Santos is a fifth-grader at my school.
When he was in second grade, he was in my classroom for the first half of the school year. His parents are migrant workers, so when the spring, summer and fall work on South Carolina farms slows and stops with the winter winds, they take their family to other places to look for life-sustaining work.
For the past three years, he has spent part of the school years here and part away. This year, on the sixth day of school, as the academic day ended and the afternoon dismissal began, he appeared in the office with his mother.
“Santos, I’m so glad to see you! I’m so glad you’re here,” I said as I wrapped my arms around his shoulder.
“Hey, Mr. Barton,” he whispered (he is the most soft-spoken child I have ever known). “I’m moving back here from Honduras.”
The next day, I saw him sitting with a small group of students at the breakfast table in the cafeteria. I sat down with them.
“Santos, what was it like to live in Honduras?” I asked. “I’ve never been there. I’d like to visit there.”
“Oh, it’s a beautiful place,” he answered. “But it’s very dangerous there. I heard gunshots all the time. My dad had a gun to use to keep us safe … but I was afraid.”
“I was afraid.”
As an elementary school teacher, I don’t want my students to be afraid. Every day, I tell them they are safe when they are at school, that there is more good in the world than bad, and that they can do something each day to make our community a better place for everybody.
Children need to know they are safe and know there is hope in the world before they can learn.
This is what I told Santos as I looked across the table into his eyes: “You are safe here, Santos. You don’t have to be afraid anymore.”
As I walked away from his table and made my way around the cafeteria, I thought about what I said to Santos and remembered what I read just after my governor signed the immigration reform bill S20 into law.
“SC immigration law strikes fear into Hispanic community,” said the article.
The law allows police to check the immigration status of drivers they pull over, to check the status of anyone they suspect are in the country without documentation, and to send one parent away from a family if he or she doesn’t have proper papers.
The people are afraid.
It is politically correct in my state of South Carolina to applaud harsh rhetoric and harsh actions toward “illegal aliens.”
I wish, though, that my angry neighbors could sit where I sit and look into the eyes of children from Honduras and understand that they came from a place where opportunity means getting paid $3 for an entire day’s work.
I wish they could hear a 10-year-old child speak about political violence with a tremble in the voice. I wish they knew Santos.
Maybe then they would put their arms around the shoulders of the Hispanic community and say, “I’m so glad to see you! I’m so glad you’re here.”
I have the power to make my school a safe place for all of my students. I will work to make my community a safe place for all people, too.
Trevor Barton teaches second grade and is a member of First Baptist Church in Greenville, S.C.