For sake of children some questions are best left unasked

I often see Diana’s mother in the school parking lot before class, standing outside her car, untangling her younger daughters’ hair and taming it into pony tails. Diana, age ten, takes charge of her own morning routine; she is flawlessly groomed, but sneaks into class in regular clothing rather than a uniform. In a conversation with her mother, I ask if Diana owns uniforms, and mom admits that in the chaos of getting her other children ready, she overlooks Diana’s clothing until they are already at school.

“Do you live far away?” I ask, wondering if I could send Diana home to change on the days she appears without a uniform.

“Right here, in the apartments next to school,” Diana’s mom answers quickly.

I bite back questions; I don’t want to force this harried mother to lie any more than she already has. I know the signs: she drives to school, arrives either extraordinarily early or markedly late, can’t turn back for a uniform, and finishes getting her children ready in the parking lot. Although I have no proof, I’m pretty sure Diana and her family live in Tijuana.
I’ve never met Ariel’s parents. She and her siblings walk to school alone, when they show up. Ariel is absent at least once a week. She often misses school on rainy days, or days when the border wait is long. She arrives tardy more frequently that she comes on time, although I’ve seen her walking from the border early in the morning on occasion. When I finally do meet Ariel’s parents, I won’t ask them where they live. I’m afraid I already know the answer — Tijuana. Instead, I will tell them how smart and responsible she is, how much common sense she has, and how frustrating it is for her to struggle academically due to her absences.

Itzel often falls asleep in class. Sometimes I gently nudge her awake; other times I give her a few moments to rest. She arrives early each day, sometimes before I do. Although her hair is perfectly combed, a tight ponytail topped with a giant bow, her shoes are worn out. It’s clear that they have seen a lot of miles on the walk from the border crossing to our school. Itzel has told me she lives in Tijuana, and that she is in line to cross by 6 a.m. most days. She is polite, respectful, and responsible, and it is clear her family values education. Still, she is exhausted, more so than a ten year old should be.

What am I to do about my students who live in Tijuana? Each year, families are asked to provide proof of residency to the school district. For many, this is simple: copies of rent receipts or mortgage statements accompanied by utility bills suffice. Families renting a room, a garage, or trailer in someone’s house or yard turn in a different affidavit, and homeless families yet another. Classroom life is taxing enough on a daily basis that I can’t add the role of address checker to my list of duties. However, I’m aware of the dilemma it poses for schools close to the border.

It’s a simple equation, really: property taxes pay for schools. Families who live in Tijuana aren’t paying property taxes; they receive a service they don’t pay for. A visit to the address given by the family would uncover any deception. Occasionally this happens, and students are excluded from the school. They miss months of class until they are able to provide an address, and scramble to catch up in successive years.

As a taxpayer, I know this is problematic. As a teacher, though, I turn a blind eye to residency. I respect parents who get their children up before 5 a.m to make the trek across the border daily. I admire the steadfastness of those who value their children’s education enough to assure that they are in school even if their circumstances – finances or immigration status – preclude their living in the US. I desperately want my students to have an uninterrupted education. And I’m acutely aware that the children crossing daily are for the most part US citizens. The likelihood that they’ll one day live in the US is high, and the possibility that they’ll be my adult neighbors is higher. It behooves me to educate them well, to prepare them for a future in which they can be economically independent and contribute to society. Selfishly, I want to create good neighbors.

I gently scold parents and children over tardies and absences, give students time to wash faces sweaty after the mile walk from the border to school, wake them after tiny catnaps, and hope that I’m giving them enough to make their schooling worth the daily sacrifice.