Yvonne Watterson

Undocumented Dreams

VTR Date: July 21, 2008

Principal Yvonne Watterson discusses immigration and education issues.


GUEST: Yvonne Watterson
VTR: 07/21/2008

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And since 1956, I’ve begun my program this same way each week.

I end it with words that also are the same each week, namely: “As an old friend used to say, ‘Good Night and Good Luck’.

That old friend, of course, was Edward R. Murrow. And the connection between sign on and sign off is quite specific: Ed Murrow very much helped this once young American history college teacher get into broadcasting.

Indeed, today’s Open Mind subject reminds me ever so much of what at Thanksgiving, 1960 would just about be Murrow’s CBS News network swan song … before the master broadcaster took up President-Elect John F. Kennedy’s offer that Murrow join the young leader’s Cabinet as head of the United States Information Agency, to become, if you will, the voice of America.

That 1960 program was “Harvest of Shame”. And even as we Americans stuffed ourselves with Thanksgiving turkey and all of the goodies, Murrow documented for us the heart-rending plight of the nation’s migrant workers, asking his viewers at this extraordinary television hour’s end … if we didn’t, who would speak up for these voiceless unfortunates?

Now, a half century later, today’s Open Mind guest also very much documents the plight, and the dreams, of America’s “others” … in this instance, the high-achieving but undocumented youngsters in Phoenix, Arizona who have so successfully attended the GateWay Early College High School over which my guest devotedly presides. Many of whom are now prevented by Arizona’s so-called Proposition 300 from receiving further in-state tuition rates.

Thanks to the “sins” of their undocumented parents, state money can no longer be used for these youngsters … and many of them must now abandon the one fine educational opportunity that has given them a chance to “make it” here in the land of opportunity.

GateWay’s intrepid principal is Yvonne Watterson. Born and educated in Ireland, she is sadly familiar with the dreadful burdens innocent children must sometimes bear when religious or nativist conflicts stand human values on their heads.

My guest has taught in Arizona for some years now, in every way making GateWay Early College High a model school of its kind.

Then in March, 2008 Yvonne Watterson’s story appeared in the New York Times, headlined “Principal Sees Injustice, And Picks a Fight With It.”

When good hearted Westerners not overly burdened with antipathy for the children of illegals sent private funds to my guest to let at least some of her undocumented students stay in school, she published as a bilingual book “Documented Dreams”, her students’ autobiographical thank-you notes to the donors of whom they need so many more.

It’s an extraordinary book. Yvonne Watterson is an extraordinary educator. Let me now ask her about this unhappy situation. And it is an unhappy situation, a parallel to what I gather you saw as a very young person in Ireland.

WATTERSON: Well, yeah, I mean when I was a little girl … I grew up Protestant, my next-door neighbors were Catholic and you know, we all went to public schools … but … and we played together, talked together all the time, but we had to go to different schools because we were different religions. And even as a little girl it didn’t … you know … it didn’t make sense to me.

And, and it wasn’t actually until I went to college … I went to Queens University in Belfast … and it wasn’t until 1981 that we had the first integrated school in Northern Ireland. So when I find myself in America … you know all these years later seeing a similar … what, what I feel is, is a segregation … where children are wondering, you know, “why is this happening?

And, and children are being ridiculed and discriminated against because of something their parents did, you know, while they were babies. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. And I don’t understand why anyone because of, you know, their status should be denied the right to an education.

HEFFNER: Can you understand in any way the feelings of the Arizonians who voted rather overwhelmingly for this Proposition, for taking opportunity away from these children?

WATTERSON: Honestly I cannot find any justification for it … because regardless of … you know, how you feel about immigration, you don’t hurt children. You just don’t. And … you know one thing … because I keep … I keep going back and forth to growing up in Northern Ireland.

When I was a brand new teacher … in fact I wasn’t even a brand new teacher, I was a student teacher … and I can remember going out to do my teaching practice. And in one of the first classrooms, one of the kids said to me, “Well, Miss, are you a Catholic? You know, because you look like one” … whatever that means.

And I remember thinking this is, you know, it’s just weird. And I knew that these kids, and, and they were probably about 15 or 16 … and I knew that you, you know, I couldn’t control what they did when they went home every day because I think .. and, you know, they grew up in, in impoverished neighborhoods, too. But a lot of that, that hatred of the other side, it doesn’t make any sense but, but it was almost … it was all they knew.

