UPDATE 3 September 2017: Yesterday, President Trump pledged to end DACA, which would make Karena (in the story below) an undocumented immigrant and one of the 1.5 million “good ones” vulnerable to deportation. This is a heartbreak for me and I’ve been thinking about her family all day. The first half of this post is relevant to that issue and the bottom half is tangential, but still important.
Both of those topics are uncomfortable to discuss with family or people from work.
That’s exactly the reason why we should talk about it.
Read all the way to the end.
Five years ago, I taught math and was senior advisor to a group of 114 stinky teens that I’d known since they were sophomores.
It was magical.
At this particular school, most of the seniors were low on credits and trying to scrape by with a C- so they could walk at graduation.
Karena1, however, was fantastic. Actual quote:
Karena: I love everyone around me, that’s why I always say ‘Hi’. You’re my homie.
Bubbly, friendly, social, hard-working, and musically-gifted, Karena played guitar and sang in her family band while maintaining a 4.0 GPA. She had a thick Mexican accent, but that didn’t stop her from loudly proclaiming her affections for one of my younger students in the Pre-Calc class:
Karena: Gustavo, you look cute today. Guys, when me and Gustavo have our kids, you are going to be the Godfathers.
Karena: Gustavo, where you going? Oh, he got me a ruler, how cute. I’m-a take you to Mejico and show you my ranch and my cows. I’m-a put you on my burro. Do you want to see my burro?
Ray: I’ll see it.
Karena: No, I’m only showing Gustavo. And I will buy you a cow. And then I’m-a take you in a airplane.
Gustavo: Ugh! Leave me alone!
Karena: Gustavo, I brought you an apple. Here, open up you mouth.
Gustavo: What? No! Who feeds somebody an apple? Mr. Vaudrey, why are you laughing?
Karena: Come on, mi chiquito amor porcino…
Gustavo: You just called me a pig!
Karena: … Are you sure you don’t want your apple?
Karena: Ah! Gustavo. Stop rejecting my apple. When we get married, I’m-a divorce you.
Gustavo: Mr. Vaudrey! Shouldn’t you be stopping this?
Vaudrey: Gus, you should be flattered! Winning the affections of an older woman.
Gustavo: She’s not even that old…er!
Vaudrey: She’s a senior.
Gustavo: I’m a junior!
Karena: That’s okay, I like leetle kids.
This was a typical class period. Interspersing math with loud public advances on the shy boy (who smiled the whole time).
After Winter Break, Karena and the other seniors begin the trudge toward graduation, which increased in pace until Frantic May and Emotional June. In February, however, life was pretty good in Mr. Vaudrey’s 4th period.
We had just wrapped up periodic functions and were packing up to file out to lunch when I realized that Karena had been strangely quiet today and appeared to be staring hard at her notebook instead of packing up.
Once the class had emptied, I sat across from her. “Karena, what’s going on?”
She immediately burst into tears.
“Meester Baudrey,” she wept. “I’m sorry I didn’t finish my homework last night. I had to work late at the store and I fell asleep behind the counter. These are the same clothes I wore yesterday, I just come right to school this morning with no shower. And my parents had to take my college money to pay bills.”
We sat in silence. Karena sniffled and dropped tears onto her immaculately-highlighted notebook, and I was stunned.
“What am I gonna do?” she asked, and looked at me.
I paused for a moment. What is she gonna do?
I have no idea.
Twenty-five years earlier, I was born the oldest of five children of a doctor. We had a big house and I could attend any college I wanted. We qualified for student loans and a large inheritance paid off most of my debt before I even graduated.
Karena worked late into the night and did her makeup in the bathroom this morning. If she goes to college, she’ll likely work full-time and be saddled with a pile of debt when she’s done.
That is the main reason we should raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Karena’s parents are undocumented immigrants.2 They work very hard to provide a better life for Karena and her four brothers.
Karena is the exact type of person that we describe when we make references to “The American Dream”. Young, hardworking, traveling to the United States for opportunity. Her whole family works hard, but still can’t quite make it.
My wife and I are both educators with Master’s degrees, two paid-off cars, and a home with a pool. Neither of us have jobs were we have to work “hard”, and we’re still in the top quarter of the wealthiest in the nation.
The minimum-wage earners can fight for themselves (and many are), but they need the support of the rest of us, too, if the higher-ups are to pay attention.
Currently, businesses like McDonald’s have little incentive to raise the minimum wage. While smaller companies can cut a bit from the top and spread it evenly along the bottom, McDonald’s pay increase would cost them quite a bit of money. They’ll continue to keep things the way they are, exploiting immigrants and the poor to build a profit.
Does that make you uncomfortable? It makes me uncomfortable.
I didn’t know how to help Karena. Five years ago, I gave her a tissue and a granola bar, and I haven’t seen her since graduation.
But this is a way that I can help a little. Take thirty seconds and think about it.
~Matt “Middle-class by birth” Vaudrey
P.S. Instead of taking time to type up a comment rebuking any of my claims, take that time and talk to somebody in your house about our responsibility to people less fortunate than us.