How Can We Help Miguel?

[Written for DML Central. More comments there.]

One of the hardest parts of doing fieldwork is hearing difficult, nuanced stories that break my heart. The more complicated the story, the harder it is to tell, but I feel a responsibility to at least try. Given how many educational reformists read this blog, I want to provide a portrait of some of the teens that I’ve met who are currently being failed by the system. My goal in doing so is to ask a hard question: how do we help these specific teens? Let me start with Miguel.

Miguel is 17 and in the 10th grade. His parents, both from Mexico, never finished high school and speak very little English. They are very religious and came to the US to try to provide a life for Miguel and his brother. When Miguel arrived first arrived in Nashville, he spoke very little English himself, but a local gang immediately adopted him and taught him English with heavy street slang. Given his initial friends, he was immediately labeled as a gangbanger by adults. He struggles with this label and it shapes his relationship to school and influences how adults treat him.

danah: Is school boring?
Miguel: Sometimes. Like, my algebra II, that class is like, I don’t get what she is saying. I tell her to slow down and she won’t slow down. She act like a computer. I sometimes am taking notes and she’ll be erasing them. That’s when I get mad and I tell her. She says she don’t care.
danah: Why doesn’t she care?
Miguel: Because she say I never pay attention.
danah: How does that make you feel?
Miguel: It makes me feel bad because I know that I pay attention and I try, but that’s her.

Miguel has long struggled to dissociate himself with gangs, looking up to people who are making their life work through the traditional tracks of school. “When I see people who are doing good in school I be like, oh, I want to be like that. It makes me be a better person and give me, what’s it called, feel better in my mind, my studies and everything.” But he faces insurmountable odds. As an undocumented / “illegal” (in his words) immigrant, he believes that he won’t be going to college. He’s particularly angry about this because his brother is doing quite well in school and there appears to be no hope for him to go to college either. (Note: I’m not sure about the legal barriers, but Miguel is convinced that there’s no way that he or his brother could go to college.)

In addition to feeling as though there’s no educational future for him, he struggles with issues about loyalty, feeling like he should be supporting his friends who supported him when he first arrived. But then a friend of his was killed; this scared him. “It makes me feel like I don’t want to be in that position anymore. I prefer to stay at home or going to the movies without knowing I’m going to get shot.” Fights are all around him and he regularly struggles to stay disengaged.

Miguel: I make decisions now by more of the– to feel myself better and safe, because one day we were fighting and this dude pulled out a knife and he started trying to kill someone. And since then, I was like, “I don’t like that.” And then, one day, it was before the knife, after the knife my friend got into a fight and everyone wasn’t there. This dude pull up a gun and he tried to shoot you. He shoot the gun, but we start running. So that’s why I prefer to stay bored in school and be safe than be doing something bad. Not doing nothing in school is more safe than to be doing something that is bad for me.

Miguel says that most of his friends stay involved with the gangs because “they don’t want leave out of the life. They want to stay in that life.” When the TV show Gangland did a special on Nashville, his friends were ecstatic that they were on TV, that they were now “famous.” This TV show, while showing the underbelly of gang culture, served as a recruiting technique for local gangs. Although Miguel wants out, there are pressures to stay in. He no longer goes to the lunchroom because he’s expected to sit with the gang. He works hard to come up with activities that will give him excuses for not showing up at fights. And while he’s got support outside of school – at church, through a counselor – even his teachers have written him off as a gangbanger.

Here’s a teen who wants to learn, who is painfully far behind and frustrated, who speaks broken English and is clearly lacking in many educational basics, who is unable to see a future for himself outside of doing menial labor and working hard to avoid being picked up by INS. He doesn’t see college as an option nor does he see any path to becoming legal. How can we help a teen like Miguel?

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15 thoughts on “How Can We Help Miguel?

  1. Tom Hoffman

    I stand with the Obama administration in declaring that quarterly computerized tests of academic textual analysis and abstract math will pave the road to college for Miguel.

  2. Anya Kamenetz

    Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for Title IV federal higher education funding such as Pell Grants, which does make it very difficult for people to afford college, although Miguel would certainly be eligible to attend college. The DREAM Act attempts to address this inequity.

  3. Rob

    Does Miguel have reasonable access to a computer/broadband?
    Have you seen — It sounds like the Algebra videos could really really help. The key thing is that you can pause the teacher (or replay the video) if it you need to see a part again.

    For learning Maths (and to a lesser degree science and economics) they are amazing resources.

  4. rhbee

    Miguel use the safety of school to find the internet. Learn by teaching yourself to search for what you want to know. Apply that skill to your text book for Algebra. That is what those kids you envy are doing. That is called studying.

    Can’t get to the internet, go to the library. Learn to hang out there with every interesting thing you can find there. In my life I have found that what I want to know is what stays with me.

    Teachers are just one way to validate your education.

    If the school can keep you safe while you learn then guess what, you can use wht you’ve described about your teacher’s method in Algebra (which by the way scared the hell out of a lot of us, I read books through most of my sophomore Algebra class and only learned it when I needed to understand it for my GRE.) to psyche her out. It’s about winning not whining.

  5. rhbee

    Tom, sorry, I was in such a hurry to blurt out my response I didn’t take the time to enjoy your irony. I’d say if he can follow the path you describe then Miguel may someday head his own street gang.

