Saúl wanted me to take him to see the snow. Every week throughout the fall of 2009, at least once, usually more than that, he asked me when we were going to see the snow. “In the winter,” I told him. “In the winter we’ll go.”
“In December or January,” I promised him.
We did not live far from the snow. It’s just a few hours from the Bay Area to Tahoe, to the Sierra Nevada. They—Saúl, his sister and the other members of the English Language Learners class—could have gone without me. They had cars, but they did not stray far from their neighborhoods in East Palo Alto. Most people in the Bay Area do not even know that East Palo Alto exists. In fact, when I told people that I taught high school in East Palo Alto, they either didn’t hear the “East” or they figured that it just referred to the eastern part of Palo Alto. They pictured me teaching at Palo Alto High School, which has a state of the art theater and more AP classes than regular classes. My school, Saúl’s school, consisted of a quadrangle of cinderblock classrooms and a few rented portables. The gymnasium served as the cafeteria. There were no physical education classes, but there was a blacktop with a basketball court with netless hoops. While Palo Alto High School had its Thespians Club and its myriad sports teams including water polo, we had our reds and blues, the norteños and sureños, and sometimes we arrived Monday morning to find that the entire school had been tagged by one or the other.
In the 1990s East Palo Alto was dubbed the murder capital of America, though crime is down now. This, however, does not change the idea that the hyper-educated and well-off residents of Palo Alto—home to Stanford University and Google—have of their poor neighbors. Few of them have ever been to East Palo Alto, except the foodies, who cross the freeway to purchase Latin American products at the Walmart-sized Mi Pueblo supermarket that opened in 2009. For the vast majority of them, all they know about East Palo Alto is that it’s not safe and that this is where their gardeners live.
But for Saúl and my other “newcomers,” as the recent immigrants are called, where the snow is was the danger zone. They had to be careful out there where no one is like them. Saúl did not want to risk losing another car. He had already had one car confiscated by the police because he did not have a license. It happened when he was distracted and cruised through a stop sign while on his way to the emergency room with his little brother. His little brother is terribly disabled. I think it is cerebral palsy, but I am not sure. Saúl and his sister were the ones primarily responsible for taking care of him because his parents worked long hours, and they often missed school when their brother was too sick to go to daycare. That day his brother had a high fever and was crying and crying, so Saúl did not see the stop sign, and the police pulled him over.
All my newcomer students are undocumented. Some crossed the border with false papers. Some walked for two days in the desert. Some were caught once, twice, even three times, before making it. Rigo had to leave his village in the middle of the night after his father, a taxi driver, witnessed a murder and was told that he had two choices: either join the drug cartel that committed the crime or die. Eduardo’s father was found hanging from a lamppost early one Sunday morning in the plaza of his town in Michoacán. At the age of thirteen, Gisela travelled from Guatemala all the way through Mexico to the border by herself.
Saúl, like the rest of my students, does not have a license, not because he is too lazy to get one or because he cannot pass the test. Saúl doesn’t have a license because he is undocumented, and if you are undocumented, you cannot get a license. And he is not undocumented simply because he didn’t go through the “proper channels,” as the anti-immigration people like to say, to get a visa, to be a “legal immigrant.” He is undocumented because no American Consulate would ever give a poor family with a disabled son and parents who did not even make it through the third grade a visa to come to the United States. If you are a computer engineer or a programmer from Eastern Europe or Asia, you are welcome. You can get a visa and a job at Google, where the cafeteria boasts an international menu and the daycare employees are all college educated. You can live in Palo Alto, not East Palo Alto.
By February, Saúl stopped asking me to take them to the snow. It was not that I did not want to take them, but I kept putting it off. I needed my weekends to recover from the daily battle of trying to convince my students—them—that an education was their key to the future, that knowledge was power, that joining a gang was not going to get them anywhere. “Why should we read this book or write this essay or learn this grammar or study about the Civil War? We can’t go to college. We don’t have papers,” they said when they were being polite. “Fuck this,” they said when they weren’t.
I told them about Pascal’s Wager. “You have to live as if you believe that something will change and you will be able to go to college.” I explained, but they just shook their heads.
“Nothing’s going to change,” they said.
