A Personal Challenge

When Yanis* showed up at my classroom door with her baby, I knew it was to say goodbye. I hadn’t seen her for three weeks and she’d completely missed final exams.

“Oh, can I hold him?” I gushed. She’d dressed him in a miniature bow tie and vest. He wasn’t even old enough to walk but he was wearing little booties that looked like wingtip shoes. I oohed and cooed at the little cherub.

“His name is Yannick,” she said, beaming at my reaction.

I know what kind of effort it takes to get a baby dressed and transported under the best of circumstances. When my son was born, I was in my thirties, married, with a new Master’s degree and a predictable life trajectory.

Yanis was 16.

“We’re moving to Miami, Miss. And I don’t want to go,” she said.

The streaks of blue in her hair matched the mischievous streaks of her personality. On more than one occasion she had come in late after lunch with two miscreant boys, a little too broad a grin, and a humility that completely disarmed me. “Sorry miss,” she apologized and sat down. She had bloodshot eyes and an adorable gap in her teeth when she smiled.

I couldn’t think of what to say to a teen whose life was so full of drama and instability, so I stuck to the script.

“I want to see pictures of you in a cap and gown, holding your diploma.”

When my son graduated from high school he’d already been accepted into six different universities. I wondered what lay ahead for a 16-year-old mother and her baby.

Yanis was one of the more promising students in my remedial reading class. She wrote with an enviable clarity that exposed the emotional truth of a story. Once she wrote on the topic, “Overcoming a personal challenge.” She described her move to the United States from El Salvador two years earlier.

Her father and the grandmother who’d raised her brought her to the airport to say goodbye. She thought she was going to be gone for a month, visiting her mother in Maryland. She hadn’t seen her mother since she was seven years old. Her grandmother was sobbing and Yanis didn’t understand what the big deal was. “Mi hija,” said her father. “This isn’t a vacation; you’re moving to the United States permanently.” Yanis boarded the plane by herself, in shock and disbelief.

Yanis wrote about the fights she had with her mother – typical teenage arguments about clothing, boys and staying out too late. But magnified by the fact that she and her mother were almost total strangers. Her story was so powerful that I asked her to rewrite it for the school literary magazine. I was impressed by how she could produce such good work with so little effort. When I write, it takes me forever to revise a paragraph. And people still tell me to “dig deeper” to express my feelings more. Yanis seemed eager to please me, and made a half-hearted attempt. But she didn’t have the motivation to follow through this time. Now she was moving away.

Every year I have a student like Yanis who steals my heart. My life moves forward on the projected path as I struggle to capture my tiniest drama in writing. So I am telling her story instead of my own.


* not her real name

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Eva K. Sullivan teaches English Language Learners in Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland. She was an English Language Fellow with U.S. Department of State during the 2017-2018 school year, working with the Ministry of Education in Laos, Southeast Asia. She writes short stories, personal essays, and has completed a memoir about her experiences as an expat in West Africa in the 1990s.

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