Immigration, legal or illegal, is a touchy issue for many. As a high school teacher in Houston, TX, teaching immigrants, legal or illegal, is a fact of every day life. Recently I read a book, “Into the Beautiful North” by Luis Urrea that opened my eyes. All I can say is…
I thought I knew.
(Potential Spoiler Alert: Though this post does not talk about the story of “Into the Beautiful North“, it does get into many of the themes of the book.)
I grew up in a suburb 30 minutes east of Cleveland, Ohio. If memory serves me right, my graduating class had one black kid in it. Most everyone else was as white as they come. Needless to say, I wasn’t really immersed in diversity.
When I went to college, I started to recognize diversity as an issue in my life. Immediately I went from an environment where everyone looked and acted rather similarly to one where people came from around the world.
Every now and then, the university I attended would attempt to educate its students with diversity seminars. As a college student though, my main motive for attending these sessions was usually the free food. I never stopped to ask…
“Why is diversity education important?”
Consequently I missed the lesson.
Any teacher worth their salt will work to learn about their students. They understand that the more they know about the background of their students, the better they can empathize with them and thus help meet their needs.
I teach a wide array of students. Many are from Mexico, but I have also had students from Puerto Rico, Cuba, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Haiti, France, China, Nepal and more. “Into the Beautiful North” opened my eyes to the reality of life in Mexico.
Since I started teaching, I have engaged in deep conversations with my students about who they are. Some students readily open up and tell you everything. Others may only say a dozen words all year aside from regular classroom dialect. Just by conversing and showing genuine interest in my students, I have been able to learn about their culture. However, I didn’t realize how much my students have been insulating me from their reality.
“Into the Beautiful North” is a story about a group of girls in a rural town of Sinaloa who make their way to America. It had many frightening moments. The characters dealt with drug cartels running their town, bribery, human/drug trafficking, addiction, murder, racism, border crossing issues and more.
My students have always told me about how great Mexico is. But every now and then, they would make a joke alluding to the above mentioned nightmares. I figured stuff like that happened but it also happens here in the United States so it wasn’t too big of a deal.
Reading this book gave me the knowledge to ask more purposeful questions. I asked my students specifics about the towns they grew up in. I told them about the book I was reading and even showed it to them. When I asked about the violence the book references, many of them opened up. Not being able to really comprehend what they were sharing (I was in a state of disbelief), I asked some co-workers I knew who also grew up in Mexico about their experiences.
All I can say is… I thought I knew.
The violence in this book only scratches the surface of the reality in Mexico.
I can’t say I am an expert in foreign affairs, drug cartels, immigration or cultural studies. All I can say is, I took the time to read a book that related to my students. This allowed me to ask meaningful questions that demonstrated to them that I care.
My students love their culture and many of them love where they are from. I don’t think they want to highlight the ugliness of their background. They would rather talk about the joys of being Mexican. But that doesn’t hide the fact that many of my students are brining terrible baggage with them every day to class.
It is imperative we find ways to connect with our students. The simple act of reading a book opened up conversations I never thought of having before. It wasn’t that I didn’t care, I simply didn’t know what questions to ask.
I also encourage you to seek out any media that can help educate you about who your students are and where they come from. Don’t be afraid to talk with your co-workers who may share similar experiences with your students. In my experience, most people are willing to open up and share their story if you demonstrate interest in who they are.
“Why is diversity education important?”
Because it enables us to empathize with others.