Expanding Horizons…