Last spring, in my swan-song semester as a laid-off community college professor, I taught a first-year composition class every Wednesday night till 10 p.m. My students were from all over the world—Albania, Bhutan, Ghana, Kenya, Mexico, Sudan, and the United States. Some of my students were refugees, one lucky woman won a green card from the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, and others still had families who had initially immigrated to the U.S. generations ago. Those students now worked as bricklayers, information technology specialists, restaurant servers, Army reservists, and more.
Their teacher could also easily trace her own immigrant story to her maternal great-grandfather’s 1882 arrival to New York at age 21 from Termini Imerese, Sicily, near Palermo, Italy. Antonio Dattilo arrived to America by way of the Marseille, France ship Ferdinand de Lesseps. After landing in New York City, my great-grandfather made his way to Hopkinsville, Kentucky, where he worked as a grocer, much like John Steinbeck’s Sicilian immigrant character Alfio Marullo in Steinbeck’s last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent. In Steinbeck’s 1962 Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, awarded for his last novel, Steinbeck said, “Man is our greatest hazard and our only hope.”
In my night-class, many different political ideologies and beliefs co-existed as we prepared Moth-like personal narratives, cultural and textual analyses, and researched solutions to civic issues. Yet, when it came to discussing President Donald J. Trump’s policy on immigration, it was often hard to understand, especially in light of our classroom’s varied personal histories, what Emma Lazarus’ sonnet “The New Colossus” now meant. The “Muslim ban,” the President’s racist rhetoric of consistently referring to Mexicans as “rapists” and his use of the dehumanizing language of infestation to discuss “illegal immigration,” the attempt to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and his alleged vulgar language disparaging African nations, most notably people who emigrated from Haiti and Nigeria, were all topics students discussed and brought up in class.
Perhaps teachers are like parents and should not profess partiality, but it is true—these students were my favorite and the most cathartic way to end a sad semester.
And now, as classes begin full-swing at college campuses across the nation, I feel mixed emotions. I am grateful to write, research, and report daily, and I miss the organic conversations I had with students, discovering their passions, backstories, and where they hoped to end up next. I imagine we would discuss #resistancegenealogy and how Jennifer Mendelsohn shows American Nativists how their anti-immigrant rhetoric is problematic and hypocritical in many, many instances. We would investigate our own histories to see how immigration has influenced our lives. We would provide space and time to unpack our assumptions, beliefs, and values about America’s historical treatment of immigrants and refugees. We would get messy, be brave, ask deep questions, and learn new things.
Thankfully, those last four actions are actions writers take, too. While didactic essays are not my style or aim, I am grateful to explore this imperfect world with you, dear reader—to uncover humanity’s hazards and hopes together.