Miss Dem

{August 9, 2008}   meet shirley

Meet Shirley 9.11.07

Shirley cleans our offices every evening, Monday through Friday, like clockwork. She comes in with a bright smile and genuinely looks forward to our office where we tell her jokes and make attempts to speak her native language, Spanish. She laughs as we chat her up while she empties the trashcans and vacuums up the messes we’ve left. At about 9:30 each night, she finishes up her work and heads home. That’s when she does her homework.

Shirley is a senior in high school.

Last night, her bright smile dimmed as I asked her how she was. “I’m sick” she said in a strong South American accent.

“You look it; why don’t you go home, Shirley?” She shook her head.

“I can’t. Even sick, I have to work.” She smiled defeatedly and walked out of my office.

A senior in high school, Shirley probably makes the same as the rest of her family who join her on the office rounds, $6.25. While she dreams of going to college – and gets decent grades, her father is
intent on her following a more realistic path: work.

Though she will graduate from a United States high school, Shirley will likely be forced to pay international tuition to most of the universities and/or community colleges she applies. A bright, smart young woman, Shirley will probably be pushing vacuums for people like me who try not to leave
random pennies or the remnants of a three-hole punch war on the floor for her to clean up.

In an area like ours, she’ll watch countless interns come and go on their excursions through their collegiate experience. For her, it will be an internship in the school of hard knocks.

How can someone achieve high academic marks if they are unable to begin their homework until 9:30 or 10:00 at night? How can a student learn if they are exhausted from staying up late the night before? And how is it that we live in a society where a 17-year old high school student can be forced to work with a fever from the flu, simply so that her family can put food on the table?

We have an obligation to do more than talk about raising the minimum wage; we have an obligation to look people in the eye and see them as the human beings they are. For most of the people in our building, Shirley is invisible. Her smile is looked over with glazed eyes, returned by a polite smile and a glance back to work. If she’s looked at to begin with.

Most don’t know that she has dreams of going to college, or that she wants her cousin to come here from South America. They don’t realize that she had a burning fever last night; they’ll just notice that she missed a spot on the floor, or a trash can.

When I asked her if she was a US Citizen, she was quick to point out that she lived here legally. “I have
my papers.” I couldn’t help but realize that I would never have to offer up proof of my place here in the
US; I would never have family or friends who had to choose between living in an Amnesty City like
Takoma Park, MD, or be subject to racial profiling.

When I’m sick, I can take the day off without losing my pay. When I have a headache or just don’t
want to go to the office, I can opt to work from home. And despite my relative online anonymity, when
people see me, they look at me. People I meet don’t brush me off as “the help” when their eyes
first glance at me.

And in a city like DC where “the help” is everywhere, it becomes easier and easier to push people
aside in your mind, to refuse to understand the trials and tribulations of their lives. Or, to think people
have hopes and dreams that are often cut short because of archaic, systemic roadblocks designed to
keep the poor uneducated and the wealthy, well, rich.

The basic right to a fair wage for hard work, the right to medical care, the right to a paid sick day off
and the right to an education, all lead to empowerment. All ships float better on a rising seas of
opportunity and empowerment.

Right now, people like Shirley are drowning under the weight of bills and fevers.

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