All student names in this post have been changed in order to protect their privacy and safety.
I gave up the opportunity to watch the Superbowl to go see a play with some of the 7th and 8th grade girls I work with. And by that, I actually mean that I gave up the chance to see Justin Timberlake do his thing just to spend a few more minutes with the girls I’m seeking to build relationship with. I know what you’re thinking: who gives up a chance to watch a JT performance like that?! But when my supervisor asked me if I wanted to get paid to chaperone for a play, I didn’t consider what I could lose. I wanted to go, and that was that.
And that is what led me to driving a mini bus full of some of the girls in our after-school program to TPAC last Sunday evening. I was nervous about driving with them on the interstate, and navigating downtown too, but it turned out okay. I was worried that many of the students wouldn’t enjoy the play because of the challenge of comprehending a theatrical performance set in a different time and context. But, I prayed in the ride to the apartment complex alone, and asked God to give us a good evening together. I asked Him to keep us safe, and to give the girls the energy and focus they needed to enjoy the play.
Once we got to TPAC, we nestled into our seats. We had a huge bag (literally) of popcorn to keep us satisfied, and we were eager for the show. Finally, the lights went dim and the curtains on the stage were pulled back.
I would soon learn that the student I sat beside, Nina, was fully of many, many questions.
“Is this real?” she asked me a few minutes into the play as I shook my head no.
“Did he call that woman ‘Sir’?” she asked as I nodded yes.
“I see three shadows. Why?” she asked as I pointed to the different lights above us.
And when the slave-girl and her lover kissed, Nina jumped. “Ew! They kissed?! Really? They kissed?” I laughed, and explained that in real life they probably don’t kiss. But for the play on the stage, their characters did. Just this once. Nothing I said could erase the look of shock and disgust off her face as she simply repeated, “Nuh-uh. Really?”
Although her reaction was funny at first, I thought more later: my insensitivity to public intimacy for entertainment should probably serve as an alarm for me that something in our culture is off. But, that’s for a different discussion a different day.
At the end of the play, Nina asked, “How do they do that?” I didn’t know what she meant. I asked her about singing and dancing before I realized she meant their entire stage presence. She was asking me about the performers. She wanted to know how they landed on that stage.
“How do they do that?” she asked again amazed.
I explained how people practice and train to become actors and actresses. They work hard to memorize long sentences in English, and then they dress up to perform it to others.
“I want to do that,” she told me simply, “I want to be an actress.”
I don’t know what’s ahead of my friend, Nina, but I hope she gets to one day. I really, really do. Dreams feel like an American luxury, and I delight in teaching my students to believe in the seemingly impossible, beautiful, bold visions placed in their hearts for a different future. I love to tell them about the possibilities and choices they can make now, because for most of them, they were deprived of self-choice for most (or all) of their lives.
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I gave my middle schoolers assigned tables this week. Although they nearly revolted at first, they’ve continued sitting at the correct tables and have begun to participate in activities with their new groups. It doesn’t sound like much, but this is a huge deal. I’m eager to see how our new set-up continues to challenge them and lead them to more successes.
However, with that, the week was filled with some of the greatest victories, yet hardest difficulties with my student, Kyle. (Check out the last blog posts to hear more about his story.) There were some moments when he took the seating changes like a champ, and other times when he roamed and wandered instead.
At the end of the week, he got upset because I didn’t reward him with an extra point. I explained to him that because he hadn’t listened to me when I asked for his attention, I couldn’t reward that. I promised to give him the point if he listened later.
“We need a new teacher,” he said simply.
Honestly, I wasn’t hurt. I told him that I care about him and the class, regardless of how much he likes me or not. I’ve seen how this story ends: they say they hate you, but on the last day of class, there is sadness in goodbye. I can’t pretend that I’m qualified to speak on why that is, but I do have theories. And most of them center on the fact that middle schoolers are awkward with processing positive feelings.
It sounds crazy, but I’ve reminded myself of his comment a lot this week. I’m still not hurt. If anything, I’m sad that he feels that way right now. But, if his comment isn’t the most accurate picture of humanity and how we treat Jesus, then I don’t know what is.
We dare to look at Him and say, “No, no. Give me a new teacher. I don’t like what you’re doing here.” Whether it’s because he calls us to things that stretch our comfort zone, or maybe it’s because we can’t see Him in the ways we want to. We assume we have the authority to look at Him and tell Him that He’s not enough, and we know better. We are like traumatized, awkward middle schoolers overwhelmed by the burden of figuring it all out. And we look at the only loving, trustworthy Teacher and tell Him “no.”
Suffice to say (for now), I’m learning about the depths of unconditional love and relentless pursuit—even when the people of your heart and burden are bent on running further away into their pain.
