By LAURETTA HANNON | Published January 20, 2023
I’d been meeting up with my friend at the Mexican restaurant for at least a year. Each time I’d bring the workers flyers about our college’s free ESL and GED classes. Without fail, I’d get a polite yet entirely lukewarm response when distributing these flyers.
It seemed there was a barrier between us that could never be breached. On occasion, we’d get a fellow named Wilmer as our server. While friendly and charismatic, he was also guarded. But he did mention that he was the father of seven, 37 years old and that restaurant work was all that he’d known.
“Seven kids?” I said. “From now on, I’m going to call you ‘Papa Grande!’”
We laughed, and I gave him my business card and again mentioned the classes.
A few weeks later, my friend and I returned there for supper. I entered the restaurant and noticed a staff member take a nanosecond glance at my neck. Not thinking anything of it, I headed to the booth where my friend was waiting.
What happened next was like something straight out of an old Twilight Zone episode.
Before I could order my Coke Zero, a swarm of excited workers hovered around us. Several pulled up chairs and drew close, including Wilmer. They asked about the ESL and GED classes. Even more remarkably, these previously distant people were opening up about their very personal situations. Immigration status, language challenges, dreams for the future. I was now treated like an intimate friend.
We were gobsmacked. What in the world brought this about?
Various staff continued to interrupt our meal to the point we felt slightly pestered. It was thrilling to see the interest, but we didn’t have a moment to ourselves. As we left, a teenager trailed behind me, asking more questions all the way to the parking lot. She was lit up with joy at the prospect of an education, but why did she think an education was not possible until this night?
I sat in my car trying to decipher what was behind this bizarre turnaround. I took the Sherlock approach and recounted every observed detail, beginning with the staff member’s quick glance when I walked in. Then I had it.
I was wearing a Virgin of Guadalupe necklace.
She, Our Lady, had burst open their hearts, their trust, their hope. She’s kinda known for that, isn’t she? Comfort of Migrants, Queen of Families, Cause of Our Joy.
On the drive home, I imagined she was in the passenger seat and said, “Okay, Blessed Mother, you’ve started something. I’ll follow this through however you want me to, but it ain’t gonna happen through my efforts alone. You’ll have to guide me and lead me. I know you’re not done with this, and I have a beautiful feeling about it. Thank you, thank you for the gift of tonight…Oh, and I’m sorry I had that hang-up about you when I was first converting.”
During subsequent visits to the restaurant, Wilmer told me he worked 80-hour weeks and yearned for a career that would enable him to be at home more with his family. He also divulged that he’d actually been taking our GED classes for months but struggled with learning written English. It was not his native language, and he had little education in his home country.
His teacher confirmed this and said he was the most committed student in the class, attending every morning until he had to leave for work.
This got me thinking, how could our college meet the needs of someone like Wilmer? Someone who couldn’t afford to work fewer hours in order to pursue an education. Someone who wouldn’t qualify for financial aid. My school didn’t even offer scholarships for students without a GED. As the college’s fundraiser, I knew what to do: approach a loyal donor family about creating such a scholarship.
It would be a long shot, but I’d signed a sacred contract with the Queen of the Long Shot, Herself. If it was meant to be, she would untie any and all knots.
Over lunch with the donor family, I was astonished to hear that their father (now deceased) would require weekly family gatherings at the restaurant where Wilmer worked. In other words, he had likely served this family through those years. And did I mention that their philanthropic mission was to honor their dad’s legacy? I felt like I’d just received a wink from Our Lady.
They said yes to the scholarship, which would fund Wilmer and future students like him. But would he say yes to the opportunity?
Understandably, he had fears and insecurities. He was intimidated by the thought of trying something so outside his comfort zone. This would demand a lot of change and courage but could mean a better life for him and his family.
Our college offers some workforce certificates that do not require a GED. Wilmer was interested in one of these, a two-semester program that would make him immediately employable upon graduation. Employable in a field that would provide a steady career with insurance, benefits, and the chance for promotion.
He and I sit in my office to talk it through. He’s hesitant about taking this on. His body language conveys little confidence. Finally, he hangs his head down and tears begin to fall. Oh man, I think he’s going to say no. He won’t dare make eye contact.
So we sat in silence for what felt like an hour but was probably about three minutes. Then he wipes away the tears, lifts his head, and quietly says, “I’ll do it. I say yes.”
I won’t lie about how I responded. Abandoning all professional decorum, I leapt from my chair and fist-pumped the air. I couldn’t help it. I knew the Blessed Mother had showed up and showed out, as she is wont to do.
As I write this, it is Dec. 11. Tomorrow is the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The next day, something she orchestrated will come to splendid fruition: my friend Wilmer, aka “Papa Grande,” will graduate from college.
Lauretta Hannon is a parishioner of St. Bernadette Church, Cedartown. She writes from Rosa Mystica Studio, a fancy name for her writing shed. Named the “Funniest Woman in Georgia” by Southern Living Magazine, Hannon is the bestselling author of “The Cracker Queen–A Memoir of a Jagged, Joyful Life.” Send thoughts by email to email@example.com.