By April there was no more snow in the mountains. Now Saúl wanted me to take him to Oregon, where undocumented immigrants could get a license. He printed out the study guide for the Oregon driver’s license test from the internet, and I helped him study. “Maybe you guys can all take a trip up there in the summer,” I suggested.
“Maybe you can take us in the summer,” he tried.
What they did not know yet was that I was leaving them. My partner was to be the visiting writer at UNC, Chapel Hill, and we were moving to North Carolina for a year. It was only then, as we prepared to leave, that I realized how deeply tired I was, how relieved to take a year off, do something for myself, as the cliché goes. I had been teaching in urban schools (the new euphemism for schools with a predominantly poor and minority student body), both in New Mexico and California, for the greater part of twenty years. Instead of getting easier with time and practice, the job had been getting more and more difficult. Students had become angrier and more despairing; resources were diminished; common courtesy, as everywhere in our society, less and less valued. Twenty years ago I managed forty students at a time in my ESL classes. Twenty years ago, I took my students on a camping trip at the end of the year. We raised all the money together. We cooked burritos and sold them at the school, washed cars on the weekends, sold candy. Now I could barely keep twelve on this side of bedlam.
Some of my students from back then are still living in a paperless limbo. They have children now, who were born in the United States. Only when their children turn eighteen can they finally begin the process of “legalizing” their status. One of my best students, Mayra, was not able to go on to college, though she graduated with honors, but her oldest daughter is in the gifted program. Her daughter will go on to college, so it will all have been worth it, Mayra tells me. I don’t know exactly why I told my East Palo Alto students about Mayra. I suppose I wanted them to see her as an example, but of what, I am not sure—of patience, of hope? “You see. It’s not worth it,” they said, and maybe they are right because what is hopeful about delaying one’s own dreams and aspirations a generation?
My school in East Palo Alto was in many ways the stereotypical failing school. In fact, it was on the list of the one hundred failing schools in California in 2010. (When I left after two years, they had just hired a new principal, and according to both teachers and students, the school is improving under her leadership.) During my time, there was little discipline. After a while, I stopped assigning homework because it just would make me angry when only one or two students bothered to do it. Still, in the two years that they were my students, with constant coaxing, they made progress. I did my best to fill in the gaps of their knowledge. And there were many. Most of the students were from small villages and knew little about their own country’s history or ours. For example, they knew nothing about slavery and thought that African Americans, like them, had come to this country in search of a better life. Once, when I asked them when the Spaniards conquered the Americas, they responded with dates in the early twentieth century.
While at first they had insisted on speaking only in Spanish, more and more they spoke to me in English. They went from barely being able to write a sentence to writing analytical essays about the books we read. The more they complained, the more determined I was to get them to learn, to not let them accept the fate they believed was in store for them. I gave them real tests, during which they could not use their notes as they did in other classes. At first they failed the tests, but gradually they improved. Still, when I was not standing right over them, they would not work, and if something was even a little difficult, they gave up without giving it a try and reverted to arguing with each other and with me. I tried, with varying success, to teach them how to listen, how to look the interlocutor in the eye, to wait until someone was finished speaking before jumping in, to politely express disagreement, but more often than not, our discussions ended in chaos. At some point in the discussion, one of the students would begin to yell at another student, usually over something not at all related to the discussion, a foot placed too close to a fellow student’s chair or a snide remark about a boyfriend, and then the other student would yell back and I would have to send them both out of the room. They would leave in a flurry of curses and angry shuffling, but after a few minutes they would open the door and ask whether they could come back in. On good days, I could convince them to apologize for their lack of respect—“not just to me,” I would explain, “but to all of your classmates whose educations you are disrupting.” Usually, I ended up having to call campus security.
At the beginning of every class, I had to tell students to take off their headphones, put away their iPods, take down their hoods, turn off their phones, though I was not always consistent about enforcing these rules because some days I lacked the energy to start class with a fight. If I pointed out that there was no eating in class, my students would remind me that the other teachers let them eat. The other teachers let them listen to music, too, they explained. It helped them focus was the argument, but in my experience, listening to music only helped them focus on listening to music.
Once I refused to readmit a student who had cursed me out unless he apologized to me in front of the class, but after a week, the Vice Principal made me take him back without the apology. “He can’t just sit in my office for the rest of the year,” he said.
