Since teaching senior English is my new teaching assignment, I started reading books I have not read that were short listed for the Man Booker Prize. The first, which I just finished, is We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. I marked two quotes that hold special relevance for me for very different reasons. The first one: “And besides, I’ve been getting all As in everything, even maths and science, the subjects I hate, because school is so easy in America even a donkey could pass.” I laughed out loud when I read this. Talk to many students born here and you would think school is hopelessly challenging. Last school year and for many before, I taught math, algebra 1 and geometry mostly. Half do not know their multiplication tables which makes teaching them how to factor polynomials quite a challenge or at least a lot harder. Ask something truly simple, “What is 1/3 of 3?” They stare and shrug.
In the past six years, four exchange students have lived with me, two from Thailand, one from Brazil, and one from Argentina. They all took math, including AP calculus for one. For all of them, English was a second or third or fourth language. One commented that except for trying to read Beowulf and Canterbury Tales (they were all seniors and senior English is British literature), it was quite easy compared to school at home. Two of them took either AP or honors classes. Parents here complain that school is too hard, there is too much homework. Really?? I chat with my friends from countries in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, South America. I listen to my students and I cannot help but wonder what will become of this country if we do not have immigrants. Yet, many citizens complain about immigrants. These same complainers often lack the skills to get the best jobs, to rise upward in part because learning these skills is hard work.
The other quote illustrates just how difficult it is to come here from a war torn or violent or economically depressed country you love but must leave and how angry some who feel stuck there may feel. “Just tell me one thing. What are you doing not in your own country right now? Why did you run off to America…Why did you just leave? If it’s your country, you have to love it to live in it and not leave it. You have to fight for it no matter what, to make it right. Tell me, do you abandon your house because it’s burning or do you find water to put out the fire? And if you leave it burning, do you expect the flames to turn into water and put themselves out? You left it…you left the house burning…”
I cannot imagine how to respond, how to feel. I am from here, have always lived here except for one brief stay elsewhere. Traveling even with friends and family from another country simply is not the same. Amarillo is a large refuge center with displaced people from Sudan, Myanmar, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other places. Even those with degrees often must work at horrid menial jobs others rarely want, e.g. killing and butchering livestock. One of my good friends teaches English at a nearby high school. She has one class in which only one student is a native English speaker. Although I can read and speak some Spanish, I think just how difficult it would be to learn history and literature in Spanish. I look at my house and know 100 % that without immigrant labor, I would not have this house.
If you live in the United States and are not 100 per cent Native American, you are either an immigrant yourself or the child of immigrants. Many have forgotten what their immigrant ancestors knew. Perhaps they need to remember.