The 17-year-old, in her letter, did not reveal her situation.
“She told me that she took on a 40-hour-a-week job to help support her family, because her dad can’t work,” he says on a recent afternoon before pausing for a noticeable moment. “What these young people are putting up with right now is inspiring in some ways, and really saddening in others.”
Stewart works and lives in Arlington, Va., a Washington-area suburb filled with seven-figure homes. It’s a place where quality grocery stores, well-maintained parks and strong-performing schools are abundant.
It is also a place where immigrants are struggling to find work, children are taking care of younger siblings and students who were already bearing more responsibility than their peers before the pandemic are now carrying more.
The majority of Stewart’s students at Wakefield High School entered the school system speaking limited English, and he knows that the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic has left many struggling to get online and attend his class each day.
One young man joins from his car.
One young woman participates while holding her 3-year-old brother on her lap.
Two students have logged in from other countries, after travel restrictions left them unable to return home. One is in Bolivia, the other in Tunisia.
Even so, Stewart says, when he gives his students an assignment, they usually find a way to get it done. So he had no doubt they would turn in something when he asked them about a week ago to write a letter to President Biden or Vice President Harris.
What he didn’t expect, though, was how their words would hit him as he read through them.
“They are heartfelt, insightful, acute and achingly beautiful,” he says of his students’ letters. “I couldn’t be more proud of them, and, even though I am a hardened veteran teacher, I was driven to tears while reading them.”
He has since sent the letters to the White House.
There is no telling, of course, whether Biden or Harris will ever see them. The two have probably received piles of cards and handwritten notes from children since the inauguration. And, in truth, if these letters were tossed among those, they wouldn’t stand out for their cuteness or their prose. They are typed in a common font, and some contain only a few sentences.
But what makes them unique — and the reason I am sharing them with you — is they offer a perspective that isn’t often heard.
There are teenagers across the country who are activists and influencers. These are not them. Some of the students who wrote the letters are first-generation Americans. Others don’t yet have the security that comes with a U.S. passport.
The students may live just a few miles from the White House, but in the power structure that is Washington, they sit about as far as possible from Biden and Harris.
And yet, as their letters show, they stand to gain, or lose, more than most people in the region, depending on the actions the president and vice president take on several issues: the pandemic, stimulus funding, the economy, college debt and immigration.
“My family is from El Salvador, and I never go a day without thinking that most of my family can be deported, and it could be the last time I would see them,” a 16-year-old wrote in his letter.
“First generation kids have to work harder to be successful in life because they have nothing to fall back on,” a 17-year-old wrote in hers. “They are walking on a tight rope without a harness.”
Stewart didn’t give the students many instructions for the assignment. He says he told them to spend about 10 minutes on it, and to use that time to express what they believe the president and vice president should focus on while they’re in office.
The letters all begin the same — with “Dear President Biden” or “Dear Vice President Harris” — but then diverge.
In her letter, a 17-year-old girl proposed requiring high school students to take a mandatory course on sexual consent. A 16-year-old boy in his called for addressing food waste, pointing out that too many people in the country are “starving and dying because of the lack of food.”
Many of the students asked Biden and Harris to prioritize getting the pandemic under control, making college more affordable and creating an immigration system that doesn’t separate families, either intentionally or bureaucratically.
“Not all Latinos are criminals,” a 17-year-old girl wrote, referencing rhetoric from the previous administration. “Many Latinos are humble and good people and if you give us more jobs for undocumented people, then you will realize that we are very hard-working and responsible. Not all of us come from our countries because we’re criminals or delinquents. On the contrary, we’re escaping from delinquency.”
The 17-year-old who works 40 hours a week wrote one of the longer letters. In it, she asked the president to improve the country’s school system.
“No one knows what a student is going through,” she wrote. Too many classes don’t address “real life stuff, like learning to do taxes,” she explained. “In Econ, it’s just like a day of the most basic explanation and then on to the next.”
She suggested creating a system that connects more students to their interests and exposes them to potential careers, rather than letting them graduate and “become stuck.” She provided an example: If students show an interest in law, they should get to spend time with a lawyer or a judge.
“Hopefully,” the teenager wrote, “something changes because at this rate I feel like you’re just going to have a bunch of young adults who are burnt out and don’t have a clue what to do.”
Read more from Theresa Vargas: