There are relatively few people I genuinely admire. Alex is one of them. His intelligence, resiliency and determination are enviable. His ability to persevere and succeed in the face of discrimination and adversity is remarkable. I met Alex nearly eleven years ago when he walked into my English literature classroom. At the time, he was just another body, a person to whom I would have to teach Marquez, Golding, Shakespeare, and Borges. Now I think of him as the kid who taught me. And because of him, I am a better person.
In September of 2006, I started teaching high school in a low-income neighborhood. My ability to engage the department supervisor in a conversation about Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky earned me the privilege of teaching a senior honors class. Foolishly, I expected this to mean that I would be doing honors level work. However, the illusion quickly dissolved as I perused the essays I assigned on the first day of school. I didn’t ask for much, just a brief bio of one or two paragraphs, so that I could know something about each student. What I first noticed was the horrific handwriting that resembled a child’s scrawl. But the handwriting was nothing compared to the content: incomplete sentences, missing punctuation, mixed tenses and lack of structure. The majority of my students were operating on a late-middle school level. Some hadn’t even mastered skills that should have been taught in elementary school. Only a small percentage of the students wrote competently. I immediately identified Alex as one of the top students.
I enjoyed teaching Alex, along with eight or nine other students. They were a pleasure to engage in literary discussions, since they often had something insightful or thought-provoking to contribute. I wanted nothing more than to gear my lesson plans to them, but school policy — shaped by political policy — dictated that I cater my lessons to the struggling students. Sadly, these were often the same students who lacked motivation. Students who refused to read; students who declined to put much effort into writing assignments; those who plagiarized and mocked Shakespeare, did not deserve to pass. But somehow their failing would have reflected poorly on me, and so I had to find ways to ensure that they passed. This often involved watering down intended lessons. Instead of engaging the students in higher-level thinking tasks, I resorted to summarizing and explaining so that my disinterested students could earn a grade they did not deserve. Regretfully, in the process of ensuring that no child got left behind, my dedicated, hardworking pupils did not get the challenge they deserved. Empty As filled their report cards.
As the year progressed, I spoke to other teachers and expressed my frustration at not being able to teach the way I wanted to teach. I vented about having to ensure that all or most of my students passed the state standardized test, when most could barely construct a grammatically correct sentence. And I observed the fact that the kids who cared would have learned so much more if the administrators actually encouraged me to do what they allegedly hired me to do. In talking to others, I learned that I was not alone. Other teachers were equally disgruntled. But if I wanted to keep my job, I had to conform.
And so, due to a variety of obstacles and state mandated restrictions, Alex finished high school learning less than I would have liked to teach. But he graduated in the top two percent of his class, a feat he accomplished in conjunction with volunteering over 1,200 hours of his time. In between studying for exams and writing papers, he fed the homeless at the YMCA; he participated in the Families and Schools Together program, which provides childcare for families who are in need; he helped run a middle school Friday night recreation program giving at risk kids a safe place to be; he helped decorate a local veteran’s home, and finally, he worked as a translator at a local Hispanic health fair.
Alex’s accomplishments were impressive. Had he been born in a different place, he could easily have attended one of the top universities in the country. However, the place of his birth in conjunction with the circumstances of his arrival in America, presented him with the greatest obstacle of his academic life, one that would quickly dwarf the challenge of actually getting an education in a lower income school.
Alex was born in Guatemala, and while he entered the country on a visa, his family neglected to leave when it expired. Technically, this makes him an illegal immigrant. But in reality, he was just another young kid trying his best to make it in the world.
When I first met Alex, I’m ashamed to admit that my opinions regarding illegal immigrants leaned rather far to the right. The dominant propaganda had its way with me, making me suspect of people who broke the rules, jumped the immigration lines and then milked America for all its riches. The propaganda, Alex soon demonstrated, was inaccurate: a poisoned and exaggerated account of the relationship that exists between America and her illegal subjects. The more I listened to Alex’s stories — and other students who were fighting a similar battle to somehow legalize their status — the more sympathetic I grew. By the time Alex graduated, I was leaning about as far left as one could without toppling over into extremism.
