On the evening of Mother’s Day, I stood gazing proudly at my sixty-four square feet of raised garden.
I love each plant: the green leafy broccolini, the heart-leafed French radishes, the purple-veined Russian kale, the climbing sweet peas, the glossy spinach and butterhead lettuce, the flowering yellow blossoms of the slender mustard greens, the clustered tender beet shoots, the open palms of the purple cabbage. Every afternoon, after I battle teenagers and bureaucracy all day, I greet my wife and my daughter and then slip out into the backyard to tend these vegetables, some of which I planted in mid-March. Every afternoon, I water each square by hand; I examine each leaf. Meredith teases me that most of the time, when she glances out the window, I’m just standing back there and staring at the garden, not doing anything. It’s true. I’m successful here, in this perfect 4 x 16 rectangle of sixty-four squares. I plant seeds in perfect soil (one-third peat moss, one-third compost, one-third vermiculite); I water; I watch the plants emerge and grow. It’s quite different from teaching, where I have no control over the soil and cannot always provide the right kind of water or sunlight. In the garden, my labor has direct, predictable results. Not so in my classroom. All day at work, I clench my teeth, but in the afternoon, I begin to relax. I touch the sun-warmed soil, and I breathe.
But then, at noon on the day after Mother’s Day, I half-listened to student presentations in my classroom as thunder boomed in a black sky. The students, trying to remain polite, looked nervously out the windows, probably thinking of their exposed cars in the parking lot. This time of year, Colorado thunderstorms usually bring hail, and sometimes that hail is frighteningly destructive. At the front of the room, Stephanie was talking about advances in medical technology, and we all nodded encouragingly, but the students thought about their cars—and I worried about my beloved plants.
The weather person had warned me on the radio that morning when I was halfway to school: thunderstorms this afternoon, with possible hail. I considered turning around. In ten minutes, I could have rushed to the garden shed, grabbed the PVC pipe and the floating covers, protected those tender shoots. Or I could have grabbed mixing bowls and large plastic pots and set them upside down over as many plants as possible. I considered, nearly veering onto the next exit off of I-25, but the twenty-four papers waiting on my desk to be graded pulled me north. My plants would be fine. The chances that they would be hurt by hail were slim. After all, they had survived a few heavy snows, many nights of frost, a hungry baby rabbit, seed-searching Northern Flickers, and spring winds. A little hail couldn’t defeat them now.
I didn’t even think to worry again until Meredith texted me about the “crazy” hailstorm that day that had backed up traffic and caused accidents and actually forced the city to pull the snowplows out of the garages. She was glad to be home, she said. I couldn’t ask about the plants. Instead, I endured my seventh-period class, twenty-nine seniors as burned out with school as eighteen-year-olds can be, irritated that I am still making them do work this close to graduation day.
On the drive home, I remembered my first spring in Colorado, when Mitike was four. It was the first week of June, we had just fled Alaska, and I was desperate to find some tangible joy. I loaded Mitike into our new used Subaru, and we drove to the nearest greenhouse, where we bought the sweetest profusion of pansies and herbs and vegetables. All afternoon, we worked with our spades (Mitike’s was purple) to turn and amend and plant the raised boxes and the large garden in our new Fort Collins backyard. Finished, we stood back and admired the little green leaves waving in the breeze, transplanted like the two of us, ready to thrive.
The hail that day came unannounced, in a wild rush of freezing wind and black sky, while the two of us ate dinner at our little table. “Oh, no, Mommy! The little plants!” Mitike cried, and we ran to the back door just in time to watch marble-sized ice balls rip our transplants to tiny shreds and then flatten the pieces cruelly into the cultivated soil. Both of us stood and sobbed, our noses pressed against the back door’s cold glass window.
That was almost exactly seven years ago. Now, driving home in sunshine (Colorado’s weather changes that quickly) after the booming noontime storm, I told myself such hail destruction couldn’t possibly happen twice to the same gardener.
Meredith met me on the porch of our house and gestured toward the irises and black-eyed susans and coneflowers in the front bed. “They’re fine, aren’t they? They’ll bounce back.” I kissed her and surveyed the torn leaves, the battered look of the plants as if some large creature had laid down on them. These were plants native to Colorado, hardy enough to survive hail. They would be fine.
