“Mr. Andy.” A short shadow coming from the block center whispered.
“CM is crying.” She tells me.
“Thank you, I’ll see what’s bothering her, go lay down.” I told her. However I already knew what was upsetting her.
“CM? Are you okay?”
“Mama..” she sniffled.
“I know...” I embraced her and let her know that her mom will be back soon.
The little girl who told me about CM, overhearing our conversation, added “Don’t worry, you’ll see mommy soon. Mommy will always come back.”
CM continued to cry silently. She isn’t usually a sleeper, but today she slept, most likely thinking about the next time she’ll see her mom.
Where I teach, it isn’t an uncommon thing for our children to go long periods of time without seeing their parents. I know this because I experienced this when I was their age. I grew up in the same neighborhood I teach. I strongly believe it gives me an advantage when it comes to understanding my families on a deeper level and developing rapport with them.
I never gave much thought to my own family situation when attending school and how it affected my school life. My parents would work 7 days a week and over 12 hours each day. I would see them in the morning before leaving for school and dinner at night.
At least I got to see my mom. For CM, if she’s lucky, she gets to see her mom once a week. CM gets dropped off and picked up by her dad most of the time. Her dad walks with a limp and one hand is noticeably weaker than the other. CM has stated that she doesn’t like playing with her father because he’s slow. I felt sorry for her dad. He rarely smiles but when he does, it’s usually when his strong headed daughter is speaking like an adult, scolding him and sometimes even myself. She’s one of those students who seems to be an adult trapped on a young child’s body. However, no matter how mature they are, every child wants their mommy.
Every once in a while, CM’s mom will drop her off and pick her up. One morning, she had time to stick around for a bit after arrival. As the children played, she sat to play with her daughter who she rarely gets to see. She struck up a conversation with my paraprofessional and she told us she works in Washington DC at a nail salon. When asked why DC when she could work closer to home and see her family, she revealed to us that it was her own business and there was less competition there than in New York. She needed the business to do well because she had to become the sole provider after her husband’s car accident that left him in his current state. It happened when CM was just a few months old and mom made the difficult decision to open a business to provide for her family far away from home.
It broke my heart to find out the sacrifices CM’s mother made to provide her family food and shelter and to know that CM may never know the man her father was before the unfortunate accident. The mother comes back once a week to visit on her day off and the reason CM was overwhelmed with sadness was because her mother’s stay was over and the long wait for her to come back would begin again.
I want CM and all my other students who rarely get to see their parents to know that I understand what they are going through because I was them before and I am here for them now.
When they look at me, I want them to think "I See Me!"
I remember walking to school and home alone when I was in the 2nd grade. During dismissal, I would tell my teachers that I am walking home with a friend and his parent. I would tag along for the walk until we reached a point where he had to turn and I had another block left. When I got home at around 3PM, I would boil some water in a pot and make myself instant ramen noodles. It would hold me over until my mom got home at around 8PM. In between that time, I would turn on PBS for Arthur, watch some Nickelodeon cartoons until 5, then switch to Cartoon Network for some Dragon Ball Z. Homework would get done within that time. When my mom came home, we’d have dinner and it would be time to go to sleep.
My mother worked long hours and every day of the week. There was no weekend for her because the week never ended. Her day would start at 7AM and go until 8PM with hardly any real breaks in between. At this time, my father was in China and we were on our own.
The situation wasn’t ideal but it was the only thing my mom knew. I think back to this a lot since I started teaching in the community. I see the same hard working parents working jobs that are physically and mentally draining. Although the work may be different, the hours are still long and seeing their kids was scarce.
The first day of school is always so exciting. Meeting my new students and their families is always something I look forward to in September. Some parents we meet for the first time and do not see them until parent teacher conference because their work isn’t flexible enough to allow them to drop off or pick up their children. Some parents I never get to see because it’s just impossible for them to take off. In these situations, their grandparents in caring for the children.
After the first parent teacher conference, we have either seen and met with one or both parents. For the conference, we always insist that the parents come to the meetings so they have an idea of what’s happening in their child’s class and the progress they are making. The grandparents are understanding and will relay the message back to the parents. This wasn’t the case for RG. RG’s aunt attended the meeting but the conversation wasn’t as impactful as it would have been if his parent’s had come. We asked about mom and dad and it turned out that they lived in another state running a restaurant business. Business is always better out of state because there’s less competition. It’s great for the family to earn a decent living, however something must be sacrificed. For RG and his two siblings, that meant seeing his mom and dad only once or twice a year if they’re lucky.
Memories of my childhood comes rushing back to me. My mom was never able to attend school events that happened during the day. No one came to my 6th grade graduation but I understood why. My mom would make time to come to conferences, however the language barrier would be an obstacle and having my brother or me translate was equally difficult as we were both losing our Wenzhou dialect and you can forget about any educational jargon that needed to be translated. I think about RG and how happy he is even though he doesn’t get to see his parents much. He makes the best of his situation because that’s all he knows. That’s the experience he grew up with.
RG’s situation was a stark contrast compared to one of my other students, CZ. CZ’s mom dropped her off and picked her up every day. CZ’s mom was super involved in her children’s academic life and would often bring her children to many of the free programs offered at the Queens Public Library. Love and care was displayed in different ways between both families. CZ would often take photos of her and post it somewhere. I had inquired about it and she revealed to me that she was sharing it on WeChat, a social media platform that’s very popular in China and the Chinese community. I was semi familiar with the app since it’s the only way I could effectively communicate with my mother other than calling her.
I told CZ’s mom of my ignorance to the app and she gave me a quick tutorial. This would become the game changer I needed to help engage parents. No matter how much I tried to get parents to follow our class social media accounts, only a fraction knew how to work them. With the help of CZ’s mom, she created our own class WeChat group. She invited parents she was close with and I invited the parents whose info I had. The group quickly grew and we had over 50% of our class parents represented.
As I started to learn more about the platform, it became a great resource to engage parents in discussion about what we were doing in the classroom, asking for volunteers, and replenishing certain classroom supplies. Parents who I couldn’t communicate with before were now able to because of the translate feature for text messages. It dawned on me that perhaps we could finally get in contact with RG’s parents through WeChat. RG’s grandma gave me his aunt’s number to add in the group and once added, she added RG’s mom. As soon as we received each other’s contact, she messaged me instantly. All the conversations we would’ve had during parent teacher conferences were now happening through the platform our parents were most familiar and comfortable with.
When the second parent teacher conferences were scheduled, I decided to reach out to RG’s mom to see if she wanted to have a live video chat and have RG’s grandma there in person to receive the necessary documents. We were able to work it out and have a successful conference with a parent we would have never been able to converse with. Today, we have over 80% of our families in our WeChat group and it’s been the highlight of this year as parents are more informed and know what’s happening in our classroom even if they aren’t able to come to school or live in another state.