The Denver Post, February 7th, 2014
I teach seventh- and eighth-graders English and language arts in a small town in the middle of big mountains. Some students really like me. Some students really don’t. Some students love English; some do not.
My students all wonder why I hate them so much that I make them do crazy things like rewrite papers, make up missed homework and quizzes during recess, and be nice to each other. Sometimes I do even crazier things, like asking them to think harder.
Sometimes we look closely at little things, like commas and apostrophes. Other times we talk about big things: commercialism, poetry, ignorance, Anne Frank. Some lessons work; some don’t. We all do a little compromising as we figure out that maybe we could do more than just survive the year, maybe we could thrive. My students learn (sometimes despite me), and grow, and go to high school.
I once had some free time with these kids (yes, I am 100 percent sure that eighth-graders are still kids), and we decided to look at Google Earth. High-definition pictures of the entire planet were laid out before us. Fingertips with nails painted, chewed, clean and dirty took turns double-clicking to find the world.
They asked me where we were. We found the school.
They asked me where I grew up. We found my old house in Virginia.
They asked me where “The O.C.” was. We found Hollywood.
I asked them where they were from. We found Kansas City, Austin, San Diego.
Then I asked again, and we found the border. We found some small farms in Tiajuana. That’s my aunt’s house! That’s the town where we go in the summer. That’s my grandpa’s ranch. That’s where my dad lives. My sister, my cousin, my mom, my brother.
One girl asked for the mouse and found her grandma’s house in a grainy, brown, scruffy world, and described it in detail. In the middle of the desert, hot, high up, great sunsets, goats and chickens, a swimming pool, a veranda where she had her eighth birthday party, tall columns, green curtains, her stupid cousins.
Then she scrolled down.
“Oh, that’s the canyon where they go to dump the bodies.”
“Yeah, and you see this road?”
“Yeah. One night my dad made us play a game where he pulled the truck over into the ditch and we all had to hide under it. Yeah, right there. He kept making these little jokes, but then telling us we would lose the game if we laughed, so we had to stuff our sleeves in our mouths.”
“Later, I heard my mom saying it was because the drug people were driving by with dead bodies of the other gang to dump, and they would kill us if we saw them.”
Quite a few students nodded.
We went back to clicking, looking for favorite vacation destinations, swimming holes and world monuments.
But I kept seeing the grainy, brown-gray, satellite image showing the scrubby vegetation of that canyon: a harsh land with no shadows. An image of the place where a father hid his children, his little girls, from heartless men and their violence. He played a game with them under a truck because he refused to let them lose their childhoods.
Later, when he could, he hid them from violence again by coming here. Where they can be in my class. Where they can sleep safely, and be loved by their family. Where they can survive and maybe thrive.
Where would you hide your family?