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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Why I Support the Dream Act: Let me Introduce You to My Student, Karla

A Dreamer in My Classroom:  A Professor's Story about an Undocumented Student

I will always remember my student, Karla. It was 2003 if I remember correctly.  She was seventeen years old and enrolled in my English Composition course at a University in Los Angeles.  The thing you need to know about Karla is that she was always the first student to arrive to campus on those cold, foggy early mornings in the fall and winter.  She arrived before I did and I became accustomed to seeing her sitting at one of the two picnic style benches in the grassy quad nearby.  I always looked forward to her polite greeting every morning--it was how I started my day.  

Karla had long silken black hair, deep brown eyes, and she carried herself with a combination of sadness and joy that made it difficult to ascertain the difference. I sensed there was something private she was keeping to herself.  She paid very close attention in lectures.  Her behavior set her apart from all of my other students.  

Reggaeton was at its peak.  Most of my students were older teenagers right out of high school. It wasn't unusual for them to use their electronic devices in class, flirt with one another, and even tease each other with silly names, argue about whose musical artist was the best, or to try to get over on each other just for fun.  One girl was a Daddy Yankee fanatic.  And in these ways, the students enjoyed socializing while Karla seemed worlds away.  

Shortly after the "Chicken Little" movie came out, and while a small group of youths was leaving class to go to lunch, one of the young men complained, "Professor, they keep calling me Chicken Little."  

Another one of the young men then called him out, "You look just like Chicken Little...You do!"  

I turned to the subject of all the teasing, and I replied, "Did you say Chicken Little?  I think that's a compliment because he's the best character in that movie.  Plus, he is the hero."

Relieved at my reply, the young man then responded to those teasing him, "She said Chicken Little is Cute.  Yeah, Chicken Little IS cute," and he walked away contentedly.  

Such were the silly conversations the students entertained themselves with between classes.  Karla did not play a part in these pranks and antics. 

One day I arrived and did not see her sitting at the picnic bench in the quad outside of our classroom.  I missed her early morning greeting; even if it was formal and polite, her absence made me wonder and even worry, “where is she?  She’s always the first one here.” 

The next day however, Karla came back.  In a departure from her serene demeanor, she hurriedly rushed to explain to me why she had missed class the previous day.  She had an appointment, she explained, and with fervor, she insisted that it would not happen again.  This told me that Karla was far more concerned than I was about a single absence. It also told me that Karla was different.  Class was crucial to her.

One day a male Latino student interrupted my lecture and blurted out highly-charged negative statements against immigrants.  I thought it odd for the same student had only recently submitted an essay about his parents crossing the border by foot.  (At the end of the semester, I was shocked and disappointed when I discovered he had in fact submitted plagiarized essays for class.) I asked the student to please consider that among those of us in the class, there were many whose families were immigrants, and that included me too. I tactfully asked that he speak with a bit more consideration and not disrupt lectures.

After class, Karla was waiting for me nearby, her small arms clutching her mochila to her chest.  She was uncharacteristically very eager to say something to me.  

She said, “I think it is good for him to express himself. That's why we're here, so we can talk to each other.”  In that moment, I realized that Karla’s long-held secret was that she was undocumented. She had no anger, resentment, or sadness over the other student’s comments.  

She then said to me, “I don’t have my papers so I ride the bus at five in the morning.”  

“Karla, that’s the reason you are always here in the morning to greet me?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, “I can’t drive to school for that reason, so I wait on campus all day then leave on the last bus."  

"What time do you get here?"

"About 5:30 in the morning." She replied with a bit more reluctance.

I proceeded to ask, "what time does the last bus leave, Karla?" 

She replied, "about nine in the evening.” 

I didn’t know what to say at first.  Just thinking that Karla had fourteen hour days at the University made me realize how much more accessible my education had been for me.  

“Karla, be very careful traveling at night.”  

She said, “I am.  I am very careful.”  

It was then I realized why she always wore a thread around her neck prominently displaying a saint.   And while some students made excuses for late work or absences, Karla lived a life of incredible courage and faith in a day-to-day struggle to educate herself against formidable barriers.  

I know Karla has done a lot since she graduated. I know first hand what she's capable of achieving. What troubles me is the thought she can't employ her college degree.  .   

Yes she was and still is in my mind, my most dedicated student.  Not only did she achieve high marks, but her polite and kind greeting gave me a hopeful feeling every single day I entered my classroom.

If I could speak to Karla today, I'd thank her.
I'd say:

"Hey, Karla, thank you for your early morning greetings.  I still consider you my student.  In light of that, I will do whatever I can to support your rights to the Education you gave so much to acquire.  I hope we can have the chance to say hello again someday."


From your English Professor



Nitz the Bloody said...

This was a really great story, and should be required reading of everyone in college and/or America.

AmericanSappho said...

Thanks for commenting. I am so glad you got to hear about this great young gal.

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