Together, Meredith and I walked through the house to the backyard, to the vegetable garden, Mitike and Fable close behind.
At the edge of the box, we stopped and gaped.
The damage was horrific, far worse than the hailstorm seven years ago. The plants I had been nurturing for two months had been flattened, beaten, stripped, broken—decimated. The hail, apparently the size of the peas I had so lovingly planted two months before, had pounded most of the leaf and stem fragments into the soil. A pea vine clung to its orange twine lead like some gruesome execution. The bared broccolini stalks pointed accusingly at the sky. No plant had escaped damage. The feathery tendrils of the asparagus lay listless beside a flattened and uprooted tomato plant. The sunflower shoots were ripped and torn, pieces hanging like severed limbs.
Meredith and Mitike watched me warily. The source of my calm destroyed, I could dissolve, or panic, or rage. They had seen all three. Mitike leaned toward the nearest broken, teetering red cabbage plant and murmured, “You’re okay. You’ll be okay! Just be strong.” Of course she was actually talking to me. That evening seven years ago, I said we were both sobbing, but that’s not true. I was sobbing about what (and whom) we’d left behind in Alaska, and she, only four, burst into tears because her mommy did not know what to do with all the grief. I’ve tried to be strong for her most of the time, but sometimes the hail damage has just been too egregious.
On this day, though, in the sunshine, a wiser Sarah than the one seven years ago, I felt not grief but acceptance. This happens. Hail. Wind. Death. Heartbreak. In the garden, the fragments of lettuce leaf and broccolini bud become compost for the next seeds. Maybe the beets will revive themselves from this flattened state, and maybe the pea shoots will climb out of this, or maybe not. In a week, I’ll pull out browning stems and replant. In three weeks, I’ll have a lush garden again, just in time for another hailstorm. And then I’ll replant again. I can be as stubborn as I am tender.
Later that night, I retrieved my scissors from the garden shed and began to chop away at the battered lettuce heads, the torn spinach, the shredded kale. They might grow new leaves, and pruning gives them the energy to try.
If only I could learn to approach a failed lesson plan or a rejected manuscript in the same way. Start over, start over. There are many more days of sun than hail.
The other day, as my wife and I drove north on Interstate 25 in our Mazda CX5 with our eleven-year-old daughter, Mitike, and our dog, Fable, in the backseat, I thought, “Why not get rid of all these safety features in our car?”
I mean, really, our car would have been so much cheaper without all these gratuitous extras—without the blindspot monitoring, without the brake assist or the traction control, without the air bags or the rearview mirrors or the windshield wipers or the daytime running lights. And if Mazda hadn’t been mandated to install seatbelts or spend its resources on IIHS or NHTSA safety tests, this car would be far more fun to drive.
I glanced in the unnecessary rearview mirror at Mitike, who bent over a book. What kind of world are we promising future drivers like her? All these regulations! These superfluous rules, like properly registering a vehicle, or paying for insurance on it, or passing vision and knowledge tests to get a license to drive. Fettered by decades of rules, we cannot enjoy driving. Someday, the government will probably just take away this right all together, and we will all be forced to take the public bus system.
“What are you writing?”
“I’m tired. Another school shooting, and no one’s going to do anything. I’m resorting to sarcasm.”
“But you’re not writing about guns.”
“Yes, I am. If guns could be regulated like cars are, we’d have far fewer deaths. Did you know that when states started requiring people to get driver’s licenses in the 1930s, they dramatically reduced accidents on the roads? And that after most states started requiring seatbelts in the 1990s, people’s injuries in car accidents decreased by half? And that when car companies started putting in air bags in the late 1990s, they reduced the mortality rate by 63 percent? A few rules, and we’re safer. I’m trying to argue that—”
“Mom, let me try.”
“Let me write your column this month.”
“Would you mind?”
