Tuesday, November 27, 2012

In their shoes

at Two Writing Teachers!
Yesterday, in the midst of shortened classes after an IEP meeting that followed a two-hour delay due to a bomb threat (oh yes, there were so many stories I could have written yesterday!), I got a little reminder of what life is really like for my students and their families.

note: if I'm talking with my student or her parents, it's happening in Spanish. 

V. (one of my Spanish-speaking Beginner students) comes up to me during Resource (supported study center) with a problem: "Before Thanksgiving, the lunch lady said I owe $9 and some change, but we applied for free lunch."

It's 5th period and lunch starts in about 40 minutes, so we'd better get this taken care of. "Umm, do you want to go to the office and see what the problem is?  I'll come with you." V. and I walk down to the office, but when we get there, none of the assistant principals are in their offices.

Hesitantly, I stick my head into the principal's office. "My student is supposed to be on free lunch but she says the lunch ladies told her she owes $9..."

"I've got it, come on over here..." Before the principal can give much of an answer, his secretary, (who's basically the "mom" of everyone in the building) interrupts.  We scurry over to her office and she clicks and types and eventually says that she'll go with us to talk to the lunch ladies.

When we get to the lunch room, she marches straight behind the lines and starts explaining the situation to the head of the cafeteria staff.  "Hmmm, let's see how she rings up on our computers," the lady says, motioning for V. to punch in her lunch number.  To our surprise, V. rings up regular price.  "Well, that's why she's being charged!"  The lady scrolls around for a few minutes and discovers something interesting: "I see, she was free lunch until Nov. 12 and then it changed to full price.  That's right about the day there was an audit.  Did her parents get some paperwork at home?"

I translate, and V. says maybe.  I explain that they don't speak any English, so they wouldn't have known what to do with it if they did get it!  The cafeteria lady tells us that about 10% of the free lunch families were selected to be audited.  We can find out if V.'s family was one of them by calling someone at Central Office.  If so, her parents will need to prove that their income is low enough to qualify for the program. "She can be on free lunch until it gets sorted out."  Back to the office.

As the secretary dials, I look at the clock and realize that lunch is about to start!  I send V. back to the classroom so she won't be late too lunch, and I stay to wait for the call to go through. "I'll let you know when I find something out!"

After a few minutes and a lot of name-spelling, we verify that V.'s family is one of the audited families. "If they're on food stamps, they can give us the food stamp number.  If not, they'll have to send in copies of their pay stubs.  Can you call and explain that in Spanish?"  Alright, need to look up how to say "audit", "food stamps", and "pay stub"...

I race back to my room, grab my lunch, and scurry to the workroom.  Almost 20 minutes of lunch left, that's not too bad!  I wash my hands, take a few bites of my peanut butter sandwich, and take a few deep breaths.

That's when sharp, fast knocks rap on the workroom door.

Since I'm sitting at the end of the table, I get up to answer the door, but somehow I know it's V. before I even open it.  Her face is flushed, her hair is flying in her face, and her words are tumbling out in rapid-fire Spanish.  "My parents are here and they don't know who to ask for and they can't talk to anybody..." I follow her down the hallway, telling her not to worry.  She must have called them on the way to lunch and asked them to come.

Now that I know what information we need, I fill V. in on what the Central Office lady said. "Do you know if you get food stamps to buy food?" (Obviously, I didn't have a chance to look up "food stamps", so I make up something that seems like it could be right...)  "No... we go to a church that gives us food."  Hmm, I wonder if they should be on food stamps?  Seems like they should if they're going to a food pantry. Maybe they don't know about them?  I should find out if they're eligible.

As we round the corner into the back part of the office, I can see a small Hispanic man and lady sitting nervously on the couches in the waiting area.  They look frightened and lost.  Their faces light up when V. says "She speaks Spanish!"  We start to chat, and V. interrupts. "Do I have to stay, or can I go back to lunch?"  "Oh yeah, go back to lunch!" I grin at her, and start to explain the situation to her parents, with plenty of circumlocution.

"The government has chosen some families to verify if they qualify for food stamps.  Did you get a letter from the government?"  They start rummaging through piles of papers they brought, pulling out school newsletters, permission forms, district information... "No.... no... no.... look, it doesn't really matter if you have the letter, don't worry.  You just need to prove how much money you make.  Do you get food stamps to buy food?  No?  Ok, then you'll need to bring in a copy of... umm, the paper you get from your job that says how much money you make."  "The paycheck?"  "Oh yes, um, your copy of the paycheck, the part that says how much money you make.  Do you both have a job?  You'll both need to bring in the paper so we can see how much money you make.  You can send them in with V.  Is that ok?  Ok."