So I just made a decision, it was a very conscious decision that from that moment on … since that boy asked me that question, I just said, “you know what … our classroom is going to be a place where we don’t talk about that.”

And I decided that instead, you know, we would talk about, “Well, what if …”

You know, “What if we didn’t have the labels, you know, we actually saw the person before we saw the Catholic or the Protestant?”

And, and I think as a very young teacher, I mean as a novice, I decided that a classroom is a hopeful place and it’s a sacred place and you don’t …. you just … you don’t destroy that.

And so, you know and then fast forward to America because you know, and I suppose as an immigrant, you know, when I think of Arizona, even though it’s just one state in this enormous country … I still think of it as America. And to me America is … you know, it’s an idea, it’s this beautiful idea and to think that this idea has been so eroded by what I consider, you know, the very same kind of vitriol that I heard when I was young.

HEFFNER: How do the kids take it? How do you explain to them …


HEFFNER: … what is happening to them.

WATTERSON: You know, well and again that’s why I, I don’t understand … well let me take that back. You know I think part of me does understand where the voters are coming from. Because they don’t see these kids day in and day out. You know, so they don’t … you know they don’t see them as human beings.

And I think it’s much easier to distance yourself and to engage in name-calling, you know, when you don’t know the person.

What I’ve seen is … and I’ll tell you … these kids … when they came to me that first semester and I had to explain individually to 38 of them, “I am so sorry, but I can’t use my state money any more to pay for you to take your college classes”. I mean and some of them just wept in my office.

But they kept coming to school every single day. They were never angry, even when they saw their American born peers, you know, who they grew up with, they go to church with them, play with them, all of that. I never saw any bitterness or, or jealousy or anger.

You know, in fact, one of them writes in the book about how sad he felt and he almost felt ashamed that he was able to take classes when his friends couldn’t.

What I saw was sort of a resilience and a resolve … and I don’t know if you can attribute it to the … I don’t know, the immigrant spirit. But they just didn’t give up and they would say things to me like, “You know, miss, I just, I just want to be a good person. I want … you know, I want to prove to everybody that I’m worthy of the investment.”

Because they “get it”, you know, they get that they have been in this K-12 situation and that it’s been paid for by tax dollars. So they don’t understand and I don’t understand why people wouldn’t want to protect their investment.

You know, as, as I was telling you we have the young woman who just graduated … beautiful, caring, compassionate young woman. She is bilingual and she graduated with a high school diploma and certificate in nursing assisting.

And Arizona has a shortage of health care professionals. And so, so we’re ready to cast this woman out and yet, at the same time import professionals from other countries to do the job that she’s qualified to do.

HEFFNER: Now, to be specific …


HEFFNER: … what can happen, as I understand, under Proposition 300 … they can be educated K-12.


HEFFNER: After that in the kind of superior school you have …


HEFFNER: And the kind of charter school you have where you combine college courses …


HEFFNER: … with high school courses, they cannot take or have those college courses be paid for.

WATTERSON: Right. Oh, they can take them. If they pay for it themselves.

HEFFNER: If they pay for them themselves.

WATTERSON: Right. But the whole thing about our school is … you know, it’s an early college …


WATTERSON: … and you know, just by way of background. When I came to this school, it was actually one of the first charter schools in Arizona. And the charter school legislation was passed in 1995 and in all candor there wasn’t a lot of accountability. In fact, I, I don’t know that there was any. And …

HEFFNER: What do you mean “accountability”?

WATTERSON: Well … teachers didn’t have to have certificates …


WATTERSON: … in fact some teachers didn’t have to have degrees. And basically it, it … you know, there were people who just decided, I think, you know, we can, we can run a school. And there was no “No Child Left Behind”. So, you know, you couldn’t read about schools in the newspaper … you know, who’s passing, who’s failing, that kind of thing.

So from about 1995 to 2003, when I came, this little charter school, it was called GateWay Community High School and it evolved into kind of an independent study program. And it had, when I arrived, I did some investigating … 50% drop out rate, 50% attendance rate and I thought, you know, that was unacceptable to me … as a tax payer, as a mother, as a, as an educator … it’s all I’ve ever done, and I thought, you know, would I want my daughter to go to this school. And … no. So I thought, “Well, how can we fix that.” (Laugh)

And, and why this is relevant, you know, with these particular kids … we, we decided let’s catch kids at the end of the eighth grade. Let’s target the students for whom society has low expectations, or no expectations at all, quite frankly and try to eliminate some of the barriers to a college education for them.

So we did that. And the biggest was the financial barrier so we put them in the college classes early.