Stop This NOW! A Guest Column by Mitike Iris Campbell, Age Eleven
Why do you keep letting this happen? You grown-ups are exasperating sometimes. You would not hesitate to protect your children and your family, but you hesitate at this, at choosing the safety of your family over your precious guns? The Second Amendment reads, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This does not mean that everyone just has the right to bear arms. It means we have the right to bear them in a well-regulated way. Technology like guns is always advancing, so laws must always be made and changed to protect us. Children are losing lives they have only just begun. Our future is being destroyed by your inaction here and now. Decide. Unregulated guns or continued tragedy? Danger or safety? Violence or peace? Injustice or justice? Death or life? Hatred or love? Please remember that the choices you make will affect the future as well as the present.
A question-and-answer session with the guest columnist, Mitike, who is in fifth grade and loves reading fantasy novels, considering fashion styles, playing volleyball, and relaxing with her family.
SHC: So, Mitike, why do you think school shootings are happening?
MIC: Because of guns.
SHC: Does hearing about a tragedy like the one in Florida make you feel afraid?
MIC: Yes, it does when I think about it, but most of the time I’m so focused on my work, I don’t think about it.
SHC: What does your school do to prepare for emergencies?
MIC: We do lock-downs, lock-outs. In art class, we do a lock-down drill in the kiln room. And we do have talks about this kind of thing a lot. They talk about what is appropriate and what is inappropriate to bring to school, and how you should report it if you see anyone with anything unsafe.
SHC: What’s an example of something that is inappropriate to bring to school?
MIC: Guns, knives, swords. I don’t know if swords really exist, but, you know. Daggers, bombs, but they don’t really talk about those. That’s mostly it.
SHC: What would you say to someone who says that if we allow the government to regulate guns more, the government will take them all away?
MIC: Well, it’s not necessarily a bad thing if they do. If that’s the only way they see fit to keep us safe, then it’s probably a good choice.
SHC: Like what Australia did?
MIC: Yes, I think that’s great. They’re having a fine time down there—except they do have lots of poisonous animals threatening their population, instead.
SHC: What do you think of the idea of requiring licenses for everyone who owns a gun, as a place to start?
MIC: I think that is a good idea because if we had that, then we’d be able to trust that we lived in a little bit safer country, and a little bit safer schools. Kids should not have to worry that we’re going to die.
SHC: What are some other things you worry about?
MIC: Well … I hate snakes, komodo dragons, snakes in a pit, snakes chasing me on top of a cart that wants to run me over, finding out my house is on fire in the middle of the night and not being able to run away, losing my dog. I’m worried my cousins will get me in trouble. I worry that my cousin Ryland will break his head open because he’s not being careful. I worry about doing terribly on tests. I worry that I’m not getting enough information from the books my teacher wants me to read. I worry about forgetting my homework.
SHC: Wow, that’s a lot of worries. What would a peaceful life look like for you, then?
MIC: It would be a life where I would only worry about little things I have no control over, not about my life being threatened. Not in school, anyway, where I’m trying to learn.
NOTE: Call your senators now. Tell them to support the assault weapon ban and to push legislation that requires strict licensing and regulation of guns. Donate to and join Moms Demand Action. Please. Let’s allow our kids to worry about poisonous snakes, instead.
Trump, in a speech on Friday, February 23, 2018, to the Conservative Political Action Committee in Washington, D.C.:
“Well-trained, gun-adept teachers and coaches [should carry firearms in schools]. I mean, I don’t want to have a hundred guards with rifles standing all over the school. You do a concealed carry permit. This would be a major deterrent, because these people are inherently cowards.”
Saturday, February 24, 2018, Trump tweet:
“Armed Educators (and trusted people who work within a school) love our students and will protect them. Very smart people. Must be firearms adept & have annual training. Should get yearly bonus. Shootings will not happen again — a big & very inexpensive deterrent. Up to States.”
It’s March 24, 2020.
In Denver, Colorado, a certain English teacher with streaks of silver in her brown hair completes her final “Armed Educator Training,” which her school district has mandated for all educators, in compliance with SB1999 passed after Colorado endured another mass shooting, this time in a Colorado Springs high school in May of 2019. This time, nearly fifty students and educators died. This time, finally, enough Colorado legislators stood up to demand alternatives. Thus “Armed Educator Training”: six courses all K–12 teachers are required to complete before the end of this 2020 school year. Former military personnel or teachers who can demonstrate similar arms certifications are exempt if they complete the appropriate paperwork. Upon completion of the six courses of the Armed Educator Training, each K–12 teacher receives a standard-issue M&P 9, with a Picatinny rail under the muzzle. On this day, March 24, 2020, a stern army colonel with wire spectacles perched on her nose hands this English teacher her M&P 9. The English teacher holds the gun on the palms of her hands and does not look away.
