Originally published by the NY Times
fter color-guard practice one fall Wednesday, Fanny’s coach caught her in the parking lot getting into an Uber and wanted to know why. Fanny was still in seventh grade, a cadet on the junior team, and in the Atlanta suburb where she had spent her whole life, parents, not taxis, usually waited in the school parking lot. Coach Stephanie was concerned that a stranger was picking up a 13-year-old, but Fanny didn’t feel like explaining that she rode with strangers all the time now, or that “home” was with people who, until recently, had more or less been strangers, too. Her mother had been gone for months. Her father hadn’t been around for years. Her 22-year-old brother lived a 45-minute drive away.
“It’s fine,” Fanny said. “My brother’s tracking me on his phone, see?” She held up her iPhone. “Don’t worry,” she kept saying, and Stephanie relented, telling Fanny to text when she got home.
Fanny had practice in the local high school’s band room twice a week and competitions every few Saturdays. Sometimes she skipped when she was feeling sick or sad, but other days she wouldn’t stop rehearsing even after she got back to the quiet neighborhood where she now lived, casting her green flag up toward the yellow streetlights in the dark. In color guard, time moved in orderly counts of eight. You couldn’t stop and think; there was always a next count, a next step to get to. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, Fanny whispered.
The sounds of practice shushed all thought: the artificial swish of bare feet on floor mats, the swoop of flags shearing the air, the clatter of wooden rifles hitting the ground. “Can I get a whoop-whoop?” Stephanie called out every few minutes. “Whoop-whoop!” the girls chanted back. All through their routine — more modern dance than military, set to Demi Lovato’s “Warrior” — Fanny kept count under her breath. Stephanie wanted her middle school cadets to channel the emotion of the music. “Think of a sad, hard moment in your life, like a problem with your friend, or a hard math test,” Stephanie called out as they warmed up at one practice. Fanny listened, hands on hips, nodding slightly. “I want you to think you’re a warrior,” Stephanie went on. “Think of that superhero in your mind.”
Fanny had wanted to be a captain, but she never told Stephanie, and two other girls were chosen instead. Still, she couldn’t help taking charge now and then, demonstrating a tricky move to some of the more timid-looking girls, pointing out corners that needed unwrinkling when it was time to roll up the vast floor mat at the end of practice. As Stephanie issued instructions for their next competition — call times, eye-shadow color, topknots, hair spray — Fanny interjected with some practical footnotes, confirming that they had to show up at 6:45 a.m. and dispensing tips for cleaning newly pierced ears. Then Stephanie handed out invoices to the girls who still owed money for the program, and Fanny fell silent as she looked hers over. “Oh, wow,” she said. “Oh, wow.”
She shifted away from the knot of other girls, her brow scrunched. “O.K.,” she said to herself. “I’m going to do some accounting.” From his paycheck working construction, her brother, Alejandro, gave her between $50 and $100 a week for Ubers, food and anything else that came up. She’d already had to buy nude tights for Saturday’s competition, and she’d devoted another chunk to a couple of trips to Walmart for tubs of Mayfield Creamery cherry-vanilla ice cream, Chick-fil-A for chicken sandwiches and the pizzeria where her mother, Rosario, used to work, for slices. Sometimes the couple who owned the pizzeria tried to give them to her free, but she always insisted on paying; Rosario had taught her to earn whatever she got. Next week, she’d have to save more.
Outside, the other girls were dispersing into their parents’ waiting cars. Fanny planned to order an Uber as usual. Alejandro worked all day, including on Saturdays, so he’d never seen her color-guard routine except in videos she showed him on her phone, and he couldn’t leave to pick her up unless there was an emergency.
Fanny folded up the invoice as she went over to talk to her coach. “I just wanted to let you know that my mom was deported,” she announced. “So it’s just me and my brother.”
Stephanie laid a hand over her heart, her mouth open. “Oh,” she said, groping for words. “That ... that hurts my heart. Just because ... just because I know as well. My parents are both immigrants. So I can’t imagine.”