The Borders of Comfort 
By Kelly Grace Thomas 
When you see a white, American girl from a middle-class family, the last thing you think is illegal immigrant, but that's what I was. For one year, I gave up my identity, tip toed off the grid, and learned a lesson in humility and humanity.
 Before I decided to move to Barcelona, I taught English at a continuation high school for at-risk youth on the border of Mexico. Every day, I was met with the exhausted eyes of my students, who had walked and waited hours to cross into the United States. In the rain, in the heat, attending to siblings with bagged lunches, they lined up for a shot at the American Dream. In the blue-black morning they braved their journey, accompanied by parents’ prayers, wiping sleep from their eyes, homework in their hands. Although half our students weren’t “legal” citizens, my school taught with the mindset that education, if nothing else, should be equitable. Each day they told me stories in broken English of cartels and kidnapping. Most days, it hurt to listen. I called them my heroes. 
They loved me and I loved them, but somewhere between my whiteboard and their desks, there was a disconnect, an ocean between us. It wasn’t until I asked them to put their story on paper, that I realized that language was an invisible bridge neither one of us had the words to cross. They would fumble with adjectives, unsure and hesitant, their mouths’ searching for the English counterpart to all their Spanish emotions. Between rolling r’s our eyes would meet, we both wanted so badly to understand, but there was still a border between us. My students and I each felt guilty and embarrassed at our inability to find our footing. There were no syllables to meet the different paths we walked. Out of 300 staff and students, only three people at my school didn't speak Spanish, I was one of them. There was this gaping question mark that tickled my conscience. I realized curriculum will never reach character if you don’t understand culture. I craved palabras, to find roadmaps to their story. 
I knew there was an easy way to solve this: take classes, buy Rosetta Stone, practice on my 45-minute commute. But I have never liked easy. Through struggle we learn about the parts of our self that are waiting to find a voice. And once you find that voice, you truly learn to sing. With frustration biting at my heels, I decided to leave my comfort zone. I gave up my adorable San Diego beach cottage, waved goodbye to some of the best friends I’ve ever known, and moved to Barcelona. It wasn’t until I stepped foot on Spanish soil that I realized the extremity of what I had done.
 I studied for months before, begged my students to quiz me, watched movies in Spanish to try to begin a conversation with the world I would walk into. It wasn’t until a taxi driver asked for my new Spanish address that I realized how lost I truly was. I had moved to a country with no friends, no job, and no mastery of the language. At the moment, shaking in the back of a Barcelona cab, I felt I had made the biggest mistake of my life.
 “Que?” “Que?” The driver barked at me. “No entiendo.” He couldn’t understand what I was saying. My trembling hand wrote the down my new address.
 I always had a way with words. I tinkered with language and its magic to alter perspective and inspire change. I wrote poetry that evoked goose bumps. I worked as an investigative journalist begging the world to ask more questions. Words were my superpower, and I had given them away.
 Because of the varied dialects in Spain, English is not always a priority. In Barcelona, most children learn Castellano, Spanish, and then the local language, Catalan. The “don’t- worry-everyone-speaks-English” tourist mentality just doesn't apply. There was no one to help, no one to translate. I thought of my students and how badly I wanted to learn.
In Barcelona, I worked as an English teacher at language schools, conducted one-on-one lessons, and taught a speaking class at a local high school. “You know no Spanish?” They would ask me. I would smile and say “un poco.” Just a little. 
My first three months in Barcelona, felt like trying to complete a puzzle with half the pieces missing. I had to find new friends, support myself on a barely-there income and navigate a city of unnamed alleyways and unfamiliar traditions. Too poor to pay for Spanish classes, each day I spent hours on the Internet, writing Spanish flashcards and memorizing phrases. As I slowly rebuilt my superpower in a different tongue, the calendar marched forward.
I knew the day was coming that my ninety-day visa would expire, and I would be forced to make a choice. I could stay, live illegally, and give up my right as a citizen. Or I could return to America, and slip back into a comfort zone that always left me craving more. I was learning too much to cut this adventure short. 
There were serious moments of regret. I would call home crying because it took me three days to find nail polish remover, or because without health insurance a doctor’s visit cost a week’s salary. With a handful of Spanish in my pocket, a bank account in single digits, and longs walks in the rain to work, I knew how my students back in Chula Vista felt. Now, my eyes were like theirs, tired and pleading for understanding. 
Christmas was looming and I would return home to the United States for a short visit. Excited to see my family and friends, and ecstatic to speak English, I boarded my flight back home with a layover in Munich. 
In December, Germany was cold and unforgiving. A snowstorm had grounded all flights and with hotel vouchers and routine apologies, passengers were asked to stay the night. In yet another desert of foreign tongues, I searched frantically for someone to translate the situation. Only one question loomed in my mind: if I left the airport would I have to go through customs? I received quizzical nods. 
Customs meant I could be deported. The stamp on my passport was well past the ninety-day tourist visa. And even during a giving season, I knew my chances weren’t good. That night I slept on the floor of the Munich airport. I hid my passport and cell phone in my bra, for fear of being robbed, and completely stopped feeling like a person. A citizen who mattered. I remember a chill waking me in the middle of the night. As my eyes focused I was staring face to face with a large rat, scouring for rest as aggressively as me. This is what it feels like to be second-class citizen; I thought, to give up your identity for a shot a something different, something better. 
After a New Jersey holiday and tales of my adventure, I returned to Barcelona a week later. As I was ushered through customs, I held my breath, wondering if they would let me into a country I didn’t belong. My mind drifted to California and students crossing borders. They gave me a stamp and ushered me back to Barcelona, where I would live illegally for the next ten months. There and then I decided to savior every minute, talk with as many locals as possible. I would make myself as part of this world, even if I was told I wasn’t.
 Almost a year later, I left Spain, carrying on four hour conversations in Spanish, giving the locals directions, and feeling more Catalan than American. Barcelona had taught me how to stand in my own strength when all support was gone. 
When I tell people of my experience they say, “I could never do what you did.” I simply respond, “Sure you can. You just have to be okay with being uncomfortable.” 
As a teacher in California’s San Fernando Valley, I speak about my experience to a similar group of students. We talk about struggle and what it has taught us. We talk about the borders that we cross, on land or in our minds, to find opportunity, to find ourselves. I throw around words like perspective and humilty, talk about getting lost to find myself. Now I can look my students in the eye and tell them , “Sinceramente comprendo tu historia porque es la mía también.” I truly understand your story, because it is mine too.