Olivia Allen is a 2010 Staples High School graduate. After graduating from Northeastern University, she joined Teach for America.
Her story of her experiences as a 1st-year teacher in North Carolina was published last week in the Charlotte Observer. As the immigration debate rages nationally, it deserves a broad audience — especially here in Westport.
Katterine walked through my classroom door in August 2014 on “meet-the-teacher” night at Newell Elementary. She hid behind her father, Cesar, who indicated that she had recently arrived from Guatemala, was very nervous, and spoke zero English.
As a 1st-year teacher, unsuccessfully trying to evade questions about my young age, and wearing a heavy blazer advertising that I was clearly new to North Carolina summers, I was just as nervous. I too had a lot to learn, including picking up more Spanish.
I responded, “podemos aprender en juntos … we can learn together!” At that moment, we both employed a growth mindset – a mutual dedication to hard work and resilience.
As the year progressed, my teaching abilities improved, as did Katterine’s English proficiency, grasp of 5th grade content, and comfort with her peers. Never unnerved by others’ behaviors, always showing a palpable sense of gratitude to me and other teachers, and regularly motivated during our Saturday morning tutoring at her house, she began to exemplify success.
A few weeks into school, after having used her bilingual classmate Ashley as a conduit for all communication, she finally broke her silence and answered a question in English. Her 27 10-year-old peers erupted in applause without any prompting, as they knew this was an important first glimpse of Katterine’s growing confidence and success. Her impenetrable work ethic paid off: she scored in the 99th percentile for growth, and in just one school year, she grew 3.3 and 2.2 grade levels in math and reading, respectively.
If this is not the narrative that comes to mind when you think of an undocumented immigrant, you are not alone. Katterine is undocumented, and I did not learn of her illegal status until the summer after she had left my class. Next month, I will say goodbye to Katterine when she is deported back to Guatemala.
The sacrifices made by Katterine’s family to educate her in the safety of the United States and the tragedies they suffered in Guatemala that unfortunately do not warrant refugee status are astonishing. But let me focus on their contributions, which often go unnoticed.
Katterine’s parents, also undocumented, pay taxes (they have Individual Tax Identification Numbers) and are exemplary in their interest in their daughter’s education. During home visits, they asked for lists of reading apps for their tablet and frantically called me before her science fair project was due to ensure her model volcano met the requirements. Despite their own hardships, they demonstrated empathy. When another classmate, Ramon, was in the hospital for cancer treatment, Katterine brought in an envelope with a card and a $20 bill from Katterine’s family to his.
I am aware that one family’s narrative does not warrant dramatic policy change; not every undocumented family exhibits the same values. However, from the narrow lens of my classroom, I contend that Katterine gave and contributed more to my school and our city than she took. Students who come to Charlotte solely to be educated safely are not deserving of deportation. We need to recognize that these students are not draining resources, but rather are sources of boundless potential.
In a city like Charlotte, which has the country’s lowest rate of social mobility, we must find a way to capitalize on the success of our students, not force them back into terrible circumstances. Education can be transformative for disenfranchised students like Katterine, and as an educator, my goal for all my students is that they attend college. I truly hope Katterine can return to the U.S. one day, as her story deserves to end with a college acceptance, not a one-way ticket to Guatemala.
(After Katterine was hospitalized with appendicitis, Olivia set up a GoFundMe page to help with medical and legal expenses. Click here for more information. Hat tips: Julia McNamee and Cecily Gans)