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The First Day

Posted: September 04, 2014

I remember when each of my children was getting ready for kindergarten. We shopped for their back packs, lunch boxes and school supplies. Each child carefully selected their outfits. My daughter’s first day was particularly memorable, because she wanted to wear her brand new Sketchers. At the time, it was the height of style. They were bright blue, platform tennis shoes. My biggest concern was that she might twist her ankle on the playground.

The night before school started, she laid out her new black, corduroy dress with a long, gold zipper down the middle. Her new tennis shoes were sitting in a box on her bedroom floor waiting for the big day. Her back pack was loaded down with school supplies and the extra boxes of Kleenex and white board markers were in a separate bag.

Her older brother attended the same elementary school and was two grades ahead of her. Her youngest brother was only two years old so he was not in school yet. Our plan was that she and her brother would take the bus after breakfast and a quick photo with their dad at the bus stop.

A couple of neighbors mentioned that they were driving to school and were going to say their, “last goodbye”. It sounded like a good idea at the time. It was not! When my daughter saw us in the hallway outside of her classroom, she started to cry, then wail. I could feel myself becoming more anxious as she started to get more upset.

She kept begging me to stay. Most of the other children quietly walked into the classroom and started following the routine we had learned at the Open House. Things were breaking down. Her younger brother started crying too! I felt like crying.

I remember her lovely, young kindergarten teacher trying to gently coax her to join her, “new friends”, but she wasn’t having any of it. She had a vice grip on my hand and had no intention of letting go. I kept looking at that sweet little face filled freckles and tears. Finally, her teacher told us that she would take charge. She told me to firmly tell her I was leaving and to keep walking.

My daughter loved preschool. Maybe she sensed the finality of this step in her life. She must have known that her life was changing. She would no longer spend leisurely mornings at home and play with friends in the afternoon at preschool. Now, she would have a different life. 
I have often thought of that scenario over the years. I loved my daughter and knew something that she didn’t know. A whole, exciting new world would open up for her when she began kindergarten. She would make friends, learn to read, go to the farm and apple orchard like her older brother. She would have Show and Tell and spend hours playing on the beautiful campus that surrounded her school.

As I read stories about parents from Guatemala, Honduras, and Ecuador sending their children to the US alone and unaccompanied. I think about what their last night together must be like… laying out an outfit and packing a backpack for their young children. I imagine that they pack a few simple items to take with them. Perhaps they tuck a meal and a small amount of money that they have managed to save into the backpack.

They are not preparing their child for a great adventure at a beautiful neighborhood school. Parents are preparing their child for a long, dangerous journey that lies ahead filled with unspeakable possibilities from armed gangs, drug dealers, traffickers and criminals. There may be bad luck. And, there is heat. 

The temperatures in the desert can reach over a hundred degrees! And, with a small, limited water supply, the thirst could be unbearable. Beyond all of these considerations, who could a young child trust? Most children do not speak English, so there is also a language barrier.

If the child somehow manages to overcome all of these obstacles, what is next? Children who arrive at the border and are placed into detention until relatives can be found. There is discussion about expedited return to the country from which they have arrived. 

Children who are 8, 10 and 12 are not coming here to work. They are risking death on the road, traveling to a strange country, because they know that violence, or forced trafficking and criminal activities will be their only alternative. Many cannot attend school, because it is too dangerous. School yards have become recruitment areas for selling drugs. And, anyone who refuses may be killed or their family members may be threatened or killed in broad daylight without any legal recourse.

These aren’t really choices. As a parent, I know the heartbreak of dropping children off at school, camp, and college. But, I could drive away knowing that they would be safe, and well taken care of. I also knew that they would have amazing experiences. Once they got over being, “home sick”… They would do great! And, in each instance they did.

Parents sending children to the US alone from Central American are making a decision that they hope will save their lives. If we peel back the anger and fear, we are left with children who are stranded in a country far from home with only a hope and a dream.

Maybe these children are too young to realize that most adults would not take this same journey, because they would be afraid. And, yet, thousands are embarking on this trek. What will we as a nation do to respond to a humanitarian crisis that is unfolding here, not somewhere else?

It will take courage and creativity to find ways to help our southern neighbors rebuild their nations. And, we need to find humane and ethical ways to deal with the children that are here. The US has always been the land of abundance and possibilities. Dealing with this crisis will take all of us working together to find solutions.

Parents can never protect children from all harm. We love them, teach them and send them off with the hope that they will learn to navigate on their own. And, we hope that they will meet people who will help them along the way. 

My daughter was lucky! Her teacher knew exactly just how to help her make a smooth transition to kindergarten. Within a few short weeks she was riding the bus to friends’ houses for play dates after school. And, she couldn’t wait to tell me about all of the exciting things she was learning at school.  

I wonder about the other children who are making different kinds of journeys… What will they find?

--Maura