Teaching can be humanizing work.
This is how it happens.
The Rodriguez family walks down the hall and turns the corner to my room.
“Buenos dias, Mrs. Rodriguez. Buenos dias, niños! ¿Como esta ustedes? Welcome to my classroom,” I greet them.
We sit down in a circle of chairs and smile at each other. I begin by looking at the oldest child, a high school student, who looks timidly back at me. “Will you translate for us?” I ask.
In the beginning, I do most of the talking. I describe her child’s progress in math and ask, “Do you have any questions or comments?”
She looks at me with a silent, shy smile. I move on to reading and writing, asking again for questions and receiving the same smile.
At the end, she does most of the talking. “Our life is hard. My husband works out of town, wherever he can find work,” she said. “I clean houses. I work many hours. Our house is small and we are many. I want my children to learn so they can have a better life. Please tell me how to help my children learn.”
This is how my heart grows.
It grows larger because Mrs. Rodriguez and I sit down with each other. We talk and we listen.
However, I know a heart can shrink, too.
Nikki Haley, the governor of my state, recently signed The South Carolina Illegal Immigration and Reform Act.
The law, which is part of a recent wave of state immigration legislation, goes into effect in January. As she signed the bill, she stated:
“What I’m concerned about is the money we’re losing because of illegal immigration in this state. The money that’s lost in education and medical services and workers and employment and all of those things is well beyond millions of dollars …”
It is dehumanizing when you refer to people only in terms of money. Further, the research does not support the governor’s statement.
According to the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy, undocumented workers paid $43.6 million in state and local taxes in 2010.
Another study outlined the losses to the state if all unauthorized immigrants were removed from South Carolina. The state would lose $1.8 billion in economic activity, $782.9 million in gross state product and approximately 12,059 jobs.
Did I see Mrs. Rodriguez as an undocumented immigrant who is causing our state to lose money for education, healthcare and jobs?
No. Despite the political climate in my state, I resisted seeing her with a small heart.
As a matter of fact, as we were meeting together, I never wondered if she was documented or undocumented.
I simply saw her as a mom who cares deeply for her children, just as I am a dad who cares deeply for mine. I simply saw her as a parent who trusts me to be a teacher for her child and for her.
I simply saw her. I am here for her and for her children.
Trevor Barton teaches second grade and is a member of First Baptist Church in Greenville, S.C. This column first appeared on the Teaching Tolerance website of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
A fourth grade public school teacher and member of First Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina.