I hear bad French every day.
It is a cacophony of offensive noises. French is the great equalizer, because everyone sounds terrible when they start speaking it. It takes a minimum of 250 hours to get to the first-grade level in a Romance language. Since my students rarely do the homework that is assigned to them, I have to make up that effort in class. It makes me crabby.
“Get your stories out,” I said.
A normally very bright and sociable student, Anahi, looks at me and conveys her fear of being deported. Every day, she hears more stories of families breaking up and being torn apart over the new deportation and immigration laws. News spreads through word of mouth in her community, and she has already heard more stories than a child should ever hear.
Stories about Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents breaking through front doors in the night time, while the family is asleep, and stories of people who are sent back into the horrific conditions they fled from initially. She has dark circles under her eyes these days.
Anahi is here legally under the Dream Act which allows children who have lived in the U.S. illegally all of their lives to qualify to be U.S. citizens. Her parents aren’t citizens, nor are they here legally. That means she is mostly confined indoors, for fear of tipping off ICE agents.
I make a mental note: Do not ask the students if they’d like to walk to the store again.
Anahi focuses very hard on the lesson I present to the class. She finds comfort in the rote work of the handout I give her. Her handwriting is tiny, almost illegible, as if she is even afraid of being seen on paper.
I continue to scan the room only to notice an empty chair, usually belonging to Rosa. She does not have citizenship, and she’s been out sick a lot lately, so I call her mother. I learn from Maria that Rosa is going to have a baby. Immediately, I assume that this is a terrible choice. A baby, out of wedlock, at this age?
In New Mexico in 2016, 70 percent of all births were funded by Medicaid. This was a completely avoidable problem, and I wasn’t at all happy that she wanted to bring the birth to term. Rosa had no means of support other than her mother, Maria, who cleaned houses for a living and was already raising two other grandchildren from a daughter still in Mexico. Her two grandchildren are too young to take advantage of the Dream Act, and were born in Mexico.
“They look so cute in their football uniforms!” she said.
And that told me all I needed to know. She wasn’t going to hear about abortion, or terminating the pregnancy, or the carelessness of their decision to have the baby. These were all my ideals.
“Primitive, instinctual, atavistic, unthinking, caveman, knee-jerk rage is sure to bring strong reprisal from authorities and government officials.” ~ Michael Lutin
I was in a video that I never wanted to see, but I watched it over a dozen times. I also watched the number of viewers on YouTube rise exponentially.
In the film I saw myself as a lioness defending her cub. I charged and roared and swatted for approximately three minutes. And it was justified—but it was my fist, not a paw, and I hit a guy. I hit him hard.
The video was on all the local TV stations, at six o’clock, and again at 10. People loved it. The press wanted my side of the story, even offering to have a sit-down interview. I never said a word.
Reporters tracked me down, then called my cell phone. A camera crew went to my friend’s house, scaring her son. I hid for days. The film went viral on YouTube and Twitter. I was now receiving phone calls and emails from friends and family everywhere. If people didn’t see it on TV, then they read about it on the front page of the paper. One newspaper writer said it was terrible to watch someone lose it so horribly.
“Too bad he didn’t hit you first,” said a friend.
“You look buff!” Someone said, who I hadn’t seen for a while.
“You’re going to jail,” said my brother.
Meanwhile, there was a national campaign by Operation Rescue urging people to call the police and insist on an arrest. They were outraged that I was still on the street. The mayor got on the horn to the police chief, then on vacation. I can hear it now: “I don’t care if you’re on vacation, deal with this.”
So the police chief held a telephone press conference from the Bahamas. He wanted to assure folks that justice was being done, and they were taking it all very seriously. But the police never brought me in for questioning. The court didn’t contact me. The police came by my apartment, but did not talk to me. It was just so if they needed to they could. A lawyer offered to represent me pro bono. I accepted. The thing I liked about him most was that he never bothered me with any details about the case.
“I’m the lawyer,” he said. I agreed and left town. That was when he and the district attorney drew up the conditions for a plea agreement. He waited until I returned to tell me in person. He said that the DA had agreed to drop charges based on a “conditional discharge.”
“What are the conditions?” I asked.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Just stay out of trouble.”
He said I would have to attend the pre-trial hearing, we would present the plea to the judge, and she’d agree. I’d walk away from the whole mess. I called everyone I knew and told them.
“Hey good news!” I said. “The DA dropped the charges!”
I kept ruminating about the fight. I could not, for the life of me, remember what happened out there on that hot, July day that made me so mad. I had been in a good mood. I drove the same streets that I always did. I saw the same picture of a decapitated, bloody baby on the sidewalk in front of a doctor’s office.
But this time, I felt the war getting too personal, and I was getting really tired. It was as if I were still in that gray building, and the only color was those photos and signs, and to ignore them was to stay and wait there forever.
Ban birth control? Rape can be “legitimate?” If a woman wants an abortion, she must undergo a sonogram through vaginal penetration?
At that moment I turned my car and parked.
I walked up to three people on the sidewalk. I wanted to talk about what would happen if we were to reverse Roe v Wade. One of them was a bearded guy in his late thirties. He wore large pink sunglasses under a sunhat; he was worried about the medical consequences of his pastime. He spoke about the doctor whose practice we were standing in front of. I told him that was not why I was there, and that I really knew nothing about the doctor. So he turned to face me, and crossed his arms in front of his chest.
“All right.” he said. “Talk.”
I stepped closer and looked in his eye. That can be a strange experience—like the coil of a storm freezing, and all energy collected in one spot.