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Too Many People to Name
A few weeks ago, my supervisor at my new job approached me about picking up some extra office hours. Although filing and paperwork isn’t my dream, being faithful to learning more about refugee and immigrant advocacy is.
Since then, I’ve been working alongside the lead office guy to learn more about the ins and outs of immigration paperwork. I feel like an intern in a lot of ways, but I’m enjoying learning about the work that goes into this process. It’s practical, it’s confusing, and it’s going so well that I left my job in retail two days ago just to be able to give more time to the office work.
Everything I do is fill-in-the-blank work. And some of it is detective work. Although my supervisor, meets with the case workers of clients to get initial information from them, it’s usually messy and full of gaps. That’s where I come in. I fill in as much as I can gather. I turn field notes and scribbles into a neat, presentable green card application. Believe it or not, even the most basic information can become confusing on an 18 page application for each individual. But, I study it, make it work, and print it all out. Finally, my supervisor meets with the clients one final time to review the finished paperwork with them and get final signatures before sending it all off to the USCIS.
It’s not unusual to see 8 or 10 cases in a family. But I’ll be honest, cases this large usually come with a unique set of challenges and messiness. And the 10 cases I worked on for one family last week was exactly as predicted: challenging and messy.
Yes, I filled out ten 18-page green card applications. Yes, it took me all week. Yes, there were a ton of gaps to fill in and no, I didn’t do all of it correctly.
What I could gather, and assume, is the total case included a grandmother, 2 parents, and 7 children. Their birthdates ranged from 1949 to 2015. All of the children had been born and raised in the refugee camp before they were given the golden ticket opportunity to resettle in America in summer 2016.
The thing with these applications is they are very detailed. The application wants to know about your birthdate and alien number, it wants to know about your parents (deceased or not) and your children, and it wants to know about where you lived in the past and what your intentions are for the future.
Unfortunately, the grandmother didn’t know any of the birthdays or whereabouts of 5 of her 6 children and the family had spent 20 years in the tents at the refugee camp.
Despite its obstacles, I felt like I had completed and printed pretty accurate copies of the applications for the clients to sign. After my supervisor’s final meeting with the clients, I flipped through the pages‚ just to make one final clean-up of the files before packing them away in the priority mail package.
I came across the application for the youngest baby. The information about her parents was marked out, and in its place was the name of one of the girls I assumed was her sister. I asked my supervisor about it, and apologized for the mix up.
“Oh, yeah. The baby is a granddaughter. Her mother is one of the children. She was raped, and all they know about the father is his first name,” he told me.
“Oh,” I uttered, not really sure of what else to say. He assured me the mix-up wasn’t my fault, and the way he talked about it made me certain this wasn’t the first time he’s come across this.
But I was shocked. There was nothing to put on the line for the father, other than a name. And for the mother, I checked her birthday again. She was born in 2000. And my heart broke when I realized she was only 14 or 15 when she got pregnant, 15 or 16 when she went into labor at the same refugee camp she had been born in. I couldn’t erase the number from my mind as I thought about the tears that must have been shed. Even now, I can’t pretend to know that I understand what this family has gone through.
I’ll be honest, some cases and families I come across are more painful than others. Even just the birthdates and address histories have the power to break your heart. It’s the most black and white evidence that the world is not okay. This one was one of those times.
Reaching for the box with USCIS’s addressed written on the outside, I paper-clipped the health records, applications, and passport photos for each of the 10 people together. I know I shouldn’t because it more painful and personal, but I peeked at each of the 10 photos before sealing them away. The faces staring in each photo were straight, which is to be expected in a headshot of this nature. But even in a 2×2 inch square, I could feel a deep sadness written over each face. In the wrinkles from years of worry and the scars from years of warfare, I saw a history of a people that I’ll never be able to understand. I saw stories of heartache and terror. I saw a mourning for a peaceful, joyous world that we hope for in faith only.
It’s only paperwork, and they’re people I’ll probably never get to wrap my arms around. But, I can’t shake the thought: it’s the most black and white evidence that there is something deeply, painfully wrong in our world.
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I heard that Nehemiah spent 3 times longer in prayer than he did physically building the wall. As a goer and a doer, this realization hits me to the core.
It’s hard to sit still. It feels like there’s never enough time. It feels like the burdens to lift up to Him are too numerous to count.
But earlier this week, I got to my classroom early.
I chose to sit still. I chose to make enough time. I chose to take it one burden at a time, starting with the classroom of students I was about to greet.
I can’t say that anything extraordinary happened in the classroom hour to follow. However, I was so aware of the Peace and Love working to create a space of trust in our midst. I watched as my students created some of the most complex sentences they’ve ever fought to make, and my heart was full of thanks for a Father who cares about them abundantly more than even I can.
May this work never be only about English. May this work be a testament to the Love and Light that satisfies the soul in a way that no world-language or first-world country ever can.