I met Matilda in 2001, when we were in the 5th grade. I remember that classes had already started and we were learning the divisibility rules in math. Matilda, however, wasn’t keeping up.
Matilda didn’t speak any English, only Spanish. However looking back, she probably didn’t speak much Spanish either, but an indigenous dialect. Matilda was extremely small for her age, very shy, and too quiet, but sweet in every way. I don’t remember how I found out, but I do remember knowing that she was a farmworker child, and that her parents were migrant farmworkers.
Because I was the only other Hispanic, Spanish-speaking kid in our class, the first thing our math teacher did was place Matilda next to me and put me in charge of helping her. The teacher explained that because Matilda didn’t speak English, Matilda was to attend math class with the rest of us, and spend the rest of the day with the ESL class. The teacher also told me that Matilda was not as advanced in math as we were, and asked me “will you help her go through this 2nd grade math work book?” Delighted, I did so.
I guided Matilda as much as I could, up to the point that I wasn’t paying attention in math class. While Matilda was mastering the 2nd grade level math quite well, I failed the Divisibility Rules Test. Frustrated, I went up to the teacher and told her, “I like helping Matilda out, but I can’t do that anymore. I don’t understand the divisibility rules because I’m always teaching her how to do her work instead of paying attention.” Of course, the teacher was taken aback when I said that teaching was her job, not mine. She had assumed that I was paying attention, and that I was just helping Matilda when she needed help the most. Nevertheless, it was clear to me that Matilda needed more help than what the teacher and I could give her, all together.
Two weeks later, Matilda was gone. Matilda only attended our elementary school for about one month, so when she stopped coming, I was very surprised as well as sad. She had been my companion in math class, and what I missed the most, even though I was doing horribly on my own work, was helping her master hers.
Who knows what happened to Matilda. I’ve often wondered all these years where she went and how she was doing. When I graduated in 2009 from high school, I wondered “Did Matilda graduate from high school too?”
We, as SAFE AmeriCorps members, need to remember that we’re not to have just our goals in mind. But before anything else to have compassion, mercy, and understanding of the people we serve. To put others before yourself is essential. It’s only then that we can truly make a difference in the lives of people, and possibly even impact a farmworker child, like Matilda.
To learn more about how you can get involved or support AFOP’s SAFE AmeriCorps program, contact Health & Safety Programs Senior Manager Jessica Werder via email at werder[at]afop.org.