“Although since none of you did your homework, of course you don’t know what I’m talking about,” Dr. Slagel, as she forced the students to call her, again complained.
But again it wasn’t true. For in the homework bin that she seemingly never checked, Mari Gutierrez had, once again, turned in her paper.
Dr. Slagel was teaching American History for the 30th straight year and had been at the school when ‘students cared’. But the population changed. Families moved out, fathers moved on, and the kids were left to fend for themselves in a world that was ever more demanding.
Mari, named after Christ’s virgin mother, sat in the back, learning facts of her nation’s past. She learned about the pilgrims, the bill of rights, the western march of statehood; but she also noted the rising population of her fellow Hispanics. She turned these findings into a paper about how it was her people that were the modern embodiment of the American Dream.
She argued that while it used to be the Italians, Dutch, and Germans, it was now Hispanics doing manual labor and cooking meals, sans social security numbers, that were making America great. And Mari felt they belonged.
Which made Dr. Slagel and her derogatory remarks extra-demeaning. Dr. Slagel called ‘illegals’ them. She said they were taking jobs that ‘we’ should have. ‘They’ were ‘hurting America’. In her notes, next to each of the Dr.’s opinions, Mari would write the name of an uncle: Jose, Miguel, Eduardo.
Miguel, working sixty hours a week at a restaurant, sleeping on a small mattress in a tiny room, sending the bulk of his money to his family in Mexico, subsisting mostly on extra staff meals left at the end of the night.
They worked at places the Dr. would frequent. If she spilled coffee, it was Mari’s uncles that would clean it up. And they couldn’t complain because they weren’t technically allowed to be there. Complaints could mean deportation, and then what would happen to their children?
Mari was legal. Her mom snuck across the border while she was pregnant, earning Mari a social security card, and making her the promise of a family.
Fitting for her namesake.
So when Dr. Slagel ranted, again, a week before an election, about how the class should vote for someone who would look out for the sake of ‘real Americans’, Mari knew she had to speak up. The phrase kept Mari up the whole night. For what is a ‘real American’? A social security card? A birth certificate? Or, is it someone doing what people here had always done: attempting to make the best life possible free of injustice.
After the bell rang, when the other students were leaving, Mari walked up to Dr. Slagel, stood awkwardly waiting to be noticed.
“Mari,” Dr. Slagel said, “can I help you?”
Mustering all the strength she had, she looked her teacher in the eye and said, “Dr. Slagel your family started out as immigrants, too.”