“Whether it’s a happy feeling or a sad feeling because of war or whatever is going on in your country, you have that last day that you’re home,” said Dahlia Richards as she talked about the day in 1987 when she and her family left Jamaica for Evanston.
Although she writes from the perspective of a fictitious character named Amoya, Ms. Richards based her recently published children’s book, “Amoya’s Big Move,” on her own last day in her native country.
Amoya wakes up on the day they are leaving, packs while her sister is making breakfast and people are coming by to claim the things that they are not taking. Then a pickup truck comes to take Amoya and her family to the airport, and they ride in the uncovered flatbed of the truck.
“I wanted that feeling of sitting there and seeing everything that you’ve known just go on by. You’re heading to the airport, and for some people it is the last time that they are going to see it,” said Ms. Richards. “I think that the story connects to anybody, even if they are going from one city to another or one house to another . . . but in my mind, I was focused on my ESL [English as a Second Language] students that are coming in.”
While the book only covers Amoya’s and her family’s departure from Jamaica, this is Ms. Richards first book, and she hinted that a next installment of Amoya’s journey as an immigrant may follow.
The book is bilingual, including both English and Spanish text, a nod to students at Dawes Elementary School, where she has been an ESL teacher for five years. Dawes is one of the five District 65 schools that offer bilingual education. Ms. Richards said that she wrote the book, in part, because of the waves of immigrant children who come to the school each year.
She is tri-lingual, speaking Patois (pronounced patwah), the principal Jamaican language, English and Spanish, and taught ESL in Mexico after studying there to become an ESL teacher. “I really wanted the book to be in Spanish as well as English, because our school is a bilingual immersion school,” said Ms. Richards. But speaking of her own experience, she said that learning a new language when she arrived in Evanston was only one of the challenges. Most of the food in America was so different for her and not appealing, her family was very poor and she and her cousin, who came to Evanston at the same time, were picked on at school.
Ms. Richards talked about what she works to ensure for her students. “As a teacher, I’m educating my kids. I’m not indoctrinating them or saying, ‘You need to do this,’ . . . but the type of books that we read in the classroom, the type of conversations that we have, the words that I use to describe things and my reaction to things that are going on are meant to help them understand that . . . we are all people.” She said she feels a responsibility as a teacher to help the generations that are coming up to respect those around them.
Offering other examples of ways that Dawes builds respect and understanding, Ms. Richards described the school’s multicultural nights, which represent all the kids who attend school there, whether they have recently come as immigrants or their family has been here for generations. Ms. Richards said that families sign up to bring food for multicultural night and do other things that are representative of their culture. She offered an example of a family with Irish ancestry that brought soda bread and said, “Everybody gets to be proud of their ancestry.”
She said that she especially enjoys the food aspect of the evening and then shifted to speak of her love for Jamaican food. Her eyes sparkled as she described where it can be found in Rogers Park and how family and other visitors from Jamaica bring things she cannot find here. “My favorite food would have to be fried dumplings – and the recipe for it is in the book. Then . . . ice cream,” said Ms. Richards. “In Jamaica, there is a guy that rides around on a bicycle selling ice cream – cherry-pineapple, grape nut, rum raisin – grape nut is my, my family’s absolute favorite flavor. It is so good; oh-my-gosh it is amazing. You have to get it. I will find it and bring it, but you have to try it.”
Ms. Richards’ favorite Jamaican foods play a prominent role in “Amoya’s Big Move.” On one page the illustrator, Terri Kelleher, depicts bright images of patties (meat pies) and the kind of fresh juice-boxes Ms. Richards said cannot be found in the U.S.
It was important to her to tell her story of leaving Jamaica now, in part because of the kidney disease that she has experienced in the last couple of years and her concern that she might not be able to tell it in the future. She said that while she did not explain all the details of her illness to her students, “They knew something was going on. I was going to appointments, and because my [kidney] function was declining, I couldn’t eat certain things. They know how much I love all kinds of food.”
This past spring, she was notified that she had been matched with a kidney donor and then quickly and quietly made preparations to be absent for the last two weeks of the school year. While her colleagues were aware, she decided it would be best not to inform the children of all the details until the day before her last day. She said that when she told her students about the surgery they talked about it and cried together, and that messages went out in the weeks after the surgery to keep them informed of her recovery.
On the afternoon that she was interviewed by the RoundTable for this article, Ms. Richards was spotted in the children’s section of the Evanston Public Library by a Dawes student who alerted her mother and another adult, who were standing nearby. Ms. Richards had put her protective mask back on. She had taken it off for photographs but still wears it because of the decreased immunity that was induced to ensure that the transplanted kidney would not be rejected by her body. But her eyes revealed that she was smiling behind the mask. As she extended her hand, one of the women, with a big smile and eyes open wide, asked, “We can touch you now?” Ms. Richards nodded yes, and the handshake became a round of hugs.