to make their moms proud.

I hate that my students’ parents have to take so much shame and scorn from society. The people at the top who are hogging all the wealth just point their finger, and suddenly all of our middle and working class problems are the fault of the mom who’s working two jobs and still can’t afford to replace the clothes her kids have outgrown. People like to say she “doesn’t care” about her kids, because she can’t make it to school events. And then they get really comfortable on their moral high ground, and say that she should have come to the United States “the right way.” Never mind that the United States doesn’t offer any legal pathways to people like her.

(Note 1: My European ancestors sailed across an ocean, committed mass genocide, then went back and rounded up some Africans to care for their stolen land. If that’s the right way, color me unimpressed.) (Note 2: Put in a situation where there’s no legal way to give your child a safe upbringing with hope for the future…. are you really going to tell me you would do anything different than these parents have done? You wouldn’t take the same risks for your own children?)

I teach beautiful, funny, smart, kind, hardworking, fantastic kids. And fantastic kids come from fantastic parents. Think how great America would be if we really tapped into this resource and all they have to offer.