Behind her, a kindergarten teacher breaks into quiet tears as she is handed her gun. A middle school math teacher accepts his grimly. A high school chemistry teacher grabs hers a bit too eagerly. The room is silent. No one says thank you. No one laughs or jokes with each other, as they have been doing in the dreariness of these evening classes and at the shooting range, where learning how to hit the targets felt more like a sporting competition than anything real. But now. They fit the new guns into the blue plastic holsters they have been issued, and they accept the paper certificates that confirm their completion of Armed Educator Training.
At home, the English teacher sits in her car in the driveway for several minutes, trying to grasp this brave new world. She will leave the gun in her glove compartment and transport it to school tomorrow, in the clear plastic bag (all bags and backpacks at her high school must be clear now) that currently holds her students’ research papers, three books she needs to skim to prepare for tomorrow, and various spoons and forks she has neglected to return to her kitchen. She refuses to bring the gun into the house. Not with her child in there. But then she shudders: her child’s teachers all carry guns now, too. Every teacher in Denver is required to, now.
She sits in the driveway, and outside the March wind pummels her car. The car rocks. Mentally, she lists all that she still does not have as a teacher, though she now has a gun:
she does not have whiteboard markers
she does not have the students’ attention, since they are staring at their cellphones
she does not have a key that works in both classrooms in which she teaches
she does not have enough desks for all of her students when all of them attend
she does not have time to use the bathroom
she does not have a printer or a projector that work reliably
she does not have a reasonably sized class
she does not have enough books, or paper, or pencils
she is not paid enough to live in most of the neighborhoods in her city
she does not have adequate healthcare
she does not have regular assistance with her students’ mental health issues
she does not have reassurance that the district has invested adequately in her retirement
she is not paid enough to save for her own child’s college education
But she has a gun. On the passenger seat beside her, the gun in its ridiculous blue plastic holster, inanimate but not innocuous, waits for her to do something with it. She remembers other times she has held and fired a gun: as a child, when her father had reached around her and held the rifle with her so they could point and fire at clay pigeons the machine threw into the air over their cornfield. And she remembers the time in Alaska. In Alaska, where she trained to be a teacher, her program required all urban education students to do a one-week intensive in a rural school. She had flown to Kodiak Island, to a village of fifty, where two teachers led a K–12 school for eighteen students, lived together (though they were not a couple), drank tequila, and shot guns. For the entire week, the teacher had become increasingly dismayed by the ferocity with which the other two teachers wanted to finish the day so they could go shoot guns. Every afternoon, the three of them walked the short distance to the town dump, set up rusty cans on stumps, stepped back, and fired. Bang. Bang. BANG. The teacher wanted to know if they could hike instead. Ha, said the man teacher. Hike? There are Kodiak bears out there. THIS is all there is to do safely here. He lifted his pistol again, a little shakily, since he had been drinking. Bang! The other teacher, the woman, laughed bitterly, examining the pistol she held. Yeah, they say you have to be insane or be running away from something to come out here to teach. I think I’m doing both. She leveled the pistol at the man a moment, and they both laughed crazily. Bang! A tin can exploded in the distance, out by the dump where only the bears and the bald eagles could hear.
Until the mandatory Armed Educator Training, the teacher had not fired a gun since that moment in the Alaska. Some of the teachers in the training had reminded her of those two teachers on Kodiak Island: desperate, fierce, angry. Give me that gun, an eighth grade social studies teacher had said, his teeth gritted. No active shooter will think to bother my classroom, ever.
Now she sits in her car beside the gun, and outside, it has begun to rain: large drops splash rough-edged circles on her windshield, which is cracked. Where is she safe, if not in her classroom? Where is her daughter safe? She thinks of a cartoon she saw once, of a boy on a playground holding a stick. The teachers gathered around him, staring down at him, debating. Should we arm all the other children with sticks? Or should we take away his? The cartoon teachers frowned in their indecision.
