I love to receive letters. When I was a little boy, I lived on a long, straight street and could see the mail truck coming from a long way off.
After the mailman stopped in front of our house, I ran down our front walkway with hope in my heart, between our two giant maple trees and across the street to our mailbox.
Would there be a letter for me? Was someone in the world thinking of me?
One day last year it was not the mailman, but a second-grader on the school playground, who handed a letter to me. I unfolded it.
Dear Mr. Barton, hi it Odeth from 2th grade I miss you a lot I wanted to know about you so much I am being good I am in 4th grade Do you miss me. I live in [removed] I go to school in [removed] I hope you will come to my school … can you come visit me in school ask for my name … I am 10 year old I want you to come to my school.
Your best student,
What a wonderful thing, to be remembered by a student.
Odeth was in my very first class during my very first year as an elementary school teacher.
I will always remember her big dimples, her contagious giggle, her deep brown eyes and her inquiring mind.
Later that afternoon, when my classroom was calm and quiet again, I sat down at Odeth’s old desk and wrote a letter back to her.
I told Odeth that I missed her, too. That her class will always be special to me. I reminded her of a math lesson in which she made a brilliant yellow flower from geometrical shapes. I told her I still have the photo we took of that flower.
I recalled how we talked about her becoming an architect and designing beautiful buildings. I wondered if she still enjoyed designing things.
And I reminded her of how she liked to talk – and should think about being a lawyer. I hoped that she was being the best she could be and doing the best she could do.
As I wait for Odeth’s next letter, I wonder about her education and her life. She and her family are first-generation immigrants from Guatemala who are trying to make a better life for themselves in South Carolina.
Even though I love the content of her letter, I’m worried about its form and grammar.
In their book, “Learning A New Land: Immigrant Students in American Society,” Carola Suarez-Orozco, Marcelo M. Suarez-Orozco and Irina Todorova write that children of first-generation immigrant parents start off with motivation to try hard and do well in school.
But they often end up apathetic and in low-performing schools.
I’m also worried about the life of Odeth’s family. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center report “Under Siege: Life for Low-Income Latinos in the South,” many Latinos in the South encounter widespread hostility, discrimination and exploitation.
Here in South Carolina, our legislature seems determined to write an Arizona-style law that uses demagoguery to harass and endanger families like Odeth’s.
Is America a place where she really can become an architect, a lawyer or anything she wants to become? And will the schools prepare her?
Odeth is a living letter to me and to you. Her life asks a vital question to our schools and our communities: “Are you thinking of me?”
Let the answer be, “Yes!”
Trevor Barton teaches second grade and is a member of First Baptist Church in Greenville, S.C.