A few weeks ago a teacher I work with asked me to speak with a little girl in the elementary school. The teacher only speaks English, the little girl, J, only speaks Spanish but the teacher wanted to make sure she knew there was a field trip on Friday and to see about getting permission for J to attend.
I headed downstairs and the teacher motioned to J to meet us by the door.
“Hola,” I said with a smile, dropping to my knee to get on her level.
She gave me a tentative smile in return as I explained who I was and that I’d like to talk to her for a minute if that was ok. She assented so we walked away from the classroom as I started to barrage her with questions.
How are you? How old are you? How’s your day going? Do you want to play a game?
After she beat me in a lightning-fast round of tic-tack-toe, I delved into more personal questions.
Do you have any siblings? When did you move here? Do you live far from school? What’s your favorite part of school?
“Nada,” J told me. She didn’t like school at all. Not recess or lunch or dance class and definitely not math. She only attended school in the mornings back in El Salvador and, though she said she could read and write, J also explained that she hadn’t really had math.
“Hay un paseo este viernes,” I began to explain. But she already knew there was a field trip on Friday. Her classmates had told her they would be taking a boat.
Is that true? She wanted to know.
“¡Sí!” I responded. You get to go on a boat and you’ll be on the cool island where you’ll get to do fun activities. I was trying to sell it, since her teacher had convinced me it would be a good moment for her to incorporate more socially with the other kids in the class.
But her face was pale and she was not excited. “A boat?” She asked again.
Have you been on a boat? Do you get seasick? I queried all in a row.
Yes, once, J explained. On her way to the U.S., her family had to cross a river, the Rio Brava, she guessed. They took a boat and her little sister almost fell out. Tears welling up in her eyes, she told me point blank, “No voy a ir,” she wasn’t going.
That sounds scary, I told her, I understand why you don’t want to go. This boat will be safe but it is your choice. No one will make you go.
She collected herself, we talked about her little sister and the chores she has to do, and how she misses her grandparents (who lived right next door to her back home and which again elicited tears). She told me that she came to the U.S. with her parents but her cousin and half sister weren’t so lucky. They came alone and are sitting in detention centers like thousands of other unaccompanied children making their way to the U.S.
Not wanting to send her back to class with those emotions fresh on her face and in her mind I asked, “Would you like to beat me at tick-tack-toe again?”
The tentative, growing smile appeared again. “¡Sí!”
I am not a therapist or counselor. I am not trained in how to help little people who have experienced a lot of trauma. I’ve worked with J a couple of times since our initial conversation on her math and she was right — she has almost no math training, confusing plus signs and minus signs and creating elaborate tally systems to add and subtract. In my view, she was not placed into her grade correctly and should be in a SIFE program (for students with interrupted formal education). She needs therapy from a Spanish-speaking practitioner but won’t be getting any at school because the only counselors we have who are bilingual are interns in training and the two days they spend at our school are already filled.
During our math sessions, she reminds me of the awes of childhood. She stares in amazement at the photocopier and the printer, her eyes wide and mind spinning with new information. She was overwhelmed that the school had stacks of boxes of blank paper so now she gets to take home ten sheets every time we meet as her reward for working on math. She draws me pictures and I’ve received two dogs so far, though I’ve also seen her drawings of flowers and smiling girls. She wrinkled her nose at the sweet and sour chicken served up last week in the cafeteria, unconvinced that it was an American version of Asian food. She has memorized the password to my phone, which we use as a calculator. She never wants to go back to class.
Her teacher tells me that I’m virtually the only person she talks to at school now that her closest friend has moved back to the D.R. I think about J often. I worry about what her future holds not just next week at a school she doesn’t like attending but next year, in ten years. But more than that I worry about all the Js out there in the country and the world, little girls who could learn not only to add and subtract but to fix photocopiers, design new printers, make art, or break codes are instead living in unstable, unsafe worlds that rob them of their education and their status as children.