The front door of the teacher’s house opens, and her wife steps out, peering through the gray rain. She wraps her sweater around her body and walks out onto the porch, down the two steps, across the driveway. She doesn’t hesitate: she opens the driver’s-side door and grasps the teacher’s hand. Come on, sweet wife, she says. Come inside. She glances at the gun on the passenger-side seat, but mostly she keeps her gaze focused on the teacher.
Shivering suddenly, though she is not cold, the teacher begins to cry. I don’t want this—I just want to teach writing—I hate living in America—I—
Her wife pulls on the hand she holds and guides the teacher out of the car. She shuts the car door, and the car, smart, locks itself with the gun inside.
Dinner’s ready, the teacher’s wife says quietly. Let’s just go inside.
Inside, dinner is already on the table, and the women’s daughter sits waiting, her dark eyes round with concern. The fireplace is on, and the dog greets them, wagging happily, as he does every day. The teacher lets her shoulders relax. Her daughter springs up from the table to hug her, and the dog wedges himself happily between them.
And the teacher gives herself permission, as she does every afternoon, to forget the world outside this one, to forget guns and inept politicians and deep gun lobby pockets that refuse to ban even semi-automatics and bump stocks and fear and students who jump at any loud noise and lockdown drills and lockout drills and the flashing red and blue lights of America.
Her wife locks their front door. Here, by the fire, the three of them settle into their chairs at the dinner table, and the dog stretches out at their feet.
But it is not enough. The teacher knows it: it is not enough.
I love storing the Christmas decorations and the tree downstairs in their respective boxes. I love rifling through all of our drawers and shelves and closets to find all that we no longer use: this year, we donated seven boxes full of toys and clothes to Goodwill. I even love beginning my new classes the second Monday of January. In the cold air, January is new. Clean. Spare. Ready.
Even last January, after a December of sulking and bargaining about Trump’s unprecedented win, I straightened my shoulders and started painting signs for the Women’s March. At night, I madly crocheted Pepto-Bismol-colored hats. December had been darker than usual, but January reminded us that light always returns.
That’s why I’ve begun this January reading two essential books for this time: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. I read the former in those dark early hours before I head to school; the latter, I am reading to Mitike (she no longer needs me to read to her, but she tolerates it, for my sake). Both books have become like holy texts to me in these first days of January.
First, The Handmaid’s Tale, which Atwood published in 1985. The award-winning eponymous Hulu show has revitalized interest in the science fiction story, which details a near future in which the United States becomes a strict theocracy after a supposed terrorist attack that kills the president and the Congress. This theocracy, desperate to provide children for the increasingly infertile upper class, forces fertile women to serve as “handmaids” for the highest-ranking men. It sounds far-fetched in summary, but Offred, the protagonist, constantly reminds us in her storytelling that her loss of her job and daughter and husband and independence happened so rapidly—and so smoothly, orchestrated as it was by people in great power—that her disbelief could barely keep pace with her new reality. The breathless truth of The Handmaid’s Tale is the warning: this could happen, maybe not exactly like this, but with this rapidity, with this blindsiding sharpness.
In the clean light of this January 2018, in the second year of Trump’s presidency, Offred’s tale reminds me to take my current freedoms seriously, and to guard myself and those around me by writing words like these and by fighting to elect leaders who will preserve and nurture true democracy. It reminds me to stay awake. Atwood describes a world in which, suddenly, “people were scared. And when it was known that the police, or the army, or whoever they were, would open fire almost as soon as any of the marches even started, the marches stopped” (233). I would like to insist that The Handmaid’s Tale, which Atwood says she was inspired to write partly because she was living in West Berlin at the time, could never happen here. Certainly, I want to say, such a conservative, authoritarian regime could never seize power so fast. As Offred notes, “I would like to be ignorant. Then I would not know how ignorant I was” (340). But I know our nation is not immune at all to this kind of shuddering change. Especially not now, a year into a Trump presidency defined by policies that support xenophobia, racism, homophobia, sexism, and classism. Recently, Atwood, now 78, endured criticism for her insistence that men accused of sexual misconduct in the #MeToo movement receive due process in the court system. Still seeking to warn us of how quickly our society could devolve into one like her fictional one, Atwood said in an interview with The Guardian, “If the legal system is bypassed because it is seen as ineffectual, what will take its place? Who will be the new power brokers?” Her message, still: stay awake, stay awake, stay awake. It could happen here. It could.