“Then make him apologize,” I said, but he didn’t. Instead he made me take the kid back.
“If that’s the lesson you want him to learn,” I said.
The Vice Principal just smiled sadly. He was gone by the end of the year.
Instead of pointing out yet again that we were doing the students a disservice by expecting so little from them, I stormed out of his office. That is what it had come to.
Here is the irony: once I was settled in North Carolina and the euphoria of being released from the hopelessness of my particular failing school wore off, I missed my students. I worried that they weren’t being pushed hard enough in their classes, that their English would slip, that no one would care whether they used punctuation or not, that Saúl would lose another car. I kept in touch via email. They mainly wrote me short notes or texted—Hello Ms, how are you we miss you come back write back how’s Lori. Some of them sent me their essays to critique, which I did, sending them back with detailed comments. I responded to all of their emails with detailed and didactic missives about such things as the history of the South and the cultural differences between North Carolina and California. I always ended with something like this: I hope you are learning a lot of new things and studying hard. I corrected their English: It’s not “Remember the time I threw a sponge to you when the electricity stopped?” It’s “Remember the time I threw a sponge at you.” Prepositions are very important. I did not remind him that when he threw the sponge at me during the power outage, he got sent to the principal.
Every time I heard from one of them, I told myself that I needed to write to them to explain how deeply I had wanted to leave the school. And them. I felt I owed them this honesty, that I needed to tell them about the dread that had filled my Sunday afternoons when I sometimes cried while vacuuming the house, how I had struggled to rouse myself every morning to go in and battle their anger and despair, how I had looked forward to the glasses of sake that awaited me when I came home, exhausted and bruised, at the end of the day. My partner felt that I needed to tell them this, that they needed to understand that even though they felt powerless, their actions affected other people. But I couldn’t. I was afraid that they would take it not as a lesson but as a betrayal.
Several months ago, my partner and I watched the movie Welcome about a young Iraqi Kurdish refugee, Bilal, who tries to swim across the English Channel from France to get to his girlfriend in England. Bilal is a charismatic and athletic young man whose dream is to be a soccer player, and he trains hard for the crossing, enlisting the help of an ex-Olympic swimmer for whom Bilal represents the vitality and dreams that he himself has lost. Bilal doesn’t make it. He drowns because he refuses to give himself up to the British coastguard who is chasing him—when he is almost there, when he can practically touch the shore.
Of course, it made me think of my students. If they had had their way, all we would have done was watch movies, but I had my rules—two per semester and only after we finished a book or a major project. I chose films about faraway places and serious subjects such as Osama, a movie about a young girl in Afghanistan who pretends to be a boy so that she and her widowed mother do not starve. I used film to teach them about the Holocaust, which they had never heard of before they entered my class. Some of them recognized Hitler, but they did not know his name, only that they had seen the face before. Revenge was their favorite film about the Holocaust because, they explained, it is a true story and because the weak and oppressed fight back. That’s also why they liked Slum Dog Millionaire. After watching it, they wanted to know about India and didn’t resist when I started by showing them where it was on the map. They didn’t say, as they always had before, that they didn’t want to know because they would never be able to go there anyway. They downloaded the music onto their iPods and for weeks afterwards, when I told them to put the iPods away, they would hold the earphones up and say, “But it’s from the movie.”
I contacted the young man who had taken my place as their English teacher and suggested he show them Welcome in class. Afterwards, he and I agreed, we would have a discussion via Skype. We had Skyped once before but more to say hello than anything else. Their teacher had made them prepare brief statements that they read to me about how much they appreciated everything that I had done for them and how they would not be able to speak English if it had not been for me. I showed them around the house we were renting and walked outside so they could see the autumn leaves. My partner came on and said hello. They were subdued and shy, so I did most of the talking. When I was their teacher, I was lucky if I could get through a sentence. Thus, in order to make sure that they would participate more during this Skype session, I asked their teacher to have them prepare discussion questions beforehand, the way we used to do it when I was their teacher.
“Where’s Saúl?” I asked, after our initial greetings.
The students told me he was working.
“So he’s not going to school anymore?” I asked.
“No, he had to work,” they repeated.
