We have a mandate to leave no child behind,
Yet we are educating children not left behind,
But left to die, escaping with their families and their lives,
The clothes on their backs and a lifetime of images they can barely forget.
So we attempt to educate them–‘educate’ from the Latin-‘to lead out’
Lead out from terror, away from want, weariness and war.
Away from fear, their homeland torn beyond recognition.
Lead them to America, where we shout “welcome!”
and expect them to be, somehow, just like our children.
Expect them to forget the hell they’ve seen,
ask them to ignore the obvious (they are alive!)
Expect them to observe the rules, sit in our chairs,
be quiet, controlled, obedient.
Raise our voices when they don’t understand,
shake our heads at their laziness and lack of discipline,
that they are so behind and don’t understand the rules.
If we spoke their language, we’d understand this:
“Thank you for the clean water and indoor plumbing.
Thank you for the windows in my classroom,
the grass at lunchtime, the daily food and a place to
Stand outside in the sun away from bullets.”
“Thank you for the pencils, this paper that is mine,
for this ‘picnic’, (for surely it must seem to them!)
This safe place of freedom
To play and laugh without fear
Regain some of my childhood spent
in the dark behind doors and walls.
Thank you for not having to hide, be quiet, be not-me
But be who I am, free in America.
As to my education—that can wait.
Right now I’m simply breathing deep, this flag
in my hand, new friends nearby, enjoying
the sound of peace.”
Ten years ago when I switched from my own classroom to working as an Assistant, I taught in a classroom for English Language Learners. This poem was prompted by my experience with a Middle Schooler and his father, who were from Iraq.