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Rebecca Joseph Headshot

A Thanksgiving Lesson From My Cleaning Lady's Daughter

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When I read Angela's college application essays this week, my heart broke. She revealed information that I never knew about her and her family even though her mother has worked as my cleaning lady for almost 10 years. Her essays and entire application made me think how my life in the middle class made it easy for me to not know about Angela's world.

Ironically or not, I spend the majority of my every fall helping hundreds of first generation and under-represented students, like Angela, apply to college. I do presentations promoting four-year college access to students, families, non-profits, libraries, and school communities. I also help students brainstorm, draft, revise, and edit their personal statements. To gain admissions to competitive colleges and money from top scholarships, I push students to personalize their essays so that readers can understand the cultural and economic contexts of their lives while simultaneously seeing how the students are changing that world through individual actions.

Often, in my conversations with students, I ask them how their parents' experiences, often immigrant, low wage ones, affect the students' hunger for learning and for change. Often, I meet students whose families struggle tremendously, leading their children to begin to live double lives as they use their education and other resources to provide them access to the middle class. Their experiences and essays touch me, and I push students to share their life experiences as personally as possible. I meet these young people once or maybe a few times, and then release them back to their complex lives filled with unimaginable potential and difficult navigations from one world to another.

Then, this fall I worked with Angela, and my work became personal. I have known Angela since she was seven years old when her immigrant mother, the same age as me, became my cleaning lady. For years, Angela came to my condo when her mother had no childcare, and I remember getting upset when her mother had Angela help her out. At the same time, I saw real potential in her when she read her books, drew, or listened to music. Yet I knew very little about her or her life. While I rely on her mother, I rarely talk with her, as her English is weak, and she and I seemingly have little in common, except paradoxically I spend my time trying to convince moms like her to let their children attend match colleges that often require them to leave home.

My work with Angela has been sporadic as I am more of an idea person, more of a one-time mentor. I usually speak with a student or parent and then go home, the home her mother helps maintain.

That doesn't mean I haven't tried to help. Over the past four years, I helped encourage Angela to move from a low performing high school to a middle class charter school that I identified and help get her into. I helped pay for Angela's SAT classes, albeit ineffective, and have pushed her to apply to a wide variety of colleges.

When college application season came around, I knew that Angela was getting some help from her high school English teachers and high school counselor. I knew that her SAT scores were low, but that is not surprising given the cultural biases of the tests and the limited education level of her single mom. I knew she was doing incredibly well at school and engaged in the community.

And then I read her essays and realized how little I really knew about her. I had never known how her Guatemalan mother had come to this country or how she had worked subsistence jobs to raise her three children. I never realized how Angela had visited houses like mine, middle class and much more affluent ones, and witnessed lifestyles so different from her own that she could resent the people from whom her mother works. I never knew how transferring to a middle class charter school had initially been so profoundly challenging as Angela had to get over her unfamiliarity with middle class students and at times feel embarrassed about her own living circumstances. I never knew how over time she did an extraordinary effort in attaining a transformative education as her school, classes, and classmates pushed her mind and her passions.

Nothing can change how Angela lives just above the poverty line but is on the cusp of becoming middle class. Nothing can change that her mother has her clean a client's house once a week to help her make money for college and to show Angela a life she hopes she never leads herself. Nothing can change that while her mother wants Angela to obtain a high quality education, she does not want her daughter to leave home for college, even though she knows by going away Angela most likely can find a higher level college that will accept her high grades, but low test scores.

Because of Angela, I began to realize how much I rely on her mother but would never really think about how her mother could truly dislike what she does. I don't like doing my laundry, cleaning my toilet, or washing my floors. Why would Angela's mother? How do I accept my role as a college access advisor and not feel like a hypocrite when I help my cleaning lady's daughter?

I think we will all have to accept this discomfort. Social and cultural capital is complex, and advancing through America society requires tremendous shifts in thinking and action. I will have to realize that I do want everyone to have access to better lives, but I still want someone to clean for me. I will have to push my own thinking to understand why it is hard for students to move beyond their family's expectations.

Now, back to reviewing Angela's application and helping her pay for the extra colleges to which I want her to apply. I cannot retreat. Angela has taught me an invaluable lesson this Thanksgiving.

I will continue to do what I can to help her and other students use higher education to advance their lives. I will give more thanks for my own cleaning lady, whom without any formal education came to our country to provide a better world for her children and now grandchildren. I will also try to navigate the difficult path of honoring her handwork and familial desire to keep her family intact while simultaneously encouraging her youngest child to reach educational and economic levels that may enable Angela someday to hire someone to clean her own house.