I speak with my sister Lyn every day on my way to work. She knows how I drink my coffee because she can hear me order into the DD speaker an extra large toasted almond with cream and a shot of mocha, thanks to hands-free chit-chatting made possible by the good folks who created Bluetooth. We talk about my grandkids, new recipes, the headlines, what my day will be like in the classroom. We end each conversation the same way each morning; she signs off by saying: “Don’t fall down and don’t get arrested.” Depending on what recent calamity may have befallen me, sometimes she adds “don’t bump your head,” and so far I have never been arrested. I hope I never take for granted the fact that I have a sibling with whom I can share both the mundane and the pertinent moments of my day.

I think of her when I take attendance, when before me sit more than a dozen children born in countries thousands of miles from this place. They come to my classroom from Yemen, from Ghana, from Portugal, Morocco, Chad and Syria. Each one has a story to tell, and they tell it in the fragmented English they are struggling to master. Some left behind siblings they may never see again. Some have seen their siblings dragged off and imprisoned. Some have seen their siblings executed. Still, they feel lucky to be sitting in a classroom with books and pencils and computers, and a safe place to call “home” when the day ends.

I marvel at the resiliency of these children. They are laser-focused on earning high school diplomas, and they hang on my every direction. I suppress a chuckle when they’re confused by the idioms we take for granted. What picture forms in their minds when I read the words “it was raining cats and dogs”? I cannot imagine what it was like for them to arrive in the United States, with little or no English, navigating everyday life in a place as strange as Mars.

Many try to assimilate by adopting the dress and manners of the American-born students they meet, a goal not always met and one often resulting in fashion faux pas. Limited funds can hamper the effort; $200 sneakers are out of the question for families struggling to keep food in the fridge. I will always remember the student from Tanzania who carried her books on her head because that was how she fetched jugs of water from the river back home. Her fashion choices nearly always missed the mark, but she proudly wore the made-in-China “American” items she found at Goodwill. No one pointed out that her garments were mismatched — kids were too busy watching to see if those books would tumble. They never did.

My sister’s birthday is the 14th of September. I’ll take her to dinner this week to celebrate. I’ll look across the table and see that familiar face, that shock of red hair, those big blue-green eyes that flash with laughter, and sometimes outrage. I’ll try to put out of my mind the kids with the lost siblings, the ones who will never again feel that tug of DNA and the shared experiences that only a sibling can understand. I’ll try, but I doubt that they will stay compartmentalized. One of the drawbacks of teaching is our inability to leave it all in the schoolhouse.

Immigrant children have shown me that the everyday nonsense we fuss over is simply that. They are survivors. They are wide-eyed and hungry for knowledge in all the ways I’d hope to encounter and encourage when I went into this profession. Whatever I’m able to teach them will never equal what they have taught me, and what they continue to teach me about the importance of opening our arms to them, sisters and brothers all.