The Immigrant Teacher

My sister has been on my mind all day. It’s not surprising given we had one of our two-hour long conversations this morning. I called her, not that I need a reason to call her, because today is Teacher’s Day, and while I am loath to celebrate any religious holiday, I am fine with the holidays that commemorate people, independence and fundamentals. This one is celebrated in observance of the birthday of the second president of India, Dr.Radhakrishnan, who was a professor of comparative religion and philosophy for decades. I am fine with holidays like these and I am especially fine with this one because not only am I one of those “teachers are heroes” people but also because my sister, is a teacher.

She’s very passionate about what she does and if anyone is of the belief that teachers don’t do enough work, they should just take a look at her daily schedule. She’s a special needs educator of preschoolers and her work-life looks like an investment bankers. When the pandemic hit and the schools went into lockdown, she immediately made need-specific art and activity packages for each one of her students and had them sent to them because a lot of them are from low income families and have specific needs. She makes clay toys for students who respond well to those in the shapes of all kinds of shapes and sizes. When the murder of George Floyd caused protests she sent out packages on how to talk to your toddlers about race in a healthy and growth-oriented way. When their funding was cut she scoured Goodwill and every garage in the city to find ways to get the students everything they needed with her own money. She keeps detailed folders on each one of her students recording their progress and growth from the smallest things to the biggest. She changes diapers and makes up toilet-training games. Her job is insane to me. I don’t have a single thing to say to a three year old. She couldn’t have enough things. More to some than other, because I have inside information now, and yes, teachers do have fucking favourites! I knew it.

When she first moved to the the United States of America, she did so because she believed that was where she would get the education she truly wanted. That’s where she would be able to have the kind of schooling system budget and structure that would allow her to genuinely work with children who had developmental disabilities and learning disabilities. She believed she was making the right choice despite the educational loan that could buy her a house here. She attended a SpEd course here but she was in love with the university she eventually went to a lot before she went. I don’t quite understand that, personally, I have never had a dream university but dream-subjects I wanted to study. She wanted that university. She moved. She got her graduate degree and it was everything she could have every imagined. Her inner-nerd was so consumed for those two years that she had one disastrous 1-month relationship after another. Ultimately she just started sleeping with her roommate and now they’ve been together for a couple of years and it turns out my “cannot-really-multiply” sister is best suited for a mathematician. Who could have guessed.

Over the years living away, she grew more professionally accomplished, she’s been gone almost five years now, she also grew more mousey. She became more reserved. Less likely to make friends or go out. With each passing year she grew more and more stressed. Every six months there’s a dagger looming over her head — visas, contracts, people asking if she can speak English — she lives in this constant state of unknowablility and over the last year she, along with many other immigrants, has lived with this uncertainty of her legal status hanging over her like a guillotine. Her life is there now. Her boyfriend who is also an immigrant from a different country, is there. Their home is there. Their cat. Her students. She pays taxes there. Yet she fumbles in calling it home because with each passing day she feels less and less entitled to the space she occupies there. She feels scared to speak up when she’s treated unfairly by parents, the administration or just random people who feel it is okay to talk down to a person of a different race. She never calls racism if it affects only her personally because deep inside she doesn’t feel like it will end well. She believes, with example, that ultimately she’ll be told to go back to where she came from if she didn’t like it somewhere.

In her place, maybe I would. I can’t move out of my country because I feel already committed and attached to my causes here, I don’t think I would be able to feel as rightfully motivated elsewhere. She did. She wasn’t geographically limited by what she wanted to do in the world. She decided to do it elsewhere and somehow the mere act of legally coming from somewhere else in the world made her feel like less of a person. She does things to deal with it. She and her boyfriend make plans to move elsewhere in the future. They take up hobbies like kayaking and watch documentaries about cults and crazy people. She keeps making her toys. She makes bakeries and farmers’ markets in miniaturist detail and sets them upon her mantle. A world small enough to take with her wherever she goes whenever she knows that she has to go. A world of her own. Entirely in her control. She talks to her therapist about this uncertainty and deals with her anxiety about it.

She does all that because she loves her kids and the school where she teaches. She loves them. She loves teaching them. She loves when one of them tells her a story. She loves when they are aghast at the idea that she has an actual home and doesn’t just live at school. She loves their squabbles with one another. She talks about them constantly. She thinks about them constantly. She loves everything she does.

In a few days my sister, the preschool teacher, will don a doctor’s armour and go teach two classrooms of three to four year olds who absolutely do not understand the concept of social distancing or pandemics. She has no choice but to quit her job if she doesn’t want to do that. She would never do that. So she talks to me instead about the sanitation practises that she will follow and how she will teach the kids about masks. She wrote a little story about an owl and his mask or something. She talks about how she will just sanitize for the second batch on the lunch break because there is no time allotted for that. She makes jokes about socially-distant diaper changing and how that may be achieved. She’s worried but she’s weirdly excited. She’s nuts. She says to me all the things she wouldn’t say to her directors and administrators because she doesn’t feel she had the right to complain because they might take away her right to live in her home. She has already had to fight for that so many times.

Instead she buys materials and protective equipments, she prepares materials for in-person learning and separate ones for the online classes she also has to take. She makes her toys. She does her job with excitement and joy even as she’s reminded repeatedly that she may not have the right to her life or job. She laughs off teaching in person in the midst of a pandemic and says she’s so happy to see her kids again. I worry but I don’t say that because I respect her so damn much for what she does. For what she’s doing. Instead I tell her everything will be okay.

But I need someone to please tell me, will it?

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