  6. john latsko

    wow. this is a reality i live with as a public high school teacher in los angeles. miguel’s right – there is no easy way to college as undocumented kids in this state can go as far as (some) community college courses and if extremely wealthy, pay out-of-state tuition to go to a four-year school – which means, it’s pretty-much inconceivable that miguel would be so ‘fortunate’. there’s a much better chance that the system will ‘fail’ him, and he’ll compile deficiencies in credits and his GPA will be weak. probably because his teachers are bent on satisfying test score goals, set unrealistically high, among schools now literally competing for limited funds. schools will soon be rejecting kids like miguel, hoping to dump all of their ESL learners to reduce the low-scorers from their ranks – especailly those rapidly-growing, for-profit, charters. if miguel’s ‘lucky’, he’ll have a counsellor who may speak spanish but handle 700 kids. the best thing that could happen to miguel is that a teacher like me (art in this case) takes an interest in him. that teacher might also speak spanish (as i do), and actually help connect to his parent at a parent conference. he may even attain a decent grade in a class once and a while (i have over 90% pass rate in my courses on average) and actually decide that school is not “boring”. this might actually enable him to see through completing high school (because he might touch base with that teacher if noone else – checking in about grades and family, etc…). all it’s taken for me to experience such connections with kids very similar to miguel in this story is almost cliche. it’s called compassion. it transcends subject matter and test score. after fourteen years in this urban situation, i see across my FB ‘friends’ testimony to this experience. it doesn’t mean that miguel will get a brilliant job, or actually get into a four-year school, but he may very well end up a good dad, responsibly raising boys that now take school seriously, in english now.
    what’s this compassion? listening with an open heart. that’s non-judgmental and forgiving. it’s not easy – but extremely rewarding. sustaining too. there are way too many miguels out there. those of us teachers working in america’s urban schools today know many of them. love many of them. every day.

  7. Larry Lyon

    This young man needs a mentor. One source is an organization called “Mesa” which helps and supports Hispanic children who want to go college and are interested in engineering. Most colleges have Mesa coordinators who will get involved personally. It’s a private organization so they are not bound up in regulations which prohibit them from helping undocumented children. They sponsor free summer camps and other activities on a personal level with high school and college students.

    I’ll follow up tomorrow and forward you a link to Mesa in Nashville.

  8. Jonathan Nacionales

    Vocational training might be a good alternative to University for Miguel. In my opinion, not everyone is cut out for College. What he needs is a quick way to become financially, emotionally, and socially independent of the gang, and having a marketable skill would really help him do this. I can easily imagine Miguel being a successful mechanic, nurse, or computer technician in a short time. Considering that he’s already written-off College for himself, he might be more open to Vocational training. I don’t think that his questionable immigration status wouldn’t be a hindrance to this either.

  9. tiffany

    this kid needs an advocate — someone who can talk to his teacher in english and say “miguel wants to do the right thing. how about nudging him to come to extra help sessions instead of actively discouraging him by saying ‘i don’t care?'”

    now: how do we find someone in nashville who is willing to do that?

    as for the gang angle, i can’t even pretend that’s easy to solve.

  10. Larry Lyon

    My earlier comment was based on familiarity with a program called “MESA” which provides mentoring, advocacy and support for minority students interested in studying engineering based on services provided to a family member in California. California is one of 8 states with a MESA program, unfortunately Tennessee is not one of them. I will inquire further regarding other similar programs. Attached is a link to the California site referring to MESA USA.

  11. Tracy Mendham

    Danah, one of the first steps for helping a teen like Miguel is hearing and honoring his story. Thank you for doing that.

    As a college option in the future there may be more open educational resource options in higher ed like Peer-to-Peer University ( but that will likely supply only the learning, not the accredited, documented degree that Miguel needs to get a stable, salaried job.

  12. Larisa

    Although the phrasing of the title sets it up, of course the main ways to help Miguel are systemic, and not individual, because the problems he faces are faced by many and not caused by individual neglect.

    Getting him a mentor leaves all the kids around him to struggle, equally. There are not enough mentors for everyone. I’m sure Dana didn’t mean that Miguel is more deserving of a chance at a decent life than the people around him. But really, funding public education, paying teachers decently and requiring there be a small student/teacher ratio, job opportunities for people in Miguel’s family and neighborhood, health care, unemployment and welfare, etc etc. Let alone a revamping of our borders to reflect that if capital is mobile then people must be allowed to be equally mobile.

    The reason he struggles with loyalty towards the people who helped him when he first arrived, is because those networks, even the gangs, substitute for absent social support networks. The reason they persist is not because people are pathologically attached to gangs, but because there are so few other ways to get by.

    In the short term it will take enormous individual effort to help Miguel (which is of course worthwhile), but that effort will not automatically lead to any of the systemic changes, and Miguel and others like him will be dependent on the few who can afford to make that effort. This guarantees a steady stream of kids in his position, and many will fall through the cracks.

  13. Ron

    Today the army / Navy announced they will award citizenship to immigrants in return for their service. Time for miguel to stop faking like a warrior in the streets and repay all the tax dollars that citizens have spent feeding, providing school, and healthcare to himself and many others like himself. Todays was a good day for the millitary and illegals.

  14. rhbee

    Ron, yeah, and today is a good day to die. I be way more impressed if the army/Navy, whatever that is, had announced they were awarding, wow how did they get that authority, citizenship to immigrants in return for serving in the Peace Corp. Taking the Miguels of the world off the streets and teaching the skills of combat just gets them more gang training.

    Meanwhile, Larisa states it clearly. Helping solve the real problems in education for all the students is what will really help Miguel. Unless, the ROTC gets him first and he starts the first of his many, many tours of duty.

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