It was 1987. My daddy’s big ugly car—either the giant gray Oldsmobile or the smurf blue Buick, I don’t remember which—clunkity clunked out of the parking lot at Monaview Elementary school. The radio played some modern song we now refer to as a classic. Maybe it was Whitesnake's Here I Go Again. Maybe it was the Bangles’ Walk Like An Egyptian. I don’t recall.
But I do remember the conversation I had with my daddy that day. Vividly.
My chubby neck was red-hot under frizzy permed hair when he picked me up from school. I’d witnessed one of the class troublemakers cheating on a test, and I was mad about it. The injustice! After all, I worked hard and did my homework, even when it involved tears over math problems. I earned my A-honor-roll status. And this kid—this immoral little jerk—had taken a shortcut to glory, the irrefutable evidence hidden in his lap.
I hadn’t told the teacher, because the test was at the end of the day. I didn’t have time before dismissal. Oh, but I was going to! I was gonna rat that sucker out the very next day, faster than you could say cheater-pumpkin-eater.
Daddy let me rant and rave for a few minutes, his infamous smirk pulling the corners of his mustache.
“He’s always in trouble. For fighting or being rude to the teacher. Now he’s cheating, too!” I sighed in that dramatic way that only a 7-year-old drama queen could. Finally, daddy said something.
“Why do you think he was cheating?”
Huh? I stared at him like he’d morphed into Optimus Prime. I hadn’t considered that, nor did I care. It was cheating. Rules were rules, after all. Made and enforced for good reasons. Like fairness! Fairness was important, right?
“I don’t know, but I’m telling on him.” I crossed my pudgy freckled arms, a little miffed that daddy wasn’t the requisite level of pissed off along with me. He’d helped me with that god-awful math homework. In a way, he was just as invested in my grade as I was.
“Why didn’t you cheat?” he asked me.
Okay, maybe he looked more like Megatron than Optimus. What the ever-loving hell was he talking about? I didn’t cheat on tests!
“Because it’s wrong!” I practically shouted.
“Mmmhmmm,” he nodded. “And why else?”
Did I need another reason? I just sat there, slack-jawed, the wind from the window blowing through my missing baby teeth.
“Because you didn’t need to,” he filled in the blank for me. I agreed. Well, duh. I did my homework. And studied. And did everything I was supposed to do. Unlike some people. Pfffft.
“But what if I hadn’t helped you with your math?” he asked.
I shrugged. “Mama would’ve helped me.”
“But what if she hadn’t helped you, either?”
Why were we speaking in hypotheticals when there was a much more serious issue at hand? I did not get it.
“I don’t know!” I yelled. “I guess I would’ve failed.”
“Did his parents help him understand his math?”
Like I would know anything about that kid. I was a little affronted. Clearly I didn’t associate with his type. I shrugged, getting angrier by the minute.
“Maybe his parents didn’t help him. And maybe they also didn’t teach him that cheating is wrong,” he said.
“But all parents teach their kids that, right? That’s what parents do.”
“Not all parents. Not everyone has it as good as you do. I don’t think you should tattle on him, Boog*. It’ll just make you his enemy. Don’t assume the worst about him, either. You don’t know his struggles. It’s the teacher’s job to catch him cheating, not yours. Just do what you’re supposed to do and don’t worry about anyone else.”
When he suggested we swing by Dairy Queen for a celebratory test-is-over milkshake, I forgot my fury over cheaty-cheaterson. (Seven-year-olds are fickle, and I was a chubby kid with a deep love for frozen dairy, after all.) I walked away from the conversation thinking the lesson was don’t tattle.
At some point during my teen years, I realized the lesson was actually practice empathy.
That conversation came back to me a few years ago as I was Christmas shopping in Savannah. I saw a lady stuff a bunch of baby clothes in the bottom of her stroller. To shoplift them.
It annoyed me. Here I was, picking up stocking stuffers in Target after a 12-hour third-shift at the hospital, where I’d worked hard to earn money that would pay for my things. And this lady was gonna get hers for free. But then I glanced down at the baby in the stroller.
He was beautiful. Smooth skin, long lashes, tiny button nose. He slept soundly, wrapped in a faded blanket. Completely helpless and at the mercy of the person taking care of him. The stroller had a wonky wheel and ripped fabric on the side.
It might have been my lack of sleep or general hormonal state of mind (I was pregnant with my youngest at the time), but I almost burst into tears. I walked away and said a prayer for her to have what she needed for her baby. After all, I had plenty. My family had plenty. I was buying stocking stuffers at 8am, for heaven’s sakes.