This brings me to A Wrinkle in Time. Those unfamiliar with the 1962 book might sigh happily that I am about to discuss a “children’s book,” but Madeleine L’Engle’s fantasy novel (set to be released as a film in March!) takes us almost immediately, in chapter four, to face The Dark Thing, the Shadow over the universe, the origin of love’s opposite, which is not hatred, but indifference. Meg Murray, that awkward, brainy, girl protagonist that so many of us grew up loving precisely because she was awkward and brainy and a girl, finds herself swept along on a quest to find her father, who, in his experimentation with space and time travel, has been pulled onto the “dark planet” of Camazotz, a planet that has “given up.” When the three celestial beings Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which help Meg, her younger brother Charles Wallace, and their friend Calvin “wrinkle” to Camazotz, the children find a planet that looks quite a bit like earth—sunshine, neighborhoods, flowers, trees—except all the people have been frightened into behaving and speaking in identical ways. When the children reach IT, the brain at Central Central Intelligence, they are informed that “our decisions will be one, yours and mine. Don’t you see how much better, how much easier for you that is?” (135). Again, as in The Handmaid’s Tale, an authoritarian force has decided what is best for the whole; the individual must be terrified into total submission so that power can reign.
In A Wrinkle in Time, the shadowy Thing wants, above all, for the universe to submit, in fear, to a regimented sameness unmistakably reminiscent of the fascist governments that rose and fell in L’Engle’s youth. Those who fight against that consuming shadow, in L’Engle’s telling, can only fight successfully with light and love. As in the Star Wars stories, the dark side only grows stronger when the warrior (Luke or Rey or here, Meg) throws hate and fear at it; it is love, that very human possibility, that mystery that is both individual and wildly collective, that blares light into the dark spaces.
But how does that philosophical truth help someone like Offred, trapped as she is in her tightly controlled world, where even suicide’s escape is denied her? How does it help all the people in both books who have already been defeated, or tortured, or killed? How does the “fight darkness with love” argument help young African American males targeted by police brutality and by an unjust prison system? How does it help immigrants terrified that they will be deported and separated from their families? How does it comfort LGBTQ+ people afraid to kiss their partners in public, or to come out to their families or in their places of work? How does it help us all, in this January, with this president and his supporters?
I think of how that message has evolved for my daughter. When Mitike was younger, she was satisfied with the reassurance, emphasized by her favorite children’s books, that love will always triumph. Now, one week away from age eleven, she holds a more nuanced opinion. She still believes that, eventually, love will triumph, but she understands this is a long view, a dream, a vision for a world we have not yet reached. This MLK Day, we read “Letter from Birmingham Jail” together, because I wanted her to hear more of the details of what Civil Rights activists faced and of what kinds of direct action they were willing to take in order to force negotiation and change. I’ve begun to think that we will be defeated by a constant message of love and hope if we do not also develop tools we can use to build our way there.
Ultimately, that’s the message of both The Handmaid’s Tale and A Wrinkle in Time: the journey through the darkest times will be difficult, sometimes unbearable, but the tools of resistance will maintain our hope for a better world. Consider: Offred writes her story in a diary she hopes others will find someday (and, because the book exists, we know someone did find it). Consider: though the Shadow threatens the whole Universe, Meg and Calvin and Charles Wallace fight it with their own specific story of love, and though they cannot defeat the Dark Thing, they push it out of their own tiny corner. Consider Star Wars, or superhero movies like Wonder Woman or The Avengers: evil exists, but it will not triumph while there are people—even just a few people—willing to insist on light, their teeth gritted, their bodies straining, their hearts full to breaking.
Every time seems fraught. This one, with an impulsive, racist, unstable president, presents its own new glimpses of the Darkness. We must search for guides. Margaret Atwood and Madeleine L’Engle are two of mine.
