Felipe on the Bottom Rung
I try not to get personal in these blog posts, but sometimes…
I am a teaching artist who is currently in the first of a four-year research project to determine the efficacy of arts education in improving fluency in English language learners. My students are middle school-ers in two different immigrant-heavy parts of Brooklyn, NY. The schools they attend are classified as Title I, meaning that mine are among the most impoverished children in New York City. The patriotic sentiment is hard-won in me, but watching students who speak Bangla, Uzbek and Spanish coming together to do theater projects in English, enjoying one another’s company and encouraging their classmates to become more generous, talented and smart occasionally inspires the thought, “This country really is a special place.”
One of my students, a recent Dominican immigrant (let’s call him Felipe), began this school year in what’s known as his “silent period.” This is when a new language learner understands much of what is going on in class, but, owing to the difficulty of expressing thoughts orally, remains unwilling to speak. One of the greatest thrills when working with language learners comes when this period ends. There is no fanfare or warning; one day, a boy whose voice you’ve only ever heard during roll call will raise his hand and offer a complete sentence that contributes meaningfully to the discussion. It’s powerful stuff, I’ll ask you to believe me, and Felipe broke out of his silent period with grace and had become a rising star in the class by the time his apartment building burned to the ground a few weeks ago.
My teaching partner e-mailed me on March 4th. “We thought he was out sick, and no one was returning phone calls at first. They’re all okay, but they lost all of their possessions and are currently at a Red Cross shelter in Canarsie. One of their neighbors died. [Felipe] and his sister, who’s in 8th grade, are coming back to school on Monday. The guidance counselor is collecting donations of money or clothing, if you would like to contribute.”
This Monday, March 21st, we were given the distressing news that at 3 AM a few nights earlier, the family had been evicted from their shelter, because they could not complete the requisite paperwork, which was in English. So swift was their removal that they did not have time to collect the few personal items they had accumulated since the fire. Out on their luck with no one to turn to, the kids and their mother were forced to swallow some pride and endure a lot of discomfort by asking the father’s family for a place to stay (the father is not in the picture).
The brilliant and devoted parent coordinator at the school, through some thorough sleuthing, discovered the family late yesterday afternoon. Felipe’s mother had found a cousin in New Jersey who would put them up temporarily. As of now, it is unclear whether Felipe will rejoin my class, where his pencils and notebook still rest in the desk he sat at every day since his mother, her job secured, brought the kids to New York with every intention of working hard and crafting out of whole-cloth a stable and promising life for her family, which had theretofore known only third world poverty.
The only people Felipe’s family has advocating for it are public school employees, public lawyers and public social workers. We find ourselves at a time when such people are under enormous duress, their jobs threatened by a right wing hell-bent on doing away with the social safety net and the programs the poor depend on for basic subsistence. If the right wing gets its way and the United States dismantles those cherished institutions, relying instead on a laissez faire government which will obediently keep out of the much-vaunted “free market,” Felipe and his family and all the ones in similar situations – my students – are out of luck.
Too bad. Ha-ha. Deal with it.