The Prius bounced from pothole to pothole like a pinball, causing a dust storm. As Joy pulled up to the mobile home, a band of brown children surrounded the encased car. Today was Tuesday, which meant swimming lessons for Carlos and Sofia.
She could only buckle two of the 20 children in the safety seats, which were a permanent fixture in the vehicle. “I always feel bad when I have to tell all those sad eyes that I only have room for two,” she lamented. ”I wish I had a bus.”
As she pulled onto Route 58, Carlos’ face appeared in the rearview mirror, and she heard Sister Margaret’s words five years ago, “Why don’t you go play with Carlos sitting in the stroller.” Joy had wanted one of the cute little girls, not the unresponsive 18-month- old. “I’ll give it a month,” she warned the nun.
As the door to Saf-T- Swim swung open, the smell of chlorine filled her senses. “Okay, kids, into your suits and in the pool,” she exclaimed. A year and a half of Tuesdays had gradually changed the duo into little fish, and the warm shower afterwards added to their hygiene for the week.
The newfound aquatic skill gave both more bounce in their step and focus to their tasks. “They are now able to sit still a bit longer as we work on their reading skills,” the retired educator would say.
Sofia, the second child, was born soon after Joy fell under the spell of Sister Margaret. Like many younger sisters, Sofia picked things up quicker than her older brother. She took to the pool almost instantly. Even with her safety wings, Sofia was soon bravely dipping her head under the surface. Carlos, however, would often dragged his feet on Tuesdays, but, the prospect of Panera Bread’s macaroni and cheese after swimming gave him courage.
From the beginning they called her Maestra (teacher). She had reached a point in her life in which there was a desire to be more child-like, and Sister Margaret opened a door. The parents, part of the shadow society, couldn’t help being suspicious. Why would this blonde lady suddenly appear and become grandmother to their kids?
The mother and father were barely able to say a word of English, so Maestra became their mentor, too. Cautiousness turned to a qualified trust, as she helped them first establish a mailbox. That led to being the translator of bills and notices. She enrolled the kids in school, attended parent- teacher conferences, and became involved with all medical and legal activities for the family.
All school correspondence was sent home to the lady from Quogue, who would then call the mother’s cell phone to inform her about a snow day, a field trip or a call from the nurse. “When Sofia was younger and afraid of the dentist, I would get in the chair and hold her as the dentist administered to her,” she recalled.
Perhaps Maestra’s greatest adventure was the day she took the parents to Manhattan to get Mexican passports, which would be their most important form of identification. The Hampton Jitney could have been a private jet for the star-struck Mixteco Indian couple. On that journey they rode their first escalator and navigated a revolving door at Macy’s. The next week they opened their first bank account.
A third child, Maria, just finished pre-kindergarten. Like the other two, she will be welcomed into the Riverhead Schools. It does take a village, and school is the family’s chief hope for assimilation into the American culture. District-supplied breakfasts and lunches provide the children their most important nutrition for the day.
Joy would often come home with wet hair after swimming with the kids and regale her husband, Dan, with stories and i-Phone videos of their aquatic progress. Maestra had trained them to face the camera and shout his name with glee. She, like Sister Margaret, had a new victim. “Why don’t you come along some weekend, “said the spider to the fly. After that first day with the kids, Dan was hooked.
He saw the trust and love the children felt for Maestra. He watched a miracle unfolding. She had become part of the struggling family with such ease. They all looked to her for comfort and security. Once, her phone rang in the middle of a frozen winter night. The panicked Spanish words translated to “no heat.” She dialed a number, recited her credit card, and heat was restored in an hour or two. ”This sort of thing happens quite often in their world,” she sighed.
Those in Joy’s social circles became aware of her other life. On weekends she and her husband would be seen supervising sand castle construction at the beach, attending a circus, or chasing butterflies at the Quogue Wildlife Refuge. Soon clothes and bicycles magically materialized, as did a cash gift from her garden club at Christmas.
Talk of winter in Florida by her husband is now met with, “Maybe when the children are out of high school.” The bond has deepened as the couple is captivated by their “grandchildren.” Dinner conversation is often about the children and what the future will bring. Will they live the American dream like the Irish, Jews, Italians and all the other ethnic groups who came to our shores?
Where does Maestra go from here? “All I can do is let them know that they are loved and supported,” comes the reply. “Children often aren’t aware of their economic situation, as long as they have food and a safe place to live.” She goes on to relate that, once, while she and her kids were visiting a friend’s home in an upscale community, Sofia excitedly grabbed Maestra’s hand and dragged her down the hall to a great discovery. “Look! Two bathrooms! They have two bathrooms!” she exclaimed.
Will these types of discoveries remind them of what they don’t have, and will this eventually cause feelings of hopelessness? Or, like immigrants before them, will they rejoice in each day of progress.
Can they have the American Dream? With Maestra’s help, they just might have a chance.