He dropped out in September, the teacher explained. He was selling ice cream from one of those little ice-cream carts with the bells on it. It was hard to picture him pushing the cart, ringing the bell, calling out, “Nieve, nieve.” He had such a soft voice.
“Isn’t it too cold for ice cream now?” I asked, thinking of him out in the Northern California drizzle with his little cart.
“It’s not so easy now to find a job. The economy, Miss,” one of them explained.
I did not say that it would be better for him to be in school. “Well, let’s get to the discussion,” I said. “Who has a question?”
“Why was the movie so sad in the end?” Viviana asked.
“Anybody?” I asked, waiting for someone to begin the discussion, but no one offered a reply. “Nobody wants to answer?” I asked, but they waited for me to answer. “It’s more realistic that way,” I said finally. “The director made the movie so that people would understand how difficult the lives of refugees in France are, don’t you think?”
“Other people can’t understand,” Francisco said. “You can’t understand unless you experience it.”
“But can’t they sympathize, understand in a different way?” I asked.
“No,” Francisco said, and the others nodded in agreement.
“So you think that I don’t understand?”
“You’re different because of your family.”
“But I didn’t experience it myself,” I pointed out. They knew my mother’s story. They knew that everyone in my mother’s family, except my grandparents, mother and uncle, died in Auschwitz. They knew how my mother and uncle and grandparents left Vienna on the last train and that Bolivia was the only country that would let them in. They had seen my grandmother’s Deutsches Reich passport with the swastika on it and all the stamps and visas—Vienna, Amsterdam, Panama, Chile, Bolivia. They had passed it around, flipped through the pages carefully so as not to tear the already brittle and yellowing paper. They held it in their hands and felt the weight of it. They knew that when my father and his parents first came to the United States, his mother worked long hours in the garment district sewing the fingers onto gloves. My father and his parents were exiles from Stalin’s Soviet Union. They moved first to Germany until Hitler came to power in 1933. From there they fled to Paris, also on the last train, and in 1941, they fled once again, through Spain to Lisbon, where they waited for a year until they were granted permission to come to the United States. I have shown them my father’s papers, too. They are even more brittle than my grandmother’s passport. In the blank for nationality is written the word none.
“You are like us because of your family,” Francisco said.
But the truth is that I’m not like them. I did not grow up in the murder capital of the United States looking over my shoulder for la migra. I grew up in an affluent suburb of New York in a town similar to Palo Alto and nothing like East Palo Alto. My high school offered five foreign languages, including Latin. In my tenth grade humanities class, each student was required to choose a philosopher to read independently and report on to the class. I gave a forty-five minute oral presentation on Kierkegaard.
Although my parents were fleeing persecution and death, once they arrived in the United States, they were able to move forward with their aspirations. They learned English quickly and fluently, motivated by their desire to get on with their educations and both earned Ph.D.s. My father was a professor of Russian history and my mother is a psychologist. At home we spoke German, and every Wednesday after dinner, I had my French lesson with my father, which I resisted at the time but am grateful for now. Later, when I finished college and wanted to learn Spanish, I moved to Madrid, where I worked illegally and traveled throughout the country, never giving a thought to deportation.
So you see, I did not understand because I was like them, but this was what they needed to believe, and so, just as I had not told them how difficult teaching them had been, I did not remind them of our differences. I moved on. “Raise your hand if you think the movie would have been better if he had made it across the Channel, if he had been reunited with his girlfriend and they had gotten married instead of her being married off to that fat, older man?” I asked.
No hands went up.
“So did you like the movie?” I asked, trying to revive the discussion.
“It was sad,” Bianca, Saúl’s sister said. “All the movies you show us are sad.”
That night it snowed. It snowed a lot this winter in North Carolina. Everyone here kept telling us how unusual this winter was, that more often than not it didn’t snow at all. They closed the schools the next morning, even though it was only two inches. In New Jersey when I was growing up, we hardly ever had snow days. My partner, who is from Minnesota, laughed, and all day she referred to the snowfall as a dusting, but for someone who hasn’t seen snow, for Saúl, it would have been enough.
Anne Raeff’s first novel, Clara Mondschein’s Melancholia, was published by MacAdam/Cage in 2002. Her stories have been published in New England Review, Guernica, ZZYZYVA, Oasis, and other journals. This essay is part of a memoir about her life as a teacher.