The phone rang at 6:30 this morning. I knew who it was. There’s only one person who calls me this early. My student, former student, who is currently working as a seasonal, migrant worker at a food processing plant in Wisconsin. I’ve known him since he was 13. He’s 19 now. I taught him for two years when he was in middle school. Then he was sent to live with relatives in Mexico.
I’ve been getting phone calls like this now for years. From Mexico and LA and now from Wisconsin. For a few years it was only every few months. He’d walk for miles at night to the only pay phone in town. It has always been this way for us. He reaches out when he’s angry, hurt, and worried that he is about to become violent against somebody – either himself or another.
Life for him is not easy…it never has been. And he wants so much more. The full story of how I became his crisis hotline is much too long for this one post…but, what prompted today’s call is important.
I plan to put him through college. I’ve known this for years. He’s known it for a few months. We talked about it recently while he was back in LA a little while back and I let him know he had options. He didn’t have to go to Wisconsin with his grandfather to work in the factory this summer/fall, to pick the pieces of rat and frog from the beans. (Yes, his main job is picking out the pieces of cut up rats and frogs from the conveyor belt before the beans move to the next phase of cleaning and end up in the cans we buy at the store. Eww! That’s how I responded when he first told me. Now we joke about it. Eww! is what we say every time we talk.)
He’s about at the end of his rope today…so frustrated…at the system, the 14 hr. a day shifts he works, the falseness of the employer, the way Mexicans are treated, they way he feels beat up and abused (asked to do more than possibly can be done, more than is asked of others), the government, everything and everyone who is not kind. He’s the guy that a lot of people would pass up standing in front of the Home Depot…He’s the guy that a lot of people would dismiss.
He’s also the guy fighting to follow his dreams of going to college and studying psychology. He loves to think. For a guy who only spent a few years learning English in California during his early adolescence, our conversations are amazing! He’s fighting the internal battle of knowing that everything in his upbringing is telling him to give his hard-earned money to his grandfather, his struggling uncle, his brother without US citizenship, etc. He laments how little will be left for himself. Then he talks about the privilege he has because he carries a US passport and what that means he must do for his brother.
He wants to make it on his own…maybe with a little help. But, today he blew me away. Toward the end of our conversation he asked me if my offer was still good (to help him with college) even if it took him awhile to get there. You see, even though he called me this morning to help him find a way to not give up on life…by the end of the conversation he was still putting his family’s needs first and not seeing college as an immediate possibility. He wants it…but he can’t give it to himself yet.
Now here’s where my need to check my privilege comes in. I’m sitting in my comfortable home, knowing that I’m trying to offer him a way into my own middle class life. He’s outside the bunkhouse, knowing that he simply cannot walk away from his sense of familial obligation. We talk about the tension: his life’s dreams vs. his family’s expectations, individualism vs. communalism, capitalism and exploitation, cynicism and hope. It would be so easy, so easy to judge his choices…to say that he’s being stupid for wasting his time working in that factory, to say that he could offer so much more to his family with college under his belt.
Witnessing has made me know better.
We talk, and I share my frustrations. We talk, and he shares his. We talk, and I have to check my cultural and class-based arrogance that would argue with him. We talk, and I have to respect his process. We talk, and he is heard, and seen, and valued.
And I’m glad we talked. At least I know he won’t give up on life today. And because he doesn’t, neither do I.