The words rang loud and clear and pierced through to the heart…
“Go back where you came from!”
It’s the first week in August of 1986 and my first year as a classroom teacher. I was assigned a 5th/6th grade split and happy to have the job. Even though I had been a substitute teacher for several months during the previous school year I had no idea what it would be like to be the leader and at the helm in my own classroom.
I’d imagined an idealistic setting where everyone loved to read and learn. I would begin the new school year the way I had taught school to my stuffed animals as a child. They each sat attentively and waited patiently for my direction and instructions. Before the week was out my real life, human students were unkind to one another to the point where I finally I had to stop teaching my lesson to address the issue.
“What’s going on here?” I asked in a serious and authoritative tone.
“They’re telling us to go back where we came from,” came a voice I couldn’t recognize.
I feigned ignorance to get closer to them.
“You mean like go back to the play yard or the lunch area?”
They ignored my feeble attempt at humor and proceeded to school me.
“No, Mrs. Green, like go back to our country.”
I stood perfectly still and looked down at the linoleum floor. The silence was deafening as I chose to wait them out. It was a skill I had learned while selling new and used Toyota’s the previous summer. The first one who speaks, loses. It would not, could not be me. Not this time when the stakes were so high.
A little voice spoke up from the back of the room. In broken English Olivia took a tiny step forward and our eyes met.
“They think we are not better and we must go back to our home country.” Her voice was shaky and I focused on maintaining my composure.
“What country are you from, Olivia?”
“I come from El Salvador.” She stood up a little straighter and her voice deepened.
“I come from El Salvador also, Mrs. Green.”
It was Mario. He was proud of his heritage and it showed in his smile.
I took a long stride forward into the center of the classroom and addressed them. I focused on making eye contact while I spoke and turned my body slowly from right to left to see everyone.
“My family is from England and Ireland and Austria. Those countries are in Europe. I haven’t been there and I don’t know anyone there, but that is where my people come from. I was born in America; in Burbank, about a half hour car ride from here.
Two of my girls loudly whispered that they knew where Burbank was.
I smiled a confident smile. They were talking about this sensitive subject. With me. Please, God don’t let anyone from the office or another class come to our classroom right now. I need this time with my students.
“Who else wants to share where they are from, or where your family came from?”
Hands raised. Murmurs from the back of the room moving towards me like an ocean wave dancing in to the shore. The serious tone has lifted. I glance at the clock to make sure we have enough time to hear everyone. These are children who have not been heard during their short lives and this is their moment.
They were from Mexico and the Philippines and Armenia and India and Guatemala and Yugoslavia.
Dustin raises his hand. I nod to acknowledge him. “My father was born in France.”
“Have you visited there?”
“No, but I want to. I want to meet my grandmother and my cousins.”
I let a full minute pass before speaking. The kids are shifting and rocking back and forth from their right feet to their left. I am cautiously optimistic we will make more progress before this moment passes.
“So it seems like nobody is really from here — America. Even for those of us born here, like me and Lisa and Roberto, we all have parents or grandparents who were born somewhere else. So should we all go back to where we came from?”
This is a bold statement on my part and one that requires time to absorb. No one will make eye contact with me. Another half minute passes.
“Wait, I have a thought. The only people who are truly from the United States are the native American Indians. Does anyone here have Indian blood coursing through their veins?”
Some of the girls grimace when I mention blood. And before I can say another word a small, blonde-haired, blue eyed boy steps forward.
“My Mom is one-half Navajo Indian. She was born on the reservation in Arizona and lived there until she married my Dad and had me and my little brother.”
He stands tall and proud, looking straight ahead at some point on the wall and prepared for what anyone might say. I catch him glancing over at me to read my face for a reaction.
“Aaron, you can stay. Do we all agree that Aaron has the right to stay here because he is from America?”
Everyone speaks at once. Yes, they understand this line of thinking. One of the boys steps forward to shake Aaron’s hand and another boy slaps him gently on the back.
“So, Aaron, what do you think? Should the rest of us all go back to where we came from or where our family came from? Is that the right thing to do?”
Without hesitation he faces his classmates and says,
“Everyone should stay. America is where we stay and belong.”
My eyes welled up but I kept it together to see this moment through. The kids took their seats, I went on with the math lesson, and then we ended for the day. There was no more discussion of what we had talked about and everyone appeared to be getting along, at least as much as I could see from my adult perspective.
I wish I could tell you there were no more confrontations or clashes that school year around race or ethnicity or religion, or socioeconomic status or anything else, but that would not be the truth. Our school represented a microcosm of our country and we all saw and heard much that school year.
Remind to tell you about the time I broke up a nasty fist fight between two boys, one black and one Puerto Rican. That ended with the three of us reciting the Lord’s Prayer right outside of the classroom while the other students worked on their algebra assignment. Hard to believe I lasted as an employee with the school district for nineteen more years before resigning to become an entrepreneur.
I’m Connie Ragen Green, former classroom teacher turned author, publisher, and entrepreneur. Please allow me to serve you in any way that makes sense for your lifestyle design and goals.