I come from a family of five siblings. Like the average American student, we graduated from high school and attended college. Like the average son and daughter, we have loving parents who support us. Unlike the typical student, however, our childhood years were spent dealing with economic struggles, feelings of not belonging, teenage pregnancy, and run-ins with the police. My four siblings and I had to overcome these hardships to graduate. For each of us, our high school graduation day was a moment of triumph for our family, because the odds were against us from the very beginning.
The first of our struggles was an economic one. Our parents came from rural Mexico, from families who relied on farming to earn a living and who struggled to put food on the table. They left their hometowns in the 1980's to move to the U.S. where, shortly after they met, I was born, and eleven months later, my sister was born. At the time, we had no place of our own, my parents did not have the proper documentation, and they were struggling to make ends meet.
It was during this time that my parents became worried about the quality of our education. After obtaining legal permanent residency through IRCA passed in 1986, we were able to move to a suburb where, my parents had heard, we would be able to attend a high quality public school district. The rest of my siblings were born there. We all attended the same ESL program, a program that supported our native language of Spanish, but also helped to develop our English skills. Our teachers looked like us and spoke like us. Our peers also came from immigrant families and shared similar struggles. We felt like we belonged.
Once our English skills improved, we were placed into non-ESL classrooms, and this is where our second set of struggles began. For the first time, we started to feel different. I remember being asked, "how do you say your name in English?" Our second-hand clothing and Spanish accents singled us out. My sister recalls a teacher asking her not to speak Spanish in the classroom. Our large family, our lack of knowledge of pop culture, and even our parents' jobs were the subject of our peer's jokes. I was lucky to have a small group of friends with similar experiences who helped me through those years. Some of my siblings, on the other hand, remember mostly feeling isolated.
All five of us enjoyed school and were good at it. My brother was in a gifted and talented program in elementary school. My sisters and I were in advanced classes throughout middle school and high school. But getting good grades seemed to make our differences even more salient. We could not connect with the white majority in those classes; we had little in common. Our Hispanic peers did not want to talk to us because we were too "nerdy". We didn't fit in, and we all dealt with these issues differently. My youngest siblings dropped the advanced classes and settled for being under-challenged. The middle sister, in the spring semester of her senior year, became pregnant. My brother, at 17, was handcuffed and escorted out of school for possession of Marijuana. The last one to walk across the graduation stage, the youngest, was unsure if she had passed her final class to obtain her degree.
But in the end, we all made it.
What kept us going through the hardship? Each of us may attribute it to different factors. But for all of us, a strong support system made a big difference. My parents have dedicated their lives to working hard and to see us have the educational opportunities they did not have. We also had each other, each sibling providing a unique support for the other. And of course, a handful of teachers that were special to us kept us motivated throughout school. All five of us were able to use this support system to overcome the odds.
When I reflect back on my public school years, though, I can't help but feel lucky. Many young students going through similar struggles do not make it out. And even with our stories of hardship and challenges, we have somehow continued to strive for overcoming the odds. I have achieved my goal of obtaining a Ph.D., and the second oldest proudly holds a Bachelors. We are both rooting for our three youngest siblings, who are currently attending college.
Despite the odds, we have been resilient, and I hope to pass along this resilience to the next generation. Although our children may grow up in different circumstances than ourselves, they will face a new set of challenges, and the odds will still be working against them.