When I see someone breaking the rules, I try to make up a valiant reason for them to be breaking the rules. You know, practice empathy. It helps with my homicidal tendencies. The operative word is try. It’s a hard thing to put into action. Bitterness surges, and it’s difficult to bite back the initial instinct that I’ve been wronged somehow. That I’ve been a victim of injustice. Unfairness.
On a good day, I’m able to grasp the reality that it isn’t about me at all.
Maybe that crazy driver who cut me off and sped away has a dying family member at the hospital, and is trying to get there to say his goodbyes. Maybe that lady shoplifting baby clothes in the bottom of her tattered stroller can’t even buy Christmas presents, let alone clothe her child. Maybe sometimes, people who break the rules are just trying to survive.
My daddy’s kind, annoyingly optimistic voice from all those years ago still speaks to me.
You don’t know their struggles.
I said all of that to say this…
No matter your political allegiances, we are each capable of empathy. We all have brains and can recognize the fact that fairness is a unicorn—some illusory idea that’s impossible to distribute across the board. A minor injustice to you is sometimes a matter of life and death to somebody else.
This morning as I scrolled social media feeds, I noticed an echoing trend: outrage that our president plans to issue executive orders to stop the deportation of illegal immigrants (many of those unaccompanied minors). Of course, if he could issue executive orders to cure cancer, some people would find something wrong with that, too. Because people like to bitch instead of think.
My question for the folks who view illegal immigrants as problematic economic objects (rather than people with feelings and families and struggles) is this: When rules become barriers to survival, at what point would YOU stop following them?
Put yourself in the shoes of an illegal immigrant. Walk a little while. Educate yourself on what they endure in search of a brighter future. Practice empathy. Imagine their struggles and what you would do if you were presented with them.
And if your way of thinking limits that kind of imagination, I invite you to watch Rebecca Cammissa’s brilliant (and heartbreaking) documentary, Which Way Home.
Or check out Pedro Ultreras’s illuminating documentary, La Bestia, about the ramshackle train Central Americans risk life and limb to board as they run from crushing poverty and rampant crime. They traverse conditions and dangers we, as Americans, cannot even fathom.
If you like to read, check out The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child by Francisco Jimenez, Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario, or Across the Wire by Luis Alberta Urrea. All of these are true stories.
Illegal by Bettina Restrepo and La Linea by Ann Jaramillo are works of fiction, but both tell gripping stories based on research and interviews conducted by the authors. They’re both quick reads. (My 9-year-old read La Linea in a weekend. It’s a young adult book.)
My attitudes and beliefs on immigration shifted incredibly when I started researching and reading the stories of these desperate, resilient people.
Research your ancestry. Unless you’re 100% Native American, your family members were once immigrants, too. Can you prove they came here legally? All of them? Every single one? And what if they’d been denied the promise of a better life? You wouldn't even be here.
I’m certain I wouldn’t be here, since my family heritage is mixed European and Native American. And don’t even get me started on the injustices our government has inflicted upon Native Americans. That’s some pretty ugly irony on immigration, and a rant all by itself.
There’s a reason people have been flocking to this country for centuries. Though certainly flawed, America is a beacon of hope for so many. I’m biased, but I believe this is the greatest country on the planet. And here’s a clue: that greatness is not because we’re a bunch of A-honor-roll, inflexible rule sticklers. It’s because we’re a melting pot of diversity with a myriad of strengths.
One universal strength is that we are evolved, empathetic human beings who can commiserate with one another. We can lend a helping hand to the less fortunate and be thankful for the things we take for granted.
I don’t have an answer or solution for the economic effects of illegal immigration. But since human rights don’t increase our lawmakers’ paychecks, they don’t want to be bothered with a humane solution. That is absolutely appalling. Especially considering some of those same lawmakers want to preach the moral gospel from their lofty pedestals in campaign ads.
I was fortunate to be born here. So why do I deserve that privilege more than someone born elsewhere? In short, I don’t. And neither do you.
Pictures in the news show children who’ve been shoveled into illegal immigrant holding centers, waiting—fate undetermined. And I cannot, in good conscience, jump up and down and scream to send them back to the hell they demonstrated unimaginable courage to escape.
You can’t clutch your Bible (or whatever moral compass you use) with one hand, and push people away with the other. It’s not a good look.
My daddy taught me better than that.
*Boog is short for Booger, and that was what my daddy always called me. I don’t know why. I think he gets a kick out of embarrassing me. He still calls me that when he leaves me voicemail messages.