It was a year when heat blistered the land. Rain deserted the region like an adulterous lover, although humidity blew herself up to full strength and forced her sodden belly onto the earth, smothering it.
Already on that particular morning at 7 AM, beads of perspiration were forming on my face as I walked from the far end of the parking lot to my classroom. In the office, I grabbed a tissue and dabbed my face as the secretary said, "We've got a new student. Spanish only. He's going to your 7th grade language arts class."
"Did we get any records on him?" I asked.
She shook her head sympathetically. "No. Evidently in Mexico, he was out of school for a long time, like maybe never was in school at all. An aunt checked him in yesterday afternoon."
I let out a breath of exasperation. It was already a large class, and now I had one who didn't speak English and who may have never even been in school period.
When the 7th graders filed in later that day, I noticed Jaime immediately. He was thin, almost gaunt, and had a new haircut and an ill fitting school uniform. Long lashes curved over his brown eyes.
I showed him where to sit and patted him on the shoulder as I got the other students started on a warm up.
I knelt beside his chair and asked quietly, "Habla Ingles, Jaime?"
His deep eyes widened and he shook his head rapidly side to side. "No, no," he whispered as he stared down at the table. His brow furrowed as he bit his lip. He was the same age as my daughter and my heart melted.
I patted his back again and reassured him in Spanish. He kept his head down until I finished talking, and then he gave me a tiny peek. I smiled at him and although he didn't smile in return, his face softened, just a little.
In the next few months, Jaime initially struggled as he worked to master new lessons and build his English. Soon, though, just as his body filled out from regular meals, his English vocabulary also flexed muscle. He was still shy and introverted, but answered more and more questions in respectful, hesitant English.
One afternoon after school, he was the lone student in tutoring. He labored over a paper he was writing and then sighed and rubbed his fingers as he put his pen down.
"Jaime, how is it going for you? Are things getting easier?"
He looked up, a slight smile on his face. He nodded his head and said haltingly, "Yes, some things better, some things not."
I moved over to his table and sat across from him. "Would you like to tell me about it? How did you end up here? En Espanol?"
He searched my face for a moment, looking me in the eyes for the first time. He took a deep breath and began, in Spanish.
"I came here to find my mom. She crossed the river and came to Houston to find work so she could send money home to my grandma so my little brother and I would have enough food to eat."
"And your dad?" I asked.
"He's never been around. I don't even know what he looks like. We were so sad when my mom left. My little brother would cry for her at night. I told him it would be OK. She loved us and she was trying to help us.
"She sent money and letters, and we were able to get food for all of us. Sometimes she'd call our neighbor's house and we'd get to talk to her. She always told us she loved us.
"But then, we stopped getting letters from her. She didn't send anything, didn't call... We didn't know what had happened. My grandma heard very bad stories about what happened to ladies sometimes who come up here by themselves.
"One night I had enough. I was the man of the family and I had to find out what happened to my mom. So I found the coyote (human smuggler) who helped her get up here. I had a little money saved from what my mom had sent us. I left a note for my grandma and took off with them.
His eyes clouded for a moment. "Many bad things happened on the way, Senora." He exhaled.
"Jaime, you're so very brave. I'm so sorry you had to go through all that."
"That wasn't the worst, though. Once we got across the river, I thought it would be better. El Coyote told us he was dropping us off and we'd have to walk maybe two or three days through the brush to stay away from the Border Patrol, but then he'd pick us up again and we'd get to Houston."
I cringed, remembering the record heat wave we'd had around the time Jaime had arrived and mentally calculating the 47 miles of uninhabited, rugged brushland they'd had to navigate.
"We didn't have any water, but we found some cattle troughs we drank out of along the way. We were so thirsty, all the time. One lady with us got too sick and said she couldn't walk anymore. Her lips looked all weird, really big, and she crumpled onto the ground and closed her eyes and wouldn't talk anymore. I saw her quit breathing. I didn't want to leave her behind, but the leader said we had to, or we'd all die.
"Sometimes, I thought I heard my mom's voice talking to me, but I had to tell myself it wasn't real. More people from our group disappeared. I don't know if they died or just turned themselves in to the Border Patrol."
He paused. I hesitated to ask more because our laws say school employees cannot ask children if they are here legally or illegally, so I waited for him to continue with what he wanted to share.
"I'm not even really sure, Senora, how I was able to find a ride here. The lady I stay with now is a friend of my uncle's, from back in Mexico, and she came to get me when she found out I was here. She's nice to me, but I'm not going to stay here long. I still have to find my mom."
The bus arrived and Jaime had to leave that afternoon. It wasn't but a few days later when he disappeared, withdrawn from our rolls. The "aunt" he was staying with was also gone.
Maybe, just maybe, some day a tall man with long, curving lashes and deep brown eyes will approach me, an older woman on his arm, and say, "Senora, I'd like to introduce you to my mom, my brother, and grandma. We are together again."
I have strong opinions about adults, specifically those who wallow with drug cartels, who cross borders illegally. You can read it in some of my earlier posts. But where children are involved, my heart is open wide, and always will be.)