By Alexandra Holterman, Medill, Immigrant Connect

She moves her fingers warily over the broccoli and carrots in her pink plastic Cinderella lunchbox, finally picking up one before dropping it with a tiny grunt. She has not spoken the entire time we’ve been sitting there, even when I introduce myself as her reading tutor and ask what her name is.

“Her name’s Camila,” the program director had informed me as she led me to the small, circular school table. “She’s a little shy.”

Holterman-photo-community center

The community center in San Mateo, where I tutored (photo courtesy of

It’s my first time volunteering with Homework Buddies, our community’s volunteer tutoring program. I’d participated in an hour-long orientation at my middle school the week before, when I was told to encourage phonetic pronunciation and ask questions throughout their reading to ensure comprehension. I’d felt prepared, confident, but now I shift awkwardly in the child-sized plastic seat. Camila remains silent, hunched defensively over her snack.

I watch her play with her food for a while longer before I ask her if she likes broccoli. This gets a reaction. She shakes her head vehemently, almost before I finish asking the question. Encouraged, I tell her I used to not like broccoli either, until I began thinking of them as little trees and myself as a monster devouring a broccoli forest. She turns her head slightly, one brown eye squinting questioningly in my direction, but doesn’t laugh.

I clear my throat, attempting a new approach.

“So, Camila,” I ask, “do you have any siblings?”

She hesitates, then nods, a curt jut of her chin.

“Sisters or brothers?” I ask.

I see her mouth the word “brother.”

“Oh, no way!” I say, smiling and leaning against the table. “I have three brothers. And a sister. Did you ever want a sister?”

Again, she hesitates, but this time she speaks. It is a quiet, inaudible whisper. I lean in closer.

“Sorry, what’d you say?”

She speaks at the same level as before, but this time I practically shove my ear into her face to hear her.

“How do you share a mattress with all of them?”

At first I think I’ve misheard. I ask her to repeat herself, apologetically saying I can’t hear her.

This time she speaks a little louder, glancing at me quickly as she does.

“How do you share a mattress with them?”

“Um, we don’t,” I think I say. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I understand.”

Frustration seems to be emboldening her. She turns a little more to me, one finger still cautiously dangling over the broccoli and carrot mix, and says something in broken, hesitant English along the lines of, “You know. How do you decide who gets to sleep on the mattress?”

One mattress. Camila and her family share one mattress.

I brush the question off by lying, saying something like, “Oh, you know. It works out.”

I knew going into the session that Camila was an immigrant. Most of the children who participate in the Homework Buddies program are either the children of immigrants or immigrants themselves. The program director had informed me that Camila moved to California from Mexico just three years ago, when she was three. Being from the diverse hub that is the Bay Area, I had grown up with children who spoke Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Hindi as their first languages. I read a lot of stories, whether in a newspaper or books or magazines, of illegal immigrants and families torn apart and poverty I could never imagine. At the young age of 12, I was convinced I knew struggle. When I had signed up to tutor with Homework Buddies as an after-school volunteer opportunity, I thought my basic Spanish skills and compassion would be preparation enough. But never before had I met someone who was so poor, they had to share a mattress. I am privileged. I am white, not an immigrant. I have my own room and both my parents have stable jobs.

I’ll admit I became a little anxious as Camila closed her lunchbox and brought out her homework, a paper booklet and an accompanying reading comprehension quiz.

I begin worrying what we will talk about. Will I offend her? Will she hate me for not understanding—does she already hate me?

But she opens her booklet and I watch as she drags her finger along the words, reading out loud as she goes. The story is about a little boy watching a movie. Suddenly, she stops.

Shyly, she looks up at me.

“Do you watch movies?” She asks.

I open my mouth. Are movies a luxury too? Is she asking to see if I lived a more lavish life? How do I answer?

“Yes,” I finally decide to say, “I love movies.”

At this she smiles.

“I like horror movies,” she says, almost mischievously, and then, without another word, turns the page and continues on.

For some reason, that was the “click” my brain needed. Yes, of course we are different. But even though Camila is poor, and an immigrant, and shared one mattress with her family, she is still a little girl. A little girl who likes horror movies.

“Horror movies scare me,” I admit.

She pauses and for a second I worry she won’t answer.

“Well,” she finally says, “That just means you have to watch more.”