The Smiling Mexican Girl

I started a long blog post about one of my students and her father who came to Oklahoma from Mexico and the only English word he knew was “wetback.” He heard that word a lot at first, but overcame the odds and now owns his own business in Oklahoma City. But the more I wrote, the more it felt like I’d already written that story here. Just to finish a summary I already started there, the girl explained that the reason she always smiles is because of an early memory of a Christmas when she knew her parents had no extra money, but her dad went out and bought her a toy from a dollar store so she would have a gift on Christmas morning.

That smile. This young lady is truly one of the sweetest human beings you could ever hope to meet. She literally cannot hold a conversation with anyone without smiling. No matter your mood, she makes you feel happier with that smile her dad gave her so many Christmases ago.

She’s a senior, and the school year has slipped down to less than a dozen days left. I wanted to let her know how much I’ve appreciated her positive attitude in class, so I called her out to the hall and told her.

She cried.

I didn’t expect that. She hugged me and I patted her back, then started asking her about college. She’d told me some of her college plans already, but at this point I just wanted to get her talking again.

She’ll be attending a good school, but it wasn’t her first choice. Her first choice is beyond her means because of her citizenship status. She didn’t choose to come here illegally. She grew up in this country, in this state, and this is the only home she knows. And yet she can’t get into college at in-state tuition prices. She’s lucky, though, that she has other means to further her education and achieve the career goals she wants.

The same wasn’t true for another Mexican girl I had in class a few years ago. I had that one in class for two years, and for a year and a half she was the kind of student who would argue for a higher grade if she scored a 98 on an essay. Then she learned there was no way she would be able to attend college. The drive was gone.

I don’t know if it’s better or worse for my Hispanic boys. Most of them don’t even entertain dreams of college. They graduate and enter the work force, likely facing several decades of manual labor despite any other abilities they might have developed with more nurturing.

There’s no doubt our border with Mexico needs to be secured. The idea of sending all the illegal immigrants back across the Rio Grande is ridiculous and likely impossible and, honestly, we would be losing a lot of good people who want to work hard, raise families, and live the American dream the way it used to be. Our politicians need to put aside their posturing and clinging to extremist ideas that won’t work and come up with a plan that will allow these young people who have grown up in America to really be Americans.

I would challenge any of them to meet my student, to face her smile, and tell her she hasn’t earned the same opportunity as her American-born classmates who already have police records, come to school high, and are only there at all so Mama can get her welfare check.

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