When I close my eyes, I stand trembling on the deck of a ship that has just arrived in New Orleans, Louisiana, United States. It is 1881, and my hands shake because the journey across the Atlantic was impossibly rough: seasickness, an overcrowded steerage, rampant head lice and rats, inadequate toilet facilities and tainted water. But we had to come, Wulff and I. In Germany, we would have been forced to give up our small farm and move to the city to work in grim factories, but here in America, Wulff said, we could build good lives again. Here in America, in spite of political parties that claim we new German immigrants are dangerous threats to American values and ideals, we can build a secure house, plant seeds in fertile soil, and send our children to school. America has promised us all of that. It is our refuge now.
When I open my eyes, it is 2017 and I stand in a classroom in Denver, facing thirty seniors—mostly immigrants—who bend their heads over notebooks, writing. They live in an America that has abruptly forgotten its best message: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. They live in an America where executive orders demand border walls and travel bans, where self-proclaimed white “nationalists” whisper in the president’s ear, and fear seethes in every turn of rhetoric.
We are all refugees.
As the great-great-granddaughter of Greta and Wulff, I turn to my students and I choose to listen.
I listen to Tesfay, who fled Eritrea to a refugee camp in Ethiopia when he was twelve, fearing for his safety in a country that forcibly conscripts young boys and men into the military.
Tesfay, who arrived in the US alone in 2013, regards his new life with deep brown eyes that have seen too much. In his quiet voice, he speaks of barbed wire, desert crossings, thirst, his cold fear. Friends of his have died attempting the Mediterranean crossing into Europe. Now he sits in an American high school classroom, focusing on the education that propelled him to survive. He sighs when I ask him what he wishes he could tell President Trump. “He needs to understand the story of refugees,” Tesfay says. “He needs to interact with people who are from different countries, which will make him open minded to different people. I wish everyone understood what people go through to get here, and what contributions they are making to this country.” He waits, then glances down at his homework. Back to work.
I listen to Kashindi, who arrived in the US on a rainy day in June of 2010 after living for his first thirteen years in a refugee camp in Tanzania. Kashindi’s mother fled the Congo when Uganda and Rwanda invaded and killed thousands of people.
The refugee camp was safer, but Kashindi remembers they were “held like prisoners.” He says: “We weren’t allowed to leave the camp, or go visit family members in different camps. We were surrounded by huge fences, we were like caged birds.” When Kashindi and his mother were selected by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to come to the US, they both imagined the United States as a kind of heaven, a place where the sky would rain money, where everyone was free and safe and friendly. “We ate, drank, and slept thinking about America,” Kashindi remembers. It hasn’t been the way he imagined, but it’s far better than the camp in Tanzania. Kashindi strides down the hallway to my class in his JROTC uniform, flashes me a grin, thanks me for teaching him today. “Greatness is not where you stand now, but in what direction you’re moving,” he says.
I listen to Nasra Yusuf.
In her black khimar (a head covering silkier and lighter than a hijab) with its green swirling polka dots, her multicolored print sweater, her black and turquoise striped skirt, her glasses with a Malcolm X–darkened top edge, she strikes a revolutionary stance—even the safety pin that secures the khimar beneath her chin seems a bold protest. Nasra Yusuf was born in Somalia, but her family fled to Uganda when she was a few months old—war had broken out, and “it was not safe anywhere,” she says. “We didn’t know where it was safe and where it wasn’t.”
Nasra Yusuf was six when she arrived in America. She imagined it would be a very crowded place where people constantly talked to each other, “just like our villages back home, where everyone is talking, giving each other food.” But for such a populated place, America seemed weirdly empty and quiet: “Here everyone is in their houses. They don’t even go onto the sidewalk. I didn’t expect that.” It was not welcoming, either, in spite of all the resources and opportunities it offered her family. For Nasra Yusuf, America is “a place where everybody’s categorized, and everybody belongs to a certain community, and nobody goes beyond that.” She’s certain that if everyone in America could just slow down long enough to see each other, we could create more understanding. She lifts her chin and shakes her head a little. “Instead of saying, ‘oh, this person’s Muslim, that person’s gay,’ they would see people as people they could connect to.”
I listen to Mohammed.
