I give up trying to explain to Jose what a Nervous Nelly is and return to the spectator section of the courtroom. Jose can barely keep still. Even Tiklas looks nervous. Numbers 43 and 44. Two thorns in this ESL teacher’s side.
When they asked me to help them study for the citizenship test, I thought they were friends who would work together. Ha! Jose is Mexican, while Tiklas is a Guatemalan who exalts his Mayan roots and denies everything Hispanic.
From the beginning, they slapped stereotypes on one another, dividing “dumb and lazy” between them.
The words, “dumb Mexican” actually came from Tiklas’ lip-ringed mouth one day when Jose showed me he had taken my advice and bought a three-ring-binder with dividers. I, myself, had mixed emotions when he opened his notebook. There were the dividers—at least 50 of them—no lined paper—just dividers.
Jose, though, is one of hardest working men I have ever met, whereas Tiklas takes his intellect for granted, relying on memory, instead of effort.
“Teacher,” Jose asks, periodically. “How you say perezoso?”
My lectures on kindness an obvious waste of time.
I follow the gaze of the marshal from Homeland Security as he lays out the consequences of losing a Certificate of Citizenship—worth $50,000 on the international black market. I’ve never seen so many twitching mustaches packed into one space. Jose’s is twitching the fastest.
The attorney then asks for the pronunciation of each of the applicants’ names. That means something. My mother, Ingrid Heidenstecker, a German immigrant, often said it showed respect when someone wanted to pronounce your name correctly.
It seems respect has been lacking. And not just between Jose and Tiklas. I’ve got conservative friends who see foreigners as “milkers” of the system and liberal friends who don’t want any parameters at all. There are those who think Americans are selfish—you got yours, but you don’t want me to have mine.
And what about me? It’s th-th-three—not tree, and stop ironing my underwear. My mother used to be a real embarrassment.
On immigration, no one comes out smelling rosy.
I check my program to figure out who the pint-sized older women are who have just arrived. They’re wearing shoulder sashes with rows of miniature medals. They look like ambassadors from the Land of Oz, but no; they’re Daughters of the American Revolution—DAR. They and other community organizations have come bearing gifts.
When the judge arrives and convenes the court, the momentum picks up. Colors are posted; the head of DAR prays—in federal court—requesting protection and blessings for the citizens-to-be. The attorney petitions on behalf of the 68 applicants from 30 countries. Many are shaking as they stand to take the Oath of Citizenship. I wonder if my mother’s accented voice trembled when she promised to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America.
The judge grants the petition and addresses the courtroom.
“ . . .You can earn your Japanese citizenship, but you will never be Japanese. The same goes for every other country in the world—except for the United States. When you earn your citizenship here, you become an American.” The judge steps down to the main floor of the courtroom—certificates in hand. “Now is the time to concentrate on what brings us together, not on that which divides. You’re not Russian-Americans, nor Iranian-Americans. Today you are Americans—with all the rights and responsibilities. . .”
I look pointedly at Jose and Tiklas—are you getting this?
The next hour is a blur of joy and tears, of certificates and handshakes, of gifts and families and photos, as each person is called by properly-enunciated-name. Some share stories of persecution and sacrifice and what this day, this dream, means for them.
My mother and her dreams are with me now, part of this ceremony— where benevolence trumps every immigration issue and where the spirit of the United States reigns. The land where the right to be free stems from Almighty God; where those pursuing freedom come, and where hands extend in welcome.
We’re filing out, and I’m thinking where we’ll go to celebrate—probably Ming’s Dragon—they both love Chinese—when I hear Tiklas say, “Jose, let’s study—really study, for the GED.”
“Okay,” says Jose. And then: “Teacher—you help us, no?”
I begin stuttering about schedules—time.
Jose suddenly smiles. “Ahhh. Don’t be so Nervous Nelly.”
And for some reason, they both find this hilarious.
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