"Every time, I come to this school," our volunteer coordinator said, "I'm surprised to see all the students hang out on the front lawn."
I didn't get it. "What's wrong with that?" I thought. The lawn in front of this school is beautiful, with flower bushes on the sides and between them a gorgeous statue of a women reaching towards the sky. Her body is bent almost like she is ready to fly. It's a lawn I would love to have picnics on.
We had come to support students with their college applications and were now waiting between green bungalows that serve as classrooms for the seniors to arrive.
"Anyone can step right onto the campus," our coordinator added. "Anyone can walk through the hallways and into classrooms."
That's when I got it.
She looked worried while she pointed to small paths between the white main building, side walks, green grass and the spot that we were standing at. Students kept walking past us towards class. Some had books clutched to their chests.
Two boys in FC Barcelona jerseys dribbled a soccer ball close to their feet. A group of youngsters wearing sweaters with college names printed on them in bright letters were chatting, ponytails flying, exchanging shy smiles and sharing loud laughter. A yellow visitors sticker flapped between their feet. A teacher's voice urged them to hurry up.
It was the morning after the first rain storm we had had in months. Trees, bushes and flowers were washed ultra clean and clear like 3D-HD-vision. Dust and dirt were gone. Warm Santa Ana winds caressed my skin and made the inside of my nose feel like sandpaper. I remembered the weather woman warning surfers not to go into the ocean because of toxic run off from the streets.
I looked forward to talking with seniors about their personal statement drafts. I knew that once again they would have not mentioned challenges they faced in their lives that I would count as monumental in mine. Only when you ask them a few questions do they talk about leaving their country, language, family and friends behind as teenagers or kids. "A lot of kids have done that," they say. Only when they gained a little bit of trust they talk about the burden of parents' expectations weighing on their shoulders. "Well, that's just natural with all the things they've done for me," they say and shrug. They might tell you about younger siblings whom they take to school and pick up again in the afternoon. "That's actually fun. I like to do that," they say, and in their eyes you can see that they mean it. Some of them will mention jobs they have while getting ready for the finals "Only twelve hours a week," they say, and that they enjoy helping out the family. They usually have to be more comfortable with you before they talk about the lack of private space to do their homework and to talk alone with their first love. "I can be in the kitchen by myself after everybody goes to sleep," they might say, blush and lower their eyes.
When I sat down with two students that bright fall day, I wanted to ask them whether they feel safe at school.
We talked about debate clubs, a petition to change a discriminiating dress code, about learning an Arabic language during trips back home to take care of sick grandparents, and the stress of keeping up basketball skills while working on academic grades.
We talked about everything but whether they feel safe.
And anyway, what would I say in case they'd answer that they don't?