“I bet you wish you had aborted your daughter,” he said.
And then flicked off the lens cap from his video camera, and started filming. Until then I hadn’t noticed the camera. I tried to grab it, but I couldn’t reach it. As he turned away from me to protect his camera, I pounded the back of his head, and for an instant it felt like a volleyball serve.
“I am so sick of you people,” I shouted. And serve, serve. Whack! Whack!
Because I knew who I was dealing with. Not locals. I’d seen these people in Washington and knew their history. It was Operation Rescue out of Wichita, Kansas, an offshoot of the Westboro Baptist Church. They had come to provoke, and were well trained at this.
I was outsmarted into being outgunned.
I was astounded at how quickly they moved. They were on the phone to the police before I’d walked back to my car. They had spliced and edited the film by the time the police had arrived. The bearded guy had hit himself on the head with his own keys to make it look like I bloodied him, in order to up charges to “aggravated.” That had taken a little forethought, and some momentary sacrifice—it must have hurt.
A couple of months later the court date was upon us. I arrived early looking professional and polished. The charges against me were misdemeanor battery and aggravated battery (the keys), and together carried a maximum penalty of 18 months in jail, with $1,500 in fines. When I got to the courtroom, the doors were locked, so I went to the ladies’ room, splashed water on my face, and then took a sedative to calm my nerves.
My lawyer motioned to me. He had papers and a pen and told me where to sign. The courtroom doors opened and all filed in. A woman with a large, bright, knitted yarmulke had her back to me. I listened as people spoke to the judge but I didn’t hear anything they said. I spotted the Assistant DA who was assigned to us. She was known for taking high-profile cases. She was told to make it personal. Her lips curled. She was angry.
The court announced our name, and an armed guard came into the courtroom as the trial began. He was there to protect everyone from me.
Six people approached the bench, among them were the woman with the yarmulke, the bearded guy, his lawyer, and the DA. My lawyer and I took our position on the side of the Judge’s bench, and the lawyer for the prosecution started the discussion.
“Your honor,” he said, ignoring the fuming DA. “Your honor, my client is a peaceful, prayerful man who was beset upon by this…” He waived his hand toward me.
Hoo-er, I wanted to finish for him. What would the bible have said? Jezebel.
Who was he anyway, and why was he talking? He appeared meek and humble. He was soft-spoken. He warned the judge, very respectfully, of other cases where pleas such as our own had been accepted, and as a result there were many terrible consequences. He showed the judge still pictures from the video. He requested a jury trial and felony charges.
This was not in the playbook I had expected.
The judge listened attentively and nodded. She looked through our papers again. When she ruled in favor of my plea agreement, my lawyer looked at me and smiled.
When the judge dismissed us, I walked to the back of the courtroom to await my lawyer and the papers. The woman with the yarmulke rushed up to me and grabbed both my hands. I recoiled, not wanting her to touch me, but she did not care.
“Bless you,” she said. And she meant it. She stood there and stared into my eyes, smiling. That film had raised a lot of money for them.
My lawyer handed me the plea agreement that I’d signed; it was the first time I’d read it. It was stamped “Guilty” on both counts. It also stated that I was to be on supervised probation for one year, pay a fine, and attend 24 weeks of anger management classes. That I would be paying for each class, was the part I noticed second.
It wasn’t what I thought I’d signed. He had tricked me, and I could do nothing about it.
The next day I met with my probation officer. He had an open Bible on his desk, and we spent the better part of an hour with him preaching, and me listening to preaching. “I am open-minded,” he said. “If someone was to come in here who was a homosexual or atheist, I’d be okay with that.” I sat and listened. I cocked my head and nodded—I was agreeable.
“I’m not saying you are homosexual, or that I think you are a homosexual person, but that I am not troubled by the personal lifestyle. One of my best friends is African American.”
After meeting with him, I fell onto my couch at home.
Later that week I drove to the site of my anger management classes, a shabby brick building with several men out front smoking cigarettes. They looked rough. The guy behind the reception desk asked my name, which I shared. The place was a mess with shady milling people around. I was going to be here an hour every week, for 24 weeks. “Were you on TV?” he asked as I signed the registration sheet.
“Yes, “I said. “Yes.”
“Way to go!” he said, then gave me a high-five.
I finished signing in, and then waited outside with the others in the front of the building for the class to start. I leaned up against the wall and lit a cigarette.
Rosa and Anahi are huddled together in a corner of the class, laughing and looking at pictures on their phones. I walk over inconspicuously and listen to their conversation. It’s about boys and friends, and I’m relieved to hear them behaving like ordinary high school girls. They aren’t interested in drinking or drugs. They are taken care of and loved fiercely by their parents. They are expected to work hard in school. They are secure in what is expected from them.
What they cannot control are the forces outside of their lives. Yet, Rosa will be in control of this part of her life. She has chosen to have the baby, and Maria, who is a religious woman, supports her decision. More importantly, so does Anahi.
And once again, I cannot control the outcome, either.
“Where is the father,” I ask no one in particular. But it isn’t about him. It is about one more mouth to feed in their tiny little house. It’s about a new addition to the family, she tells me. It’s a lot of money with no preparation, I say to her. She agrees and says that God will provide.
There is no response to her logic so I drop the issue. Bringing her little family here from Mexico was a monumental risk, and adding another child to the mix will be easy enough to this tough, resilient little family. It made my fight with the abortion protester much more poignant.
What if I have been wrong all along?
Author: Suzanne Cully
Image: Jerry Kiesewetter/Unsplash
Editor: Taia Butler