Since Alex was one of my few conscientious students, he would often arrive for first period before anyone else. While waiting for his classmates to saunter in, blaming everything from the rain to faulty phone batteries for their tardiness, Alex and I would frequently chat. During these conversations, he sometimes talked about Guatemala. Much of what he told me were stories passed down to him from his father. In one conversation, he spoke so passionately about Tikal and the Mayans, who once supported a thriving civilization in Central America; I felt compelled to see the ruins for myself. Before the year ended, I booked a flight, so that I could spend the summer getting acquainted with his birthland.
I refer to Guatemala as his birthland, because America — despite her unwillingness to claim him as one of her own — is his homeland. Crossing the border at six months old in his mother’s arms, he carried with him no memories of the land in which he drew his first breath. His parents only wanted what immigrants have wanted for centuries, what my own grandparents wanted — a better life for their children and grandchildren. His parents were not stricken by poverty, and they are certainly not lazy. They did not come to America hoping to feed off her welfare program, nor did they come asking for handouts. Since the day they arrived, Alex’s parents have continuously worked. And even though the prominent misconception says otherwise, Alex and his family have always paid taxes; therefore, they have helped to fund the public school system. Even though they do not have green cards, each member of Alex’s family has a tax ID number, so that the proper cut of their salaries is paid to Uncle Sam. For the past six years, Alex, like any ordinary citizen, has paid unemployment taxes. When he briefly found himself between jobs, unlike any citizen, he was not eligible to collect unemployment.
Alex’s first language is Spanish, but he spoke English like a native, easily flipping back and forth between the two. There have been times when a relative has called him while visiting my family. He would answer in Spanish, carrying on a conversation with his mother, while my son badgered him with questions in English. Bouncing between languages, he never missed a beat in either tongue. He had no accent and his speech was peppered with colloquial expressions that foreigners did not understand. Since he was educated in America, school has ensured that he was a cultural American. Sure he watched soccer during the World Cup — but so do plenty of native-born Americans. He celebrated American holidays, knew American history — probably better than most Americans — and he ate American food, although my spouse’s burgers were a bit bland for his taste buds.
Alex — legal status aside — was an American; his home was America. He just didn’t have the proper papers to prove it. At age nine, Alex briefly returned to Guatemala so that he could spend time with his aging, ill paternal grandfather. While there, he felt completely out place. In what others might call his home, he felt like a tourist.
America was home. But even as a young child, even before words like “illegal immigrant” or “undocumented worker” carried any meaning for him, Alex sensed that he was somehow different. My lips curled into a subtle smile when he explained,
“I always felt like a coffee bean in a bowl of rice.”
Alex was Hispanic, but I would not identify him as dark. His skin was the same olive tone as my Italian mother’s, and his hair was more brown than black. However, Alex was not referring to his ethnicity. Poverty — perhaps “lack of wealth” is a better phrase — not his immigration status, predominantly shaped his understanding of who he was amongst his peers. His classmates’ parents could afford more — more trips, more toys and more clothes — than his parents could.
That’s what set him apart.
I asked Alex at which point in his life he became aware of the fact that he was not legally in America. I did not expect his response. I presumed that at a young age his parents must have sat him down to explain why he would someday discover certain doors closed to him, doors his friends did not even realize were there, since they effortlessly blew through them. But, no, instead Alex focused on his own realizations, his considerations for the future that commenced his senior year in high school. Upon entering his final year of school, he wondered, “Where do I go from here? How do I make it happen?”
For most high school students who are intent on going to college, the path is clear and direct. Apply to the schools of your choice, pray you get in, and once you do, apply for financial aid. Student loans are available for everyone, provided you have that magical nine digit number. A social security card secures your right to indenture yourself to the banks for the rest of your life. You don’t even need to have good credit. But, if, like Alex, you lack the required documents, you cannot apply for a loan. While this severely hampered Alex’s quest to earning a college degree, it did not completely shatter his dreams.
