I knew this child. In my heart, this child was mine. In my 22 years of teaching English as a second language in Takoma Park, I loved them all. I can imagine this child, Jakelin Caal — who died a few weeks ago in the custody of the U.S. Border Patrol — visualizing her as a beautiful little girl, with long dark hair worn like my granddaughter Luna’s. Her 7-year-old smile would be like my granddaughter Sara’s, revealing a missing baby tooth.
In my dreams, Jakelin would be in my second-grade class of newly arrived students. The first days of school, she would arrive shy and frightened, but after a few weeks would blossom into a happy learner. Soon she would come to school each day with a confident look, bursting into my classroom to show me her homework. The work would be carefully done, words she was learning, correctly written on lined paper in a row with little drawings to show me that she knew their meaning.
Then, there would be the sentences to follow, using the new words in her best handwriting. She would be well-prepared for our daily quiz. Papers with smiley faces, taped to the classroom wall by me, would grow in quantity until there was little space left to hang them.
Some fun would begin with songs all of us loved: “Shoes and Socks” to work on pronunciation. “I Like Bananas” to grow our vocabulary and to bring smiles to each student who could name a fruit that none of us previously thought of. Jakelin would probably offer “strawberries,” thinking of the fields of fruit her family harvested in Guatemala. “The Hokey Pokey” would give us a chance to move our bodies and laugh and get some exercise before returning to classrooms.
Perhaps at the end of the day, Papi would come by to pick up Jakelin and her face would brighten as she would run into his arms. Sometimes, it would be Mami’s turn and she would arrive carrying Jakelin’s little sister. Mami would always be delighted to share baby sister’s hug with me.
Oh, what a precious job it was to be the welcomer of these new arrivals.
While there were always challenges, most problems had a way of getting resolved: A little help to office staff to make sure that free lunch forms were sent in. A few calls to help families sign and send back permission slips for field trips. Some health issues to follow up on and of course, there could be behavior problems. Some suggestions and materials to classroom teachers overwhelmed with students not speaking English and how to keep these children productive during the day.
But Jakelin would have been one of the many students who would have been well-behaved and motivated. Her parents, although not educated themselves, inculcated how important her education was.
I never asked any of my students about their journeys to get here, nor did many bring up their experiences. However, one of my Cambodian children did tell me, in words I will never forget: “Mama no eat, die.” These words haunt me to this day. I could only hug this child and remember my own pain of losing loved ones. I learned from my students that the human spirit is resilient. If we could sing and dance together, the world could be a beautiful place.
I am weeping for Jakelin Caal, who sadly died at the border and never had an opportunity to be in my class. JN
Joyce Sperling is a retired teacher of English to speakers of other languages for Montgomery County Public Schools.