by Jessica Rodriguez
An eighth grader named Alejandro was one of my better students. He actually wanted to learn. He did his best to pay attention to Ms. Mock’s math lessons given in her butchered Spanish, and patiently waited for me to come around and translate the bits he couldn’t catch. He even befriended the lone white boy in class, who got placed with us because of behavior problems, some kind of relentless A.D.D. They could tolerate each other. Communicating with notes, sign language, and numbers, Alejandro used all the English Second Language (ESL) 1 he could with Scott and in turn, Scott cobbled together sometimes cohesive statements from his Spanish artillery. They’d sit in the back corner of the classroom and work out math problems together. They’d get a little loud at times, raising their voices in jokes and laughter, but I wasn’t quick to hush them.
Many of the Latino kids didn’t like Alejandro. He’d recently immigrated and still wore his uniform with the Prepaimpecablness I saw my cousins don their uniforms with: the ironed collar, the creased pants, the old but clean shoes worked over with polish on Sunday nights. At the beginning of the year he still took pride in keeping himself presentable. His parent’s expected 10’s and 9’s from him, at the very worst 8’s. Though in Mexico he was known to have received a 7 en conducta from time to time, he’d confided to me. His jokes were cheesy, often making puns purposefully mixing up his words in English, though he had an extensive vocabulary in Spanish. He was kind whenever I botched a translation, always correcting me gently.
It was within the last few minutes of the lunch period one October day that Alejandro tore into the classroom at full speed. He ran directly to the back of the room and began struggling with the heavy window, desperately trying to open it up.
“Ayudeme, Miss!” he yelled, his knuckles white with strain.
“¿Alejandro, qué honda? ¿Qué haces?”
“La migra esta afuera, Miss! Outside!” he exclaimed, pointing through the window with his chin.
The translated bit was for my benefit, as if only in English could INS mean anything to me. Ms. Mock trotted over and looked at me quizzically. She understood “migra” and I asked, “Are they allowed to be here? At schools?” She responded with fear in her voice, “I don’t know.”
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Alejandro ran to the next window and began struggling to push it up. At this point the students had trickled into class and the news of Alejandro’s sighting spread. A few began peering out the windows to see if they could spot any suspicious cars. Ramon gently tugged at the window Alejandro had struggled unsuccessfully with, hoping no one would notice.
“Everyone sit down. Calmense,” Ms. Mock said as she pulled Alejandro from the middle window. We each held an arm as he came down off the ledge. He was sweating profusely. The perspiration beaded on his nose and forehead, catching the sunshine, his dark skin luminous.
“Tell us what you saw,” she said to him.
“I was passing by the school office and I saw the Migra car. I have to go.” His voice cracked as he spoke, making sure he caught my eye. “I thought they couldn’t come to the school, Miss. That’s why I go to school instead of work. My parents thought it was safer.”
I saw the grave stare of my own family and friends that dodged INS in his eyes. Sharp and alert, filled with a sorrowful anger and defiance that becomes a way of life. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to get caught and sent back across the border only to show up two weeks later or never again. Those were adults though; Alejandro was the first kid whose flight instinct had been triggered in front of me.
“I– I don’t know, I’m sorry. Pero nadie te va levar,” was my offering. Ms. Mock patted his shoulder, “That’s right; nobody’s going to do anything to you. Take a seat.” She led him to his chair and I followed. The bell rang and she issued a warning to the students to take their seats. She pulled me away, “I’m going to call the main office to see what’s going on. In the mean time, I think we should lock the doors.” She smiled tightly, her coral colored lips stretched unkindly across her face.
When I turned around a tidal wave of eyes washed over me. Their oceanic gazes a heavy, unyielding, a quiet before the storm sea. Eyes darted from the door, to me, to the windows in the back of the room. I counted them, thirty-four. Ninety percent of them were Latino. I struggled to count how many I knew were undocumented and realized that I had no idea. I began wondering how many we could hide in the computer room adjacent to the back of the classroom.
Ms. Mock returned to the room, “False alarm, false alarm,” she yelped, “Alarma falsa,” she reiterated in false cognate. “Just the local police.”
A sigh of relief ran through the room. Edgar flipped a middle finger toward the windows, “Pinchi Migra.” Brieseida began whining about needing to go the bathroom. Ramon leaned back in his seat, pulling his hoodie just past his eyes. Alejandro laughed out loud, his white teeth standing out brightly in his mouth and joked about how sweaty he now was. I walked to the back of the room and sat in an empty chair next to him.
“Ahora se portan bien, pues,” I instructed the kids near me to behave because I didn’t have it in me to be after them today. Angelica laughed and said, “Ay miss,” dismissively, but they did take note, the din of chatter that accompanies adolescents notably missing that day.
At the end of the school day Alejandro asked me to walk him to his bus stop. A few of the other students joined us. They spoke amongst themselves on the way and I lingered nearby until their bus arrived.
After a few weeks no one made mention of the incident. I realized that in their reality, my students were not afraid of what went bump in the night. They feared what snatches up in the daylight.
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Jessica B. Rodriguez is Mexican American/Chicana/Angelino/GayLady/Femme. She has a degree in Comparative Literature from UCLA , which she took all the way to NYC after a quarter-life crisis and then proceeded not to use. One day she would like to accept one of the offers for MFA programs, but bills are no joke.
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