In 2013, at age seventeen, he emigrated to America from Iraq with his parents and his three younger brothers. They came, Mohammed explains, because: “The terrorists threatened us. My father was working security with a U.S. company in Basra, but we began to feel insecure and scared. We hoped to find a good education and a good future.” Mohammed feels America is exactly what he thought it would be, though it’s been difficult to master speaking and writing English. He thinks in Arabic and then works to translate his thoughts so English speakers can understand. By nature, he is soft-spoken, polite, tall and slender, with a shy smile. When I ask Mohammed what he wishes President Trump knew about immigrants, he hesitates, thinking. Finally, he says, “He should know that people are coming for an education and a better life, and to have a good future. Some people want to be terrorists, and they don’t want to be good, but most want to be good and have a better life. To get into America, we had to move from Iraq to Syria, then we stayed in Syria seven years. Two of those years, we had war in Syria. Then we had to do interviews and lots of papers. If people knew how much we had to do to prove we want a better life, they would help us and support us.” Mohammed does not want to comment on the recent travel ban. “We are here for a better life,” he repeats.
I listen to Ehywapaw, who was nine when she came to America from a Thai refugee camp, where she and her family, all members of the persecuted Karen ethnic group, had taken refuge.
Ehywapaw says, “My parents brought us here to get an education and a better life and resources. Back [in Thailand], we didn’t have a good education, and we had to work really low-paid jobs. Here there was better opportunity for us.” Ehywapaw hesitates. She is quiet in class, but she is an impeccable student and a highly respected Cadet Captain in the JROTC. “If I’d stayed [in the Thai camp],” she explains, “I think I would be married already. I would be working, and I would not finish school.” Here in America, Ehywapaw will do far more than just finish high school. She plans to study social work in college, to help newcomer immigrants like herself and her family. “I wish Donald Trump knew that I’m not a terrorist,” she says. “We just want a better opportunity. I’m not a bad person.” She smiles, amusement crinkling the corners of her eyes.
And I listen to Yoselyn, who came to America from Honduras in 2006, at the age of eight, all by herself.
Her mother had already made her way illegally into California and now wanted her daughter to join her. Yoselyn remembers her mother said she was going to pay someone to bring her north. If that didn’t work, her mother told her, she would have her come on a plane. Instead, Yoselyn says, “I ended up going all by myself. We went to Guatemala, and this guy came and picked me up. We were on a bus and the guy told me to go to sleep. He said he would tell an officer that I was his daughter and these were my papers. I didn’t feel scared. I just felt sad that I had to leave my nana, who was raising me.”
Yoselyn says she wishes people who are against DACA and who are so critical of undocumented immigrants would think about the fact that people come to the US for many reasons, but that “people who come here when they’re young, we don’t have an option.” But it was good she had come, Yoselyn says. If her mom hadn’t paid for her journey north, Yoselyn would have struggled to stay safe and get an education in Honduras. She ducks her head when I ask her if she’s glad she’s in the United States now. “I don’t want to be mean,” she says, examining a strand of red hair between her fingers, “but I want to be in Honduras. I miss going to the beaches.” She smiles wistfully and gazes out the window, where snowflakes fall steadily from a gray Colorado sky.
I listen to my students’ stories. And I ask you, before you make any judgment, to listen, too.
Before you support any law, listen. Before you blindly acquiesce to any ban, to any wall, to any order: listen. These students—Yoselyn, Ehywapaw, Mohammed, Nasra Yusuf, Kashindi and Tesfay—are six of the thousands who have come seeking refuge in the US in the past years. They have sought refuge from controlling governments, unsafe environments, religious persecution, wars, lack of opportunity. And they arrived in a country that promised the opposite of all of that. A democratic government. Secure, sunny neighborhoods. Religious freedom and freedom of expression. Safety. Free and equitable education.
They came seeking the refuge my great-great-grandparents, Wulff and Greta, came seeking. It has long been America’s promise
And yet. Every day of Trump’s presidency, we risk becoming more like the countries these students—and immigrants like Wulff and Greta—have fled
Listen. Listen, and then keep calling your senators, and keep reading, and keep thinking critically about what is true and what is not. Make it your goal to keep this country the nation refugees have dreamed for centuries—and not a country we have to flee.
All names of students have been changed to protect their privacy.