A Piece of the Puzzle

by Lizzie Smith

There are few things I hate more than the act of saying good-bye. And even worse than saying good-bye is saying good-bye to kids. It never gets any easier.

Before taking the position of Director of Youth Education with Abriendo Mentes, I had a long history of non-traditional teaching. I climbed mountains and swam in rivers as a camp counselor. I travelled to schools as an international educator where I did presentations on my experiences in Central America. During the months immediately preceding my arrival to Potrero I was a travelling tutor for the children of migrant farm workers in North Carolina. The difficulty of leaving these different groups of students was directly related to the amount of time I spent with them in a nearly exponential way. After an hour as a presenter, leaving was just a wave. After three weeks as a camp counselor, everyone cried – including me.

Working as a migrant educator tutor was more of the same challenges, but this particular work experience had the most similarities to working in Potrero. I was la maestra – the teacher. My light hair and eyes marked me as an outsider and the students initially reacted to me with a mix of confusion and novelty. I would set up my mobile classroom – a table, whiteboard, and box of markers – and the students would trickle in slowly and then more quickly. I helped them with their English skills and explained the intricacies of the American school system to their families. We celebrated success on tests and tried to figure out solutions for the third grader who couldn’t read and the sixth grader in danger of failing. At the end of the day, I loaded up my tools and drove back home.

In this case, my students left me. From September to November, their families began heading south in search of the next growing season. Sometimes I knew when they were leaving, sometimes I didn’t. We all knew it was coming and the more delicate students insisted on saying a dramatic, heartfelt good-bye at the end of every session. Some chose to ignore they were leaving at all. The eeriest moment occurred when I went to one of my normal communities and everyone was gone. A non-migrant student told me they had packed up and left, in search of work with their families and cars of belongings. I was just one part of these student’s lives and I had to trust that whoever they met next would take care of them, listen, and try as much as I had. I drove home to a place that had a firm line of separation between personal and business.

Here in Potrero, that line is non-existent. I don’t drive to and from work. I take a two minute walk from my classroom to my house. I hang my laundry and see a student. I buy my groceries and chat with a parent. I’m not only la maestra, I’m a member of the community. And here, I’m the one leaving my students. A new and entirely capable teacher will be coming and I will try to slip away as quietly as I can. It’s not just because saying good-bye to these students – these special, energetic, challenging students – is hard. It will be. But it’s because I want them to connect with, listen to, and care about her as much as they have me. At the end of the day, once again, I am just one piece of the puzzle. Even though I have been la maestra for all these months, I am neither the first nor the last.

Unlike my work with the migrant education program, I don’t have to trust that the next person will take care of my students. This is Abriendo Mentes, an organization that specializes in caring and committed people. And I know, not hope, that the next maestra will love them just as I have and, hopefully, even a little bit more.

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