In today’s fractured America raging with round-the-clock news, name-calling and tweets, I’m not sure anyone can define, understand or explain our country.
Lately, if I turn on Fox News then flip to MSNBC, then peek in on CNN, and then watch anything else, ESPN, the Cartoon Network, or Home Shopping Network, and I have done this on occasion, I wind up baffled, with no idea who we are as a people or how to understand America.
But I’m lucky. I teach English in a large, public high school in a middle-class neighborhood in Los Angeles. And when the adult world confuses, frustrates and enrages me, I turn to my students to remind me where I am and what really matters.
The majority of my 190 students are first-generation Americans whose parents emigrated to America from Argentina, Brazil, Cambodia, El Salvador, Egypt. England, Ghana, Germany, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Nicaragua, Philippines, Russia, and Venezuela.
Their parents came to America to avoid war, religious persecution, poverty and to seek a better life for their children and themselves.
At school, my students speak English. At home, they speak Arabic, Cambodian, Hindu, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Urdu, Zapotec, as well as English.
Many of my students are poor.
But what they have in common with teenagers across America is that few think their stories matter. Few teenagers believe that anyone listens to their voices.
To convince my students that their lives matter and their voices need to be heard, I ask them to write about themselves. To share their stories with their classmates and me.
Initially, most are reluctant to do so. They need a nudge.
“Here’s what I want you to do,” I say to them. “Imagine the walls in this classroom are mirrors. Wall-to-wall mirrors. You are standing alone in front of a mirror looking at yourself. But suddenly you can see your parents standing behind you. And then you can see your grandparents standing behind them. And amazingly when you look closely, you can see your great grandparents standing behind them. And you can magically see back five, ten, twenty generations.
“All of your ancestors struggled. Worked hard. Felt joy and love as well as sadness and despair. They moved here from other countries, as the majority of Americans have done for centuries.
“What I want you to do is look into the mirror, look into your past, as far back as you can imagine and tell us where you come from. Where do you come from geographically, historically, religiously? Where do you come from in terms of education, occupations, music, food, sports, literature? What was passed onto you from generation to generation to make you into the person you are at this moment?
“Look into the mirror and tell us where you come from.”
These are the opening lines written by 25 of the young men in my classes:
I come from Venice, California, a sunny place with hot girls and cool cars.
I come from generations of alcoholics.
I come from only speak when you’re spoken to.
I come from the Land of 10,000 Lakes from a family that joins Irish and German dance groups
I come from young Mexican men standing outside Home Depot for jobs.
I come from India, where rich and poor people live together as brothers and sisters.
I come from a small ‘hood in Mid-City where everyone is a hustler.
I come from if you aren’t going to help your family, who is?
I come from where if you don’t play a sport, you will most likely end up in a gang or dead.
I come from a dad who’s always in the hospital, hooked up to a dialysis machine.
I come from people who sell beans.
I come from Ukraine where there are many fields of sunflowers.
I come from a family where most people go to school but never finish.
I come from a family that has lived in the same apartment for 40 years.
I come from the smell of beans and handmade cheese.
I come from love and acceptance and encouragement.
I come from where cars literally blow up in front of my house. The police station is right next door and they take three hours to come out and investigate.
I come from Cambodia where during the war the soldiers were killing only the educated people, like my family.
I come from Pakistan. From a father who has an MA in economics and a mother who has a BA in Islamic studies.
I come from cousins drinking beer while playing handball.
I come from what used to be a Mexican neighborhood but is now a street filled with condos filled with well-off white people.
I come from early morning workouts to late night NBA dreams.
I come from where Father’s Day is Mother’s Day, Part Two.
I come from a country with there is no hope, to a country where there is hope everywhere.
As our new president takes office and our country feels more divided than it has been in decades, I read these young men’s words and am reminded that at our core we have always been a collection of dreamers, of people from all over the world who came here with hopes of tasting democracy. People who came here to find opportunities that they could not find elsewhere and so that their children would be educated and have a chance at prosperity, stability and a life of dignity.
These days I read and watch far less news than I did during the run-up to our presidential election.
I am not burying my head in the sand to avoid the nastiness of our political discourse.
Instead, I am focusing on the words of my students, most of whom are smart and kind and hopeful and who have convinced me that anyone who wants to know the heart and mind of America should listen not just to those with power and wealth and a large megaphone to broadcast their views, but more importantly to those who are young, forgotten and the least among us.
How else will we know who we truly are and who we yearn to be?
If you want to read more of those voices, some of them are here at this link.
Photo credit: Getty Images