This post was originally published on withGanas and has been reprinted with permission.
At a gathering of teacher supporters in Memphis last week, my friend and colleague Elisa Villanueva Beard shared a wrenching and unfolding story of one of her students, Julio. I’ve been struggling to make sense of the tragic injustice of his experiences and to shake the raw heartbreak of EVB’s reflections.
My written words cannot capture the richness of EVB’s relationship with Julio, so before reading my reflections, please hear the story in her own words. I promise it is worth a few minutes:
Tonight, I sat down to reflect on Julio’s experience, and on EVB’s sense of responsibility for the turn his life has taken. Given our commitment to grow our students’ leadership and broaden their opportunities in life, what are we to make of what’s happening to Julio? What’s the moral of this story? What does EVB’s painful sense of responsibility tell us about the pursuit of transformational impact in our students’ lives? To be honest, I’m still struggling with making meaning of all this, but have been mulling a few reflections:
(1) Loving our students is in some ways terrifying.
EVB first describes Julio’s joy, perseverance, leadership, and spirit in a beautiful illustration of a transformational teacher’s love—not just relationships and trust and admiration, but deep, accepting love. “I could only hope that my three boys grow up to be like Julio,” EVB says. She so clearly and so deeply wants for him fulfillment, and happiness, and broad opportunities in life.
But as the realities of Julio’s life encroach on all those hopes—as his parents are arrested, as he has to take a $30 cab ride to work at a minimum wage job to support his sisters, as he is arrested for using the fake social security card that allowed him to work, as he is deported in chains to a country he has never known where he knows no one—we see and feel how much EVB is hurting for Julio, because she loves him.
Loving our students is the enigma of our work. On the one hand, the love we develop for our students is the fuel that sustains us through the toughest difficulties. But while we need that love’s energy and conviction, we also know that it makes failure—a too real possibility in our work—almost unbearable.
(2) The challenges of our students’ lives and our vision of their future lives of broad opportunities and fulfillment require us to think fundamentally differently about our role as teachers.
I’m haunted by EVB’s thought—as she is watching her dear Julio stand in shackles and black-and-white stripes—that she could have prevented this if she was true to her vision as his first-grade teacher. That’s such a painful admission, but I think that’s the power in her story. In EVB’s own words:
If I was truly working to give Julio empowerment, I would have started the conversation in first grade with his parents about what it would mean for Julio to have access to the American dream. We talked a lot about college in my classroom. I knew my parents very well. I strove to have a strong curriculum and rigorous curriculum. I talked with my kids about what it meant to be citizens in America. But I did not take that step to say really what would have to be true for Julio to have those life choices. At a very basic step, he would need to be on a path to getting his citizenship. And for various reasons over the years, I never took this up in earnest with him, which is hard to live with.
In the abstract, the thought that a teacher should feel responsibility to think about the path to citizenship of her first-grader seems strange. But in the specific context of Julio’s potential, our nation’s laws, and EVB’s commitment to work with Julio toward an enduring path to broader opportunities in life, addressing citizenship seems like a central responsibility. In EVB’s own words, what choice do we have but to define our role by what’s necessary?
We have to decide. . . that we’re going to figure out how to do it. As we all know, anything worth doing is hard. Many times you don’t know exactly how you are going to get there. However, we do not have a choice. We are in too far. We know too much about what our children are capable of. And unless we are comfortable living in a world of the incremental and retiring from this work with the same over-all statistics that say that you can predict a child’s future opportunities based on their zipcode, we better come out swinging the bat.
(3) We have to find ways to mitigate the numbing haze of time.
We cannot see with any degree of clarity the future path of a student’s life, and how it is different with or without or our relationship and influence. I find EVB’s story so powerful, in part, because it cuts through that numbing haze of time. We can see straight from the six-year old who is so full of potential and perseverance and leadership to the young man in chains. We can see the realities around him that have thus far inhibited his fulfillment of that potential. Our commitment to transformational impact in our children’s lives means we need to understand now, today the harsh reality fourteen years in the future if we do not change our students’ paths now. We must appreciate the weight of the stakes of the future, even when we are teaching a first-grader like Julio.
Thank you, EVB, for sharing Julio’s story. Julio, wherever you are, you are loved, and it’s not over. The injustices you are experiencing does not make you any less the spirited, perseverant, kind leader that EVB has introduced us to.
And thank you, withGanas community for affording me the space to process this story. I hope you will share your own reflections and comments as we all wrestle with Julio’s—and thousands of others students’—stories.
UPDATE: As I was writing up this reflection, Elisa Villanueva Beard was appointed co-CEO of Teach For America by its national board of directors. Congratulations, EVB. I’m so excited about your leadership at Teach For America.