Now, we have today a 94% drop out rate …

HEFFNER: Attendance …

WATTERSON: … attendance rate.

HEFFNER: Attendance rate.

WATTERSON: And a 1.7% drop out rate. What kills me is that it’s these kids … you know we can stand up and say, “You know, look at us we have a 94% attendance rate.” But it’s those kids who show up every single day.

And allow us to enjoy, you know, the positive recognition that comes with that. So, I mean, really, as an educator and I think also as, as an immigrant to this country, it’s very distressing to me, personally to watch what’s happening.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, I, I referred at the beginning of the program to Ed Murrow’s great broadcast …


HEFFNER: … on, on “Harvest of Shame” and you’re talking about a harvest of shame on, on our part.

WATTERSON: I think so.

HEFFNER: At the end of that program again, he made the point, that if we did not protect these people. If we did not speak for them, speak out for them …


HEFFNER: … then who would?


HEFFNER: … and you’re saying that no one will. But people did send you dollars.

WATTERSON: They did.

HEFFNER: And, it’s the first time in, what now …since 1956, when I started this program, over 50 years ago, that I’ve ever suggested that people who are watching might want to help a guest. In this instance, what would people do … and when we put this on the air … we’ll put a, a sign up saying what you said. Where could they send the funds …


HEFFNER: … to make it possible for you to help some of these children …


HEFFNER: … continue these courses?

WATTERSON: They could send it to … it’s the Maricopa Community Colleges Foundation … and then in care of GateWay Early College High School.

And actually, you know, sort of the genesis of that book … it, it was … it was incredible, because after I … I didn’t know what to do. And no one told me what to do, but thankfully no one told me …

HEFFNER: Not to do it.

WATTERSON: … what not to do.

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

WATTERSON: So I just thought, you know, I was thinking who, who can write and, and who’s sort of controversial and, and there was a … there was a reporter for the Arizona Republic … Ed Montini, and so he wrote an article and the title was “Proposition 300”…”Unintended Consequences of Proposition 300”.

And I thought it was a great article and so I fully expected that the next day people would just open their hearts and their wallets and that all the kids would be safe.

And instead I think there were about 58 pages of sort of hate blogs on the Arizona Republic website. And I couldn’t believe it. I … you know … I couldn’t believe it. But then, after the New York Times article appeared I, you know, I received letters and checks and emails.

I mean one comes to mind … I got a check for, I think, $300 and just a hand written note from someone in Washington, DC and he just signed it, you know, a fellow immigrant.

And then BBC/PRI picked up this story. And again it was the kindness of strangers outside Arizona, you know, who would put their name to their support.

And a doctor, Dr. Andre Vermont and his wife, in Ohio … they, they called and established a $10,000 endowment. I mean these are people who don’t know me and who don’t know the kids.

And that was something that also kept the kids going. One of them said to me, “You know miss what keeps me going is that the people who voted for Proposition 300, they don’t know me. But the people who are sending this money, they don’t know me either.”

And she also said something which I just thought was … amazing. She said, “One of the things that keeps me strong is that I know one day when I’m a pediatrician that I will take care of the grandchild of someone who voted for Prop 300.”

And, so when I think that … I’ve seen great wisdom and great resolve in these kids. Probably way more than any teenager should have to, have to show, you know.

I mean they can’t, they can’t drive. They can’t … they can’t do anything, really that their …

HEFFNER: Without the document.

WATTERSON: Exactly, without the document. You know and I, I … and I think about my own little girl. She’s ten years old and, and really she’s … I’m an immigrant and my husband’s an American citizen and because of, of that … you know that qualifies my child to be fully documented, you know. She can have a library card and a Social Security card and she’ll be able to vote. But she does the very same things that these kids have done every single day.

You, you know, I think one of the most poignant moments in this whole shameful tale, I think … there’s a young man and he just graduated. But anyway he, he saved every certificate … everything since kindergarten. So he has all his certificates. Any newsletter with his name in it and, you know, his mother has saved everything in plastic. And he keeps it inside a … it’s an old battered sort of leather … leatherette cologne box. And so one day I was over at, at his house … I’d taken him home.

We do that a lot because we don’t want them to drive. But I went and he said, “Miss I need to show you something and he’s going through all these certificates and he said, no I just have to get to the one. And there it was … it was … and it was protected in plastic and it was the certificate of good citizenship that he’d been presented by his fifth grade teacher, you know. And I thought about how easily we give out these pieces of paper to kids and we tell them … you know, you can be anything you want to be … if you show up every day and you stay in school and, you know, and then they get that high school diploma and they can’t do anything.