I notice that tears are threatening to spill out of the mom's eyes, and I remember that she told me she's undocumented.  Not only are they overwhelmed by the school and the system and their inability to communicate with anyone, but they're probably scared to death that any situation like this could lead to deportation.  "Don't worry, it's ok, they just want to check to see how much money you make, and probably V. will still get to be on free lunch.  It's just that the government chose some random families to verify."

Their shoulders and eyes relax a little, and suddenly they're shoving the rest of the papers they brought at me.   "Could you tell us what this one says too?"  "Oh, that's to tell you that V. qualifies for a special program for students who have trouble reading, to help her improve her reading skills.  Sign it down here to say that you want her to participate in this special reading program."  "Can she bring this back too?"  "Oh yes, that's fine, she can bring it back. You don't have to mail it."

"Oh and what was that phone call we got this morning?  We understood two hours, but we didn't get the rest..."  "Oh, umm, the principals received..." Man, I can't remember the word for threat! "... a message that someone was going to put a bomb in one of the schools.  So we had to wait for two hours so the police could come and check all the schools to be sure there wasn't a bomb.  But there's no bomb, don't worry!"

"Can we come back here to you if we get more papers like this that we don't understand?"  "Oh yes, of course!  Please come here when you need help, or you can call me!"  "Oh thank you, teacher! Who should we ask for?  We didn't know who to ask for today and nobody knew what teacher we wanted."  Ugh.  Poor things.  The front office should have known to get me or the bilingual aide. I'll have to talk to them.  I grab a piece of paper from the secretaries' desk and write my name, my voicemail number, and the Spanish bilingual aide's name.  "If you come here, you can ask for me or this other teacher who speaks Spanish.  Or you can call this number and leave me a message."  "Oh ok, teacher, thank you so much."  I grin.  So that's why V. always calls me "teacher": now I know where she gets it from!  "On your way out, make sure you sign out at the desk where you got your visitor badges!"  About 5 minutes of lunch left.  Good thing it's the crazy late start schedule so I have my plan period next so I can eat!

I treasure every glimpse I get into my students' lives, and I'm glad I got this reminder of what they and their families deal with every day.  What would it be like to navigate an unfamiliar world in a completely unknown language?  Some of the parents know far less English than their kids, since they don't have the advantage of going to school!  What can we do to help them?


  1. This story makes my heart hurt, Jennifer. I'm glad you shared it with us. I hope it's widely read because these are the things many students families face everyday. All they want it to send their daughter to school to get an education and then they -- BAM! -- get audited. I cannot imagine how she felt when she called them at lunchtime... or how they felt when they came down the school with all of their paperwork.

    You tell an important story. I'm so thankful you're there to support V and her family as they navigate the system.

    As far as navigating the world when you cannot even find someone to speak your language. Whoa! That's beyond my comprehension. I know so many people have survived those experiences, but as someone who has never been in that position, I know even something simple would have the ability to feel overwhelming!

  2. Cool. I love that you can connect with your students and their parents like this. It's so important. I also loved that you helped them out with other things too--not just the lunch problem. As my grandpa used to say, "You got a star in your crown today."

  3. You were the hero of the hour for that family! Thank goodness you were there and able to help out. What a day you had!

  4. Wow. My school is primarily Hispanic and I heard many of students' stories in this piece. Thank you for wiriting it and for capturing the voices: concerned, authentic, caring. Navigating the public school system seems like an impossible task to many-- you've shown us how to help.

  5. Elsie nailed it -- you were the hero. I'm glad you took the time to listen and to talk and to, quite simply, just be there. This is why we teach.

  6. Jennifer, you are such a wonderful teacher, and even friend to your students, and their families. How kind you were to V's parents, so patient & supportive. They must have felt as if you were a lifeline for them. It's heartbreaking to hear these stories. There is a CNA who takes care of my husband who is from Cameroon, working two jobs & going to school for his nursing degree, & saving money to bring his wife & 7 year old boy to America. I have given him some books to send to his boy, & wish I could do more. He is such a good man. Thanks for telling your story!

  7. Your "story" is a REAL slice of a REAL teacher's life. You guided them from their "darkness" into the light. You were / are the hero because you were there and did what needed to be done. It's not on any of the rubrics for good teaching so you wn't likely get points there; however, your made a difference in the lives of an entire family.

  8. Thank you for the kind and thoughtful comments, everyone! I just wonder: if she hadn't told me, was anybody going to check on whether they had received and understood the audit paperwork? Are there other families not acting on the paperwork because it's incomprehensible to them? Yes, I helped this family, but how many others are falling through the cracks?

  9. Hi,
    I nominated you for a Liebster Award. Check it out here: http://thesensiblysavyteacher.blogspot.com/


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