New American Story Project

Interview

I Wish I Could Be Doing More

Patricia Segura
Newcomer Program Coordinator & Teacher, Fremont High School, Oakland, CA

At the beginning in the Newcomer Program we were getting Mexicans and Guatemalans, but there’s been a shift and for the past two years we’ve gotten a lot more Salvadoran and Honduran students—the majority at this point are from those countries.

There is an array of skill variance in the kids: illiterate, under-schooled, some at grade level. The males, though, are more anxious, you can tell their anxiety in the classroom in the way they relate to each other, the way they relate to authority. The girls are more introverted, quieter, they seem to deal with their issues more internally for the most part.

But each group comes with different dynamics. What we’re seeing with kids from El Salvador and Honduras is that they’ve experienced dramatic violence and trauma. It’s hard to know how to best support them at times given that it can be related to gangs, to sex-trafficking, and they get triggered in so many different ways.

How Can You Tell They’ve Been Traumatized?

For a lot of students, it’s very obvious—they need someone to talk to, they will come and tell you their story, they will find ways to ask for help. Today, for instance, a student showed after one month of not being in school—when students are absent and they’re newcomers it’s because a lot of things are going on in their lives—and I approached him to ask him how he’s doing. This student gets up he, throws his paper down and says:

“I don’t want to be here. Don’t get near me.”

And that reaction for me is not natural. I say, “That’s okay, if you don’t need to be here… it’s okay.”

He walks out of the classroom, I walk out behind him and I tell him, “I was just checking on you to see how you are.”

He says to me, “I can’t be in your classroom right now.’

“I understand, but you’re okay?” I tell him. “Do you need to talk to someone? Can I refer you to a psychologist? What do you need?’

“I just need to be alone,” he says.

And I don’t know what’s happening for him, but I can tell he’s going through a lot. That’s just one example of how it comes out. Sometimes it comes out with sadness, sometimes it comes out with tears, sometimes by going against authority. Sometimes you get deep into conversations. It looks very different for every student.

How Did You Learn About the Situation in Central America?

I have heard many intense stories from the students about the maras (gangs), how they hold families under lock-down where they can’t leave their homes without permission: it’s basically a way of incarcerating you. The kids are fleeing that. And a lot of recruitment by gangs of youngsters starting at 12 and 13. And the girls suffering rape and domestic violence. That’s back home, but there is also the trip (to the U.S.) and there are so many horror stories of what happens to them: abuse, attacks, incarceration, hunger, cold, so many different things that just hurt our hearts.

Working With Newcomers

My parents came to this country as Spanish speakers and I saw what they went through and what I also went through as an EL (English language) student in elementary school, so I wanted to support these kids’ education because I have a kind of understanding of their experience. And being raised in Oakland, the gang violence that I saw… (voice breaks)… in Oakland. There was a call to do this work and I took it on.

I talk to my partner, he’s becoming a teacher too, and he’s always like, “You’re doing such a great job,” and I don’t feel like I’m doing much, I feel like I’m tied down… I wish I could be doing more. It’s all the other resources that the kids need (voice breaks)… We never have enough resources to support these kids holistically and like I tell you: they’re dropping left and right. (She beings crying). Why? Some people don’t give a fuck about these students to take care of them (long breath) and whatever I’m doing it’s never enough and whatever the (Newcomer) group is doing is not enough, you know?

I have to fight to teach these kids. I should be getting massive support and it’s the contrary. Why do I have to be burned out when I have the heart and passion for these kids? (Voice breaks)… It’s ridiculous, it’s ridiculous… Sorry… I know I went on a tangent… it’s just… it’s never enough.

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