HEFFNER: What’s the answer to this …

WATTERSON: Ahhh (sigh).

HEFFNER: … if there is an answer other than those who can helping you keep these kids …

WATTERSON: Well for me …

HEFFNER: … going.

WATTERSON: … right. As far as Proposition 300 goes because of the unique nature of our school, we’re the only one in, in the City of Phoenix. So that’s going to be an ongoing problem.

And at first, and I think I was telling you this … you know, my learning curve has been huge because I thought, well the Dream Act is the answer. But it, it’s not because the Dream Act … in order for students, young people to benefit from the Dream Act, they have to be high school graduates.

So, you know, what do you do with these kids who are 11, 12, 13, 14 … what do you do with their parents who made the decision 15 years ago to come to America.

And, you know, we talk about … well, then the parents should go back. And I’m thinking … ahhh … or, or this “go back to Mexico”.

Most of my kids have never been to Mexico since their parents brought them across here. Most of my kids don’t speak Spanish well enough to be successful in the post secondary system in Mexico.

But when I think about the parents and all they’ve been called … just some horrible names. But there’s one in particular and this man, you know, he wept in front of me and he has an 18 year old son and so that young man is undocumented. But then he also has two American born children. And he told me and he was crying and he said, you know, my two younger children, they don’t understand why we’ve never had a vacation. They don’t understand why we can’t take a road trip to the Grand Canyon or Disneyland.

But at the same time they have their American birthday celebration every year, you know, so they had their 15th American birthday. And so there’s still this reverence … it’s, it’s so ironic because what I see is a reverence for this American dream, if you will. But at the same time they’re punished for having pursued it.

HEFFNER: Is there no political activism in Arizona that is aimed at … against … this damn deed?

WATTERSON: Well, I mean … I think that the, that the real activism … I mean there are several groups who are very active in trying to get the Dream Act passed.

But again it’s not comprehensive and it excludes people. I, I had to take … one of my, my students, his Dad was pulled over for a cracked windshield. And so he had to go to court. And he was driving with an expired license. And, so I drove him to court … and, and everything turned out okay, he had a fine. But while I was in the court, I was just listening to some of the cases. And there was an elderly gentleman in the front row of the court, and just as I was listening to the interpreter .. I, I realized that … he was facing deportation proceedings, but he’d been in this country for 35 years. That’s a lifetime. And so, I think when … you know, when we ask about a solution we have to do something about the people who are already here, you, you know.

HEFFNER: Yvonne, we have just a couple of minutes left. And I’m thinking so hard … I begged you to find a way of coming here …


HEFFNER: … and you did on your own to come to do this program. How are you holding up? Fair question?

WATTERSON: Ahemm, you know … seriously I’m great. I’m, I’m one of the lucky ones, you know. I think I have some, for want of a better expression, immigrant guilt because no one has ever pulled me over and asked to see my green card which I carry. But I have an amazing staff.

You know, every one of our kids at that school … every single kid … documented … it doesn’t matter, undocumented … they are well known by at least one of the adults on that staff. And so I, I almost feel like we have this little oasis in the desert, you know. And the kids feel very, very safe. And the parents feel very safe.

And so as long as we can protect that … and I still go back to what I learned when I was a very young teacher that … ahem, school is a sacred institution and, you know, I don’t know at what point some of the people in Arizona … lost their humanity, because I think they did. And, and I think maybe the more we can tell these stories to remind them of the humanity that’s in all of us, maybe there’ll be a change.

HEFFNER: I need to point out, of course, that remedies haven’t been found or approved by people in the country generally.


HEFFNER: So that it’s not just Arizona …


HEFFNER: … and those blogs I guess, the hate blogs …


HEFFNER: … that you referred to could come from just about any place in this country.

WATTERSON: I imagine you’re right. And again that … and that’s scary because I think for a while I was thinking well this is just an Arizona issue. But when you’re dealing with this virtual other world … I mean … and you don’t know who’s saying these things … you don’t know if it’s one person, you don’t know if it’s thousands of people.

HEFFNER: Again, at the end …


HEFFNER: … as Murrow said, if we … you and I … and you do … if my viewers don’t speak up for these undocumented, then who will? Thanks so much for joining me today from Arizona.

WATTERSON: Oh, thank you so much, Dick.

HEFFNER: Bye, bye, Yvonne. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.