Saturday evening. I sit at our heavy dining room table, a stack of papers in front of me, a grade book to the side, another stack still in my book bag. The life of a teacher. The light is soft, the walls warm sienna. I hear the sounds of water in the kitchen as Tom prepares a late dinner of salad and fresh crab. My daughter’s boyfriend, Elliot, sits at the opposite end of the table, protractor and pen in his hands, doing his homework. I am reading “practice” scholarship applications - an exercise I have my upper level ESL students do in preparation for college, in preparation for the long arduous task of finding funding to cover the rising costs of a community college education.
We live in a culture that demands we bare our souls – and our economic urgencies – before help is offered. I feel embarrassed, intrusive, as I as read these personal documents of income and expenses, these narratives of struggle to overcome unbearable odds that have led these students to my classroom.
I teach immigrants and refugees at a community college in Seattle. This quarter I have a group of 23 students from 16 different nations. This is not unusual. My college serves one of the most ethnically diverse zip codes in the country. The average age on my campus is 36. This too is reflected in the range of ages in my students. Diversity stares me in the face every morning at 8:00 a.m. But there is also hidden diversity that is easily overlooked or ignored in a culture like ours that does not want to think about social class, that prefers to think of itself as a classless society in a global economy.
“So here’s one,” I say. “A family of 3 living on $700 a month. And here’s another. A family of 6 on $550 a month.”
“How can they do it?” Elliot asks.
“I don’t know. Multiple families in single-family homes,” I say. “They’re survivors. Not like the TV show, but the real thing. These people have been through hell and they know how to live on nothing.”
I look around me. The soft chandelier overhead, the billowing curtains hung on handcrafted iron rods, the leather love seat on the plush rug, the paintings on the walls. I imagine the full refrigerator and packed cupboards in the adjacent kitchen. By American standards, I do not live an opulent life. I live on a teacher’s salary with an artist husband. And yet, I think of these students who struggle each day for survival while I live my life sheltered by the cloak of privilege – white middle class privilege.
These feelings – guilt, anger, sadness – are not new. I have been teaching refugees and immigrants for over twenty years. Still, the reminders hit hard each quarter with each student paper, and I wonder. Do I push too hard? Do I expect too much of people on the edge? Yet these students know, just as I know, that only through education will they overcome the challenges of war and hunger, illiteracy and prejudice. Only with an education will they find comfort in this new land. In their narratives, all express gratitude despite the hardships they face each day. Gratitude for the opportunities they find in this new home – if not for themselves, at least for their children. These opportunities, easily taken for granted, are what made leaving behind all they knew and loved – homeland, language, culture, food, family, friends – worth the loss.
I pick up another application: a family of 4 living on a monthly budget of $325. My heart swells with respect and I am honored to hold their stories in my hands.