Community colleges are much more affordable than four-year institutions, so even though it wasn’t his first choice, Alex enrolled in the local community college. He repeatedly encountered former classmates on campus who were always astonished to realize that he was attending the same school. Without shame, they admitted to being there because they screwed up in high school, neglecting to pay attention or do homework. Most of them enrolled in remedial classes, completing credits that would not even count towards an associate’s degree. But Alex had been a straight-A student. There seemed no logical reason for him to be there. Their reactions to seeing him were a constant source of anguish for Alex, who knew very well that his abilities far exceeded his current opportunity. But the truth was none of their business, so Alex — with his head held high, and his GPA even higher — kept them guessing.
To afford school, Alex worked full-time, and on the rare occasion that he struggled to meet a payment, his parents kicked in some cash to help him. Despite his juggling act — work and school — Alex never wavered from his dream to earn a bachelor’s degree. After serving his time at the community school and earning an associate’s degree, Alex applied to four-year universities. His dream school — the university in which he yearned to study engineering — accepted him, but they offered him no financial awards. Hemmed in once again by financial constraints, Alex could not even come close to affording the tuition at a private institution. He was disappointed, but not defeated. Accepting his fate graciously, he attended the top state school in New Jersey. And that is where things got tricky. He still aspired to be an engineer, but the campus to which he would have to travel for the sciences was far. This did not please his boss, who gently explained that if he wished to keep his job, he’d have to attend school closer to where he worked. He needed the money, and so he complied. Refusing to despair, Alex consulted several friends and a well-respected mentor who soon convinced him that other equally challenging academic options were open to him. Like a river whose path is suddenly obstructed after a massive storm, Alex simply changed the course of his studies. Enrolling in the business program, Alex declared accounting as his major.
What many of his peers accomplished in four years, Alex accomplished in eight — a remarkable feat when one considers the obstacles he overcame in the process. Five years ago, a high profile bank offered Alex a job upon completion of his bachelor’s degree. When I told a friend the good news, he said, “Working as a teller isn’t so bad.” I laughed, “You misunderstand. Tellers don’t get signing bonuses; he will be a financial analyst.” The look of incredulity on my friend’s face fired me up, but when the wave of anger crashed and the swell receded, I couldn’t help but smile. After all, Alex will have the last laugh. He will have no debt. Instead of the banks parasitically feasting on his livelihood for the next twenty years, he will be able to save for his future, a future destined to be bright.
I have kept in touch with Alex since he graduated from high school. Our schedules have kept us both exceedingly busy, but we have managed to see each other two or three times a year, usually around Christmas and for barbecues in the summer. One afternoon when my son was about two years old, he started calling Alex “Papi.” The name came from nowhere. Alex didn’t seem to mind, and the nickname stuck. My son looks up to Alex and enjoys seeing him. I must admit, if my son is going to look up to anyone, Alex is an ideal role model. Four years ago, I felt honored when Alex invited me to his graduation. Even though I was unable to attend the actual ceremony, my family and I attended his party so that we could celebrate his amazing accomplishment with him.
In so many ways, Alex personifies the American dream. An immigrant, who started out with virtually nothing except the love and support of his family, has earned himself an enviable position in corporate America. Sadly, his status in this country lingers in limbo, but recently his fears about the government deporting him have become far more pressing. But even if deportation doesn’t become a reality, many things that we take for granted are denied him. Ever since high school, he has dreamed of someday joining the Air Force, a dream denied to him because of his technical standing as an illegal immigrant. He is willing to die protecting America, but America still won’t embrace him. The ability to travel abroad is also denied to him. If he leaves he can’t come back. He once asked me if I would apply to be on the Amazing Race with him. I emphatically said yes. However, the application will have to wait until the day America confers citizenship on him. And if anyone deserves citizenship, he does. I only wish America could learn, as I did, not to look at stereotypes, but to clearly see the content of his character.
Cover illustration by Cameron Getty