The Common Good

Living Letters

I love to receive letters. When I was a little boy, I lived on a long, straight street and I could see the mail truck coming from a long way off. After the mailman stopped in front of our house, I ran with hope in my heart down our front walkway, between our two giant maple trees and across the street to our mailbox. Would there be a letter for me? Was someone in the world thinking of me?

One day last year it was not the mailman, but a second-grader on the school playground, who handed a letter to me. I unfolded it.

"Dear Mr. Barton, hi it Odeth from 2th grade I miss you a lot I wanted to know about you so much I am being good I am in 4th grade Do you miss me.  I live in __________  I go to school in __________  I hope you will come to my school … can you come visit me in school ask for my name…I am 10 year old I want you to come to my school.

Your best student,

Odeth"

What a wonderful thing, to be remembered by a student.

Odeth was in my very first class during my very first year as an elementary school teacher. I will always remember her big dimples, her contagious giggle, her deep brown eyes, and her inquiring mind. Later that afternoon, when my classroom was calm and quiet again, I sat down at Odeth’s old desk and wrote a letter back to her.

I told Odeth that I missed her, too. That her class will always be special to me. I reminded her of a math lesson in which she made a brilliant yellow flower from geometrical shapes. I told her I still have the photo we took of that flower. I recalled how we talked about her becoming an architect and designing beautiful buildings. I wondered if she still enjoyed designing things. And I reminded her of how she liked to talk and should think about being a lawyer. I hoped that she was being the best she could be and doing the best she could do. 

As I wait for Odeth’s next letter, I wonder about her education and her life. She and her family are first-generation immigrants from Guatemala who are trying to make a better life for themselves in South Carolina. Even though I love the content of her letter, I’m worried about its form and grammar. In their book, Learning A New Land: Immigrant Students in American Society, Carola Suarez-Orozco, Marcelo M. Suarez-Orozco and Irina Todorova write that children of first-generation immigrant parents start off with motivation to try hard and do well in school. But they often end up apathetic and in low-performing schools.

I’m also worried about the life of Odeth’s family. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center report “Under Siege: Life for Low-Income Latinos in the South,” many Latinos in the South encounter widespread hostility, discrimination and exploitation. Here in South Carolina, our legislature seems determined to write an Arizona-style law that uses demagoguery to harass and endanger families like Odeth’s.

Is America a place where she really can become an architect, a lawyer or anything she wants to become? And will the schools prepare her? Odeth is a living letter to me and to you. Her life asks a vital question to our schools and our communities, “Are you thinking of me?”

Let the answer be, “Yes!”

Trevor Scott Barton is an elementary school teacher in Greenville, S.C. He is a blogger for the Teaching Tolerance project of the Southern Poverty Law Center

Photo of pile of letters, Kudryashka / Shutterstock.com

 

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