It has been 28 years since I left the mountains that rim Los Angeles. El Paso has mountains, too, extending across a physical border that for a couple of centuries was marked only by a river separating the United States from Mexico. The physical border is now marked by fences, ports of entry, cement channels for the river and Border Patrol officers in SUVs parked in the no man’s land between the two countries.
However, physical barriers do not stop families from seeking the best for their children. Long before the current crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, parents brought or sent their children, documented and undocumented, to this side. Their single goal was to get their children educated, to give them a chance at a life better than their own.
How do I know this? I spent 14 years (of my 35 years in education) teaching English to children within five miles of two of the busiest border crossings in the U.S. It was not our business as teachers to know if a student was documented. Our job was to teach them and to get them to look toward a positive future. Unfortunately, standardized testing turned true teaching into a fantasy and forced public schools to test students at their grade level after only one year of English language instruction. The testing push hurt morale, but we still found joy in teaching our kids. We turned an introduction to Shakespeare into the novella of Henry VIII and his many wives. We took them along the Oregon trail and fed them buffalo meat. We listened to music from every continent. We talked about why manufacturing was leaving Mexico and moving to farther shores by looking at where our tennis shoes were made. Heartache and frustration were always tempered by joy.
I ended 26 years of teaching students by working with new teachers for three more years and then leaving the school district to work for teachers as a union advocate. Texas is a right-to-work state, and public employees (including teachers) may not strike. Challenging can never fully describe my final six years working in public education.
No matter what else life has to offer, I know at heart I will always be a teacher.
Lucy Clarke taught for 29 years in Los Angeles and El Paso, Texas, and was president of the American Federation of Teachers local for El Paso Independent School District from 2008–14. Clarke has earned graduate degrees from Eastern New Mexico University and Texas Tech School of Law.
This article appeared in the winter 2020 issue (Vol. 9, No. 2) of LMU Magazine.