Greg Westberry in homage to a kid on a plane

An elementary school teacher reflects on immigration and education A few years ago I was on a plane, flying home to Arizona, when I noticed a Mexican teen and two burly white guys that seemed to be his escort. Coming from Arizona, I found this picture all too familiar. I was watching an undocumented immigrant on the first leg of a deportation to Mexico, escorted by two ICE agents. When the seat belt light went off, I got up, walked over and asked the ICE guys if I might talk to the young man. They allowed it. The 18-year-old had been brought here by his parents when he was three. America was his home, he was a good student with good grades, and he never broke the law. You might say that he was here illegally but I would reiterate that he was brought here when he was three and probably didn’t know that he was illegal until about 11 or 12. In short, he was being taken from his home and sent to a country he never knew, where there were no family members to receive him. This sealed my view of the tragedy of America’s immigration policy. I don’t know what to do with those who come here of their own accord, but I do know that the children that were brought here are innocent and ought not to be deported but given a chance to become citizens. Two years ago, I was given the opportunity to teach kids like the young man on the plane. At the time, I was already a teacher at an elementary school where 98 percent of the population is Mexican. I still teach there, and among my projects is to help one of them become a citizen. This girl is a model athlete and even won state recognition for her athleticism. She has moved on to high school now, but one day she will graduate and want to go to college. We don’t have any idea how she will pay for it. (Her problem is especially common in Arizona, a state that is not only well known for its anti-immigration laws, but has decided that if a student can’t prove citizenship, no matter how long he or she has lived in the state, then that student cannot get in-state tuition. This has made going to college in Arizona prohibitive to so many students.) Thankfully, one of our state representatives, Catherine Miranda, teamed up with a college from New Mexico, Navajo Technical College, to offer undocumented students a way to take at least core classes at a low cost. Catherine sent out an email to teachers in the Phoenix area, and, remembering that kid on his way to Mexico, I jumped at the chance. I started teaching English Composition in the first semester of the program. This was not without its difficulties. Most of my students were Spanish first, English second speakers. They did well enough in high school but weren’t ready to face the nasty college professors that were more likely to fail them than not. The first problem is that their writing echoes spoken Spanish. These students had no problem with concepts or with the subjects that we were researching, but I had to struggle to understand exactly what they were saying. The worst stumbling block was prepositions. I had people sitting on the table instead of at the table and on the restaurant instead of in the restaurant. Of and off were often interchangeable. But we kept working on these problems, and by the end of the second semester I saw remarkable improvement. This improvement followed their wrapping their heads around the simple sentence. They finally figured out that the more words they used, the deeper in trouble they got. They also learned to let someone else read their papers before turning them in, this helped them greatly. Today we are getting fewer students from the undocumented Mexican community. President Obama has granted the kids immunity as well as giving them a documented status; so now they are getting in-state tuition and going to the community colleges. I am happy about this. Especially since I am able to give special attention to the two students I still have. The Navajo Technical College is now turning to the local Indian community, which includes several local tribes like Pima and Navajo. I hope that we will continue get a few of the Mexican kids—who are really American kids. That one kid on the plane got me going, and the two students in my class now keep me going. I’ll take more of them any time. {Greg Westberry was a technical writer in the late 90s, then turned to writing screenplays for the next ten years. Now he teaches at Edison Elementary School in Phoenix, and, for the past three years, has taught English Composition through the Navajo Technical College.}

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