Teaching While Undocumented
San Jose, CA | Julio Navarrete
“When was the last time you visited México?” I feel my body tense up when I hear my coworker’s question. I normally enjoy our lunchtime teacher conversations, but not when I have to evade questions like these.
“It’s been a long time… years.” I play it off.
“Oh, I bet you miss it. You should try going this summer!” suggests another teacher.
“Yea, if I don’t teach summer school.” I lie.
“I’m moving out this weekend!” I announce, enthusiastically, knowing very well that this will steer the conversation into a safe zone. It works.
“Does that mean your mom won’t pack your lunch anymore?”
My coworkers have been telling me that I’m way past the expiration date of leaving home, for the last four years. “She doesn’t always pack my lunch.” I reply, feeling my body relax as I share the details of my new place.
January 12, 2011
Second semester always seems to be more exciting, perhaps because my students and I already know each other, and we know what’s expected. I’m eager to teach my Spanish 2 Native Speaker students about the Bracero Program, the East L.A. walkouts, their identities and visions of the future. In the middle of planning the next Spanish A.P. lesson for our unit about water, I receive an email from the school’s Human Resources manager. So much being said in so few words; a million thoughts cross my mind all at once. The anxiety is overpowering; I already know what the conversation will be about. Not wanting to think about it, I finish planning my lessons and force myself to sleep. The following day cannot go by any slower. I feel the anxiety build up inside of me as the clock in my classroom ticks the seconds away.
During lunchtime, I avoid going near the H.R. manager’s office; I want to wait until after school to find out why my W-2 is being held back. My heart skips a beat when I hear the last bell ring, signaling that the school day is over, screaming at me that the time has come. I slowly walk to her office and take a deep breath before I walk in the door. “You wanted to see me?” I ask, still hoping that the answer will be no. “We received this letter,” she says, as she hands it to me, “I think we have your Social Security Number wrong.” The letter states that my Social Security Number has never been issued. A knot has already formed in my throat. I want to respond but all that comes out is, “Hmm.” “I checked your file,” she continues, “and one of the numbers looks a little blurry. Can you check your Social Security card and get back to me?”
I feel as if the room is shrinking, and I am trapped, with no way out. I force myself to smile and say, “Sure, I’ll check when I get home.” I leave her office, crushed; my biggest fear has become a reality. I always knew this day would come. I’ve imagined the scene in my mind many times, but I never imagined it would hurt this much. I’ve thought about how empowering it would be, to finally stop living in the shadows, to finally be able to tell my students about my situation, to tell them that it is true that anything is possible when you set your mind to it. Reality felt nothing like that; all I could think about, all I could feel, was sadness. I drove home, feeling empty inside, as if someone had carved a hole right through me. I think to myself, as tears flow down my face. Although it hurts, I know that what’s about to happen will be very difficult for everyone, especially for my students. With them in mind, I gather myself and begin to work diligently to plan the next day’s lessons and a rough sub plan for the next two weeks. I can only imagine what my students will think of me when I stop showing up, without a reason, without saying goodbye. There’s no time to think, I have less than 24 hours to prepare everything, one last day to be a teacher, I better make it worth it.
When my mom comes home from work that night, I give her the news. “Le tengo buenas noticias,” I begin, “ya no me voy a mudar.” Her excitement fades when I tell her the reason why I’m not moving out anymore. “Mañana será mi último día.” I say, trying to sound as normal as possible. I don’t want her to see how much it hurts me; I don’t want her to worry. “Dios sabe por qué hace las cosas,” she comforts me, “tal vez tiene algo mejor planeado para ti.” That night, I can hardly sleep. The day’s events run through my mind like a bad dream. It’s Friday morning, and what follows is one of the most difficult days of my life.
The day starts with my prep period; I use every second of it to put my curriculum binders together. Before the end of the period, I walk into my classroom, look around at everything that’s there; the bookshelf, the desks, the student work on the walls, I take in every detail knowing that this is the last time I will teach in this room. The bell rings too quickly, before I know it, my students are at the door. I greet them all with a firm handshake, as I always do. Nothing I learned in my teacher credential program could have prepared me for this. I go through the day as if nothing is happening, pretending like I’m not hurting inside, knowing that this is the last time I will see my students and coworkers.
“Este fin de semana, no hay tarea.” The class cheers at the good news. “¿Se siente bien, maestro?” a student asks, knowing that no homework is not in my character. I nod, not wanting to give anything away with the sound of my voice. “Maestro, ¿me puede ayudar con mi ensayo el lunes después de clase?” another student asks. It kills me to know that I won’t be able to help her with her essay; I won’t be able to help her with anything anymore.
The word feels heavy as it fights its way out of my mouth. I almost burst into tears, but somehow I manage to keep it together until the final bell rings. I’m ready. Ready to face my truth. I walk to the H.R. manager’s office, convinced that this is the end, only to find that she’s already gone. I think to myself, Determined to get it over with, I call her cellphone, but get her voicemail. The short, barely understandable, message gets the point across that I need to speak with her urgently. As I drive home, I’m startled when my phone begins to vibrate. I pull into an empty parking lot and answer her call. “What’s going on?” She asks, worried. “I need to speak with you about the letter you received.” My voice shakes as I begin to speak. “The number you have in my file is the number I gave you, there is no other number.” A long pause… no further explanation is needed. “You don’t have to tell me anything else,” she replies, “I need to check with our lawyers to see what legal process we need to follow. For now, let’s say that you’re on an unpaid suspension. Stay home on Monday, we’ll call you to follow up.” My hands are shaking as I feel the tears swell up under my eyes.
“Okay.” is the only word that escapes my mouth before we hang up. I sit there, in silence, frozen in time. Everything I have worked so hard to achieve, all my schooling, my preparation, the countless hours spent grading, planning, and teaching; none of it matters at this point; nine numbers stand between my dreams and me. The weekend is uneventful; all I can do is wait.
On Monday morning, I meet with the H.R. manager. “Our lawyers have informed us that we must give you 30 days to provide valid proof of employment eligibility in the United States.” She tells me. “I suggest that you speak with a lawyer to get legal advice.” Although I know that there is nothing I can possibly do in 30 days, I follow her suggestion and meet with an immigration attorney. She confirms what I already know; not only is there nothing I can do about saving my job, but there is also no path to legal residency for me. “Your best option would be the DREAM Act.” She tells me.
The next day, following the attorney’s advice, I resign from my employment at Downtown College Prep. Attempting to have some closure, I write the following letters to my colleagues and students, explaining in a lightly sweetened way what has happened.
"Dear DCP family,
It breaks my heart to let you know that I have resigned from my employment at DCP. The reasons are beyond my control and too personal to share. Thank you for all the positive thoughts you sent my way this week. I truly appreciate it. I want you to know that I am doing well and I am keeping a positive attitude. I apologize for having to leave DCP this way because I know that it will create a burden in your work. I am so proud of the mission and the work of everyone at DCP, and I feel blessed to have been a part of it. Thank you for being more than a colleague to me. I feel that I have grown so much both in my work and my personal life and I thank you for being true friends, role models, and family. I am leaving with experiences and memories that I will forever cherish. I hope that we can continue to create more memories together. I am optimistic and I look forward to what the future has in store for me.
I love you all!"
"Queridos estudiantes, This is the toughest letter I've ever had to write because I care so much about each of you. I feel very lucky to have gotten to know you, both at an academic and personal level. I really admire your resilience and willingness to fight when you are faced with obstacles. I am facing a very big obstacle in my life right now and because of it I have made the difficult decision of resigning from my employment at DCP. I wish there was an easy explanation for my decision but there isn't one. The problem I am facing is very personal and very complicated. I hope you can understand and I'm truly sorry for having to leave DCP this way. Although I'm faced with a big obstacle, I want you to know that I am doing well and I am optimistic that everything will turn out okay. I am honored to have been able to teach you and see you flourish in so many ways. I am so proud of all the work you have done and how much you have grown. I am leaving with a lot of good experiences and memories that I will never forget. Although I was your teacher, I have learned so much from each of you. Thank you so much for everything you taught me. Please continue to strive for a better education and a better future for you and your families. Remember that education is the key to success and the path to making our world a better place. Once again I apologize because I know that this creates a challenge for everyone, but I know that you won't let this get in the way of your education. You all mean so much to me and I hope to see your successes in the future. I really wish I could be there in person to shake each of your hands and tell you."
I’m shattered, like a broken mirror, reflecting my fragmented reality. How do I pick up the pieces and move on? The next couple of months are tough. My mind plays tricks on me; I wake up every morning thinking that I’m late for work. My new reality sets in as I remind myself that I do not teach anymore. One hour at a time, I stay busy, distracting myself so I can begin to heal.
One day at time, I invest time in hobbies, and reconnect with old friends. One week at a time, I volunteer, read, exercise, I continue to heal. One month at a time, I make a plan, go back to school, and surround myself with people who love me. Perhaps my mother is right, maybe there is something bigger planned for me.
It's time for a new conversation about immigration in America, and it starts with us.