Making young immigrants feel at home

excerpt from Maine Voices (Teddy Valencia)

October 2, 2016


Teddy Valencia is a teacher at Riverton Elementary School in Portland.

I was quite moved by Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana’s recent public statement reaffirming the Portland Public Schools’ commitment to inclusiveness for all students. He also shared his desire that we effectively address students’ concerns and fears resulting from the current negative political discourse and use it as a learning opportunity.

His words inspire me to share the story of my own Mexican heritage and also some conversations with students I’ve had as a teacher. It has meant the world to me to teach at Riverton Elementary School, a multi-racial, multi-ethnic school.

Growing up, my role model was my father, who is still a constant inspiration to me. He was the son of Mexican immigrants, and his family came to El Paso, Texas, where I was born.

My father never forgot those who offered him his opportunities, and he welcomed the opportunity to give back to his country. That is why, during World War II, he enlisted and became a paratrooper in the Army. He served in a plane full of Hispanics because, even while they were fighting for America, they were still segregated. During his service, he was badly injured and was later awarded a Purple Heart.

Later, as a high school teacher and coach, Bampa helped anyone who needed it, from Ethiopian and Sudanese refugees in the area, to many of his poverty-stricken students. In spite of his love and respect for humanity, and his commitment to our country, he was often the subject of racial discrimination.

I started my career in El Paso teaching Mexican immigrants. When border tensions became too fierce for comfort, we moved to a small town in New Hampshire. My students were meeting their first Mexican American ever!

After 25 years, I moved to Portland to be close to my grown children and granddaughters. When I was offered the opportunity to work at Riverton – my dream school, where both my son and daughter worked over a span of 22 years – I jumped at the chance.

This past year, I had a class at Riverton that was beyond all other classes in that these young people taught me just as much as I taught them.

With my father in mind, I tried to teach my students that everyone is equal. In an effort to shield them, I used metaphors like the color of eyes and socks to get the point across.

It was not long before my students told me to “get real.” The reality was that they had already been watching the news and hearing what was going on in the early presidential campaign.

Many of my students, and even their younger siblings, had been going to peaceful protests with their families at Monument Square to stand up for their Muslim community. Until then, I did not realize how involved they were in this conversation.

People might say that elementary students are too young to be involved in politics, but they hear everything and understand more than we give them credit for. It was painful for me to hear, and to see, their concerns about being deported or not being able to have family members join them here in America.

I made sure that every day we set aside some time to talk about what they had heard and experienced. This daily discussion was led by three outspoken and wonderful students in the class. The trust they placed in me made me realize that they looked up to adults for reassurance, love and for their fears to be soothed.

They shared their life stories in graphic detail. The uncertainty and upheaval in their lives, and families, was heartbreaking. I was amazed that they came to school every day to participate and learn.

Each year, teachers ask students to listen to adults. But for me, this past school year was unique. My students were quoting and discussing comments made in the presidential campaign, and they were truly frightened by the negative, anti-immigrant comments they heard.

Here is my plea. Not only do these students have to deal with the struggles of simply being children, but they also have to absorb what is happening in their home countries. My hope is that everyone will join the Portland Public Schools and the city of Portland in trying to make everyone feel at home by starting, and participating in, conversations. After all, in America, the majority of us are all immigrants or the descendants of immigrants.

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