Emily Francis had been there.
She was a 15-year-old immigrant from Guatemala in 1994 when she chose a hand-me-down outfit for her first day of school in the United States.
Years later when she first saw Orlando — a student in her Cabarrus County classroom — she understood why the young man was so put together. The boy, although scared and shaking, was dressed to succeed.
“You had a cute little haircut, you were all cleaned up, and you wore a burgundy shirt and long black pants. We knew that education would be our key to shift our narrative. We wouldn’t forget what we’d left behind, but we were summoning the courage to face the future before us — with the help of our best outfits.”
That passage about Orlando is one featured in Francis’ book “If You Only Knew: Letters from an Immigrant Teacher.” Her book is a collection of letters to her students, and it intertwines her life story as an unaccompanied minor who came to the U.S. with eight of her former students’ experiences.
She doesn’t use last names, including in the case of Orlando. Francis is in her fifth year teaching students at Concord High who are learning or developing their English language skills.
“My calling is to advocate and protect my students’ identities and individualities,” the 44-year-old Francis told The Charlotte Observer. “I intentionally create and maintain strong relationships with students so I can tap into their full potential and see them fully engaged and soar on campus and in our community. I strive to create a strong sense of belonging where students know and feel that they truly belong.”
Francis believes the letter format was the best way to reflect her journey and put her students front and center.
“I know that as students come to the U.S., they are in need of someone who understands them,” she said. “My hope is that at least one, or maybe even all eight of the letters in the book, can be the mirror a student needs to feel reaffirmed and valued.”
Students: “Own your story”
Francis doesn’t view her arrival in the U.S. as a turning point in her life. It was just the next chapter.
In Guatemala, she attended school, learned how to cook and took care of her siblings. She stayed home with her siblings for two years while her mother came to the U.S. to prepare a path for the family.
Once here, she enrolled in Martin Van Buren High School in Queens Village, New York. Learning English was both a struggle and stepping stone “to demonstrate the resilience I’ve lived for 15 years and as an unaccompanied minor who crossed borders for a better future.”
Adam Auerbach, principal of Concord High, believes Francis’ personal experiences make her relatable to her students.
“It is who she is and her story,” he said. “She is all about each student sharing and owning their story.
“She truly cares about them, their families and their futures. She has high expectations and doesn’t let their challenges or outside life give them an easy out. She pushes them but supports them at the same time.”
Teacher caught entering country
In her book, Francis wrote that when she first saw Orlando, she didn’t see his ankle bracelet, although she had heard about it.
“ICE had picked you up after you crossed the border,” she wrote. “The bracelet wasn’t the result of some horrible crime you’d committed; it was a souvenir of the time you’d spent in la hielera. … I could imagine the fear you had felt in the moment you were caught.”
La hielera is the nickname given for the frigid, cramped holding cells in Customs and Border Protection facilities.
Francis also got caught entering the country undocumented. She made Orlando a promise: “I would make sure your experience would be a whole lot different than the one you had in that icebox with immigration.”
She told the Observer her advice to immigrants is to never underestimate their lived experiences before coming to the U.S.
“I received messages that my culture and my background experiences did not have any value,” she said. “I fell into the trap of being someone else instead of being myself. I felt forced to pack away my greatest gift — my lived experiences — because they were never affirmed or validated.”
In a letter to Alonso, another of Francis’ students represented in her book, Francis tells him his past is what made him a hard worker.
Alonso had lived in Mexico with his parents and self-taught himself English before his parents sent him to finish high school in the U.S. But the pandemic caused both parents to lose their jobs, forcing Alonso to plan on dropping out of school and work full time to support his family back in Mexico,
“I was devastated,” Francis said, and emailed the principal and guidance counselors to make sure “he graduates this year.”
Alonso ended up staying in school but woke early to drive 45 minutes to work at a lumber company every morning.
Francis’ first job in the U.S. was working at a supermarket as a bagger.
“But like you,” Francis writes to Alonso, “I had to work hard to stay on top of my schoolwork while I helped my family. Sometimes teachers would scold me for turning in homework with food on it, but I knew I was doing the best I could to get it all done, often working past midnight just like you did so many nights last semester.”
Improving school culture
Francis’ background includes working as an ESL teacher in elementary school.
Auerbach tried to recruit Francis to the high school level, but she wasn’t interested at first.
“It took me a few years to get her to come to CHS,” Auerbach said. “She helps students and staff be better in the classroom for all students. She has helped improve the culture of understanding and advocating for all students.”
Ultimately, Francis’ message embedded in every letter in her book is aimed at all students: there’s more than one path to a dream.
“If one door closes, knock on another one,” she said. “If one person fails you, find another one who believes in you. Whatever the message students get from my book, I wish that it is one that will build their humanity and character.”