She found me on Facebook a year ago, this 24-year-old former student of mine. Recently, Ana offered to loan me The Center Cannot Hold (a memoir that the author describes as her “journey through madness”), and I wanted to lend her Children of the Land (a memoir of growing up undocumented). So we met up one morning on my front lawn, masked, each with a book in hand. It was just the second time in about twelve years that we’d seen each other in person.
As a fourth-grader, Ana Lilia was kind and gentle, intelligent and loving. The adult Ana is still those things, but now I see that she also has a wicked sense of humor. I bark-laugh at her funny posts on Facebook.
We visited for an hour that morning, and I loved every minute of it. Was part of my delight the fact that her liberal beliefs match mine? Sure. Was I excited that she brought me TWO strawberry-shortcakes-in-a-cup, both of which I shamelessly scarfed down, pandemic-style, as soon as she left? Definitely. But what most struck me was her strength. I LOVE “fierce.” And Ana—she’s fierce.
After we sat down eight feet apart, the catching up began. Ana graduated from U.C. Berkeley, and is now in grad school to earn her Master’s in Social Work degree. She also works full time as a case manager for an agency that serves people with developmental disabilities. Every speck of that makes my heart go all aflutter, but what was most beautiful was watching her light up as she talked about her life’s direction.
“My mom was a nurse in Mexico, so she wanted me to go into something in medicine. I thought maybe public health, but then when I took a class in social welfare, I knew I’d found it. I LOVE what I do.”
Ana told me again about the book, and how powerfully the author had provided a window into the experience of severe mental illness. She had read it for school, and though the amount of assigned reading was overwhelming, she had devoured every page of that book. We spoke of trying to wean the word “crazy” from our vocabularies, and the earnestness she exuded was pure compassion.
Not only does she have the stress of grad school while working full time, but Ana is also supposed to get married in October. They stand to lose thousands of dollars in deposits if the wedding is canceled, but she’s hoping that the vendors will give credit if she can’t have the wedding this fall. So she’s dealing with planning/canceling a wedding, too.
“Do you still go by ‘Ana Lilia’?” I asked.
“Well, when I was in sixth grade, I stopped calling myself Ana Lilia and told people to just call me ‘Ana’.” [She still uses the Spanish spelling, but she pronounced it Americanized, the first syllable sounding like “An” instead of “On,” which would be the Spanish pronunciation.]
I’ve long been interested in the practice of young people changing their name, so I pounced on this topic.
“Yeah, I’ve noticed in the classroom that kids who speak another language sometimes change their name to a more ‘mainstream’ one when they get a little older. It sort of makes me sad, but I really admire the strength in kids who decide for themselves.”
Then I told her about Nghiem, from thirty years ago. I had just given my first-day-of-school speech about how I hoped kids would tell me if I mispronounced their name, or if they preferred that I call them by a nickname. Nghiem told me I’d said his name wrong. Five times he gave me the correct pronunciation, and five times I butchered it, though it sounded right to my untrained ear. Finally, he sighed and said, “Just call me Rick.” For the rest of the year, I cringed whenever I called him by either name.
Ana said, “Yeah, my work world and my school world know me as ‘Ana’,” [pronounced ‘Anna’], “but my family has always called me another name, my nickname, my family name. I get really mad at my fiancé when he calls me that name. It’s my family name!”
Her laugh was hearty, and the spark in her eyes underscored how strongly she felt the right to claim her own name. I was nodding my head in admiration. I hadn’t developed that kind of conviction and certainty until I was well past Ana’s age.
“There are some ways I’m kind of typical for being from a Mexican family, but then I’m not. I am NOT going to do my husband’s laundry. We’re going to split things 50-50. I am NOT giving up my name to take his! I am earning my DEGREE with my name, and that’s how I want to keep it!”
Then she told me something she’d learned in college about internal biases.
“They’ve done studies showing that if you take two identical resumés, and you put a name that sounds ‘white’ on one and a name that sounds like it might be ‘black’ or some other culture on the other one, the white name gets WAY more responses.”
I had read that, too, but not when I was twenty-four.
“So what do you write on your resumé?”
“Ana Lilia Quiroz.”
Immediate. Definitive. Proud.
And I felt something stir in my chest. It wasn’t my place to feel proud of her, but – damn. I had loved Ana Lilia the fourth-grader, and I found myself loving Ana the adult.
We talked about how she straddles two cultures, two countries. She loves visiting her grandma and family in Mexico, but she can’t go as often as she would like to. I noticed her eyes when she described how hard it is to imagine the future day when her grandma won’t be there to visit.
“If it were cheap and easy to fly down every month, I would,” she said. I believe her.
We laughed a lot as she talked about her memories of elementary school.
“Nothing was better than Pajama Day—curling up on the floor and watching movies in pajamas and playing with the PE parachute in pajamas. That was the BEST.”
Her eyes glowed at the memory, and I smiled broadly. Kids always remember the things that teachers consider peripheral, the things that are unrelated to the curriculum we work so hard on. Pajama Day is the day before Winter Break. For us teachers, it’s simply a rare opportunity to clean up the room while kids are quiet and entertained.
Ana went on to tell me that she loves when childhood friends post old class pictures on Facebook, because her family never had enough money for her to buy the class photo. We laughed together as she recalled that most of her female classmates had a crush on the same teacher. Her face grew wistful as she recalled her fifth-grade teacher, who arranged for her class to go to overnight environmental ed camp.
“I want to write her a letter and tell her how much I remember, and how much I appreciate her. And my second-grade teacher—I loved her so much. I just loved her so much.”
As her face was alight with happy memories from the school where she and I met all those years ago, I felt the sweetness of glimpsing the person she has grown into. Ana is a fighter. She won’t ever stop loving the country from which her family comes. She won’t do her husband’s laundry, and she won’t give up claim to her name.
And something else Ana won’t do? She won’t stand for injustice. I’ve learned that about her. She stands up for people with mental illness, she is a vocal ally for LGBTQ people, and she’ll cry out to anyone who will listen that Black Lives Matter. Her MSW internship will start soon, and she wants it to be in a school or a prison. Ana is fierce, her strength fueled by compassion and heart. I truly believe that she will never stop trying to help others.
When it was time for her to leave, I struggled to find the right words to say. All I could find were these:
“I feel so proud of you, but I’m not really in the position to be proud. You’re not mine. So I’ll just tell you that I’m very impressed by you, Ana. I’m so impressed.”
That meant a lot to her.
And it means a lot to me. This pandemic has forced me to think about retirement in a way I was not yet ready to do. I will work this year, but I might need to retire before I otherwise would have, depending on how this year goes. That thought causes me pangs of sadness.
But those pangs lessened a tiny bit after the catch-up time on my front lawn with Ana. Because Ana, and others like her, will be the next ones to take the baton and run.
Thinking of Ana gives me hope. She’s grabbing the baton, and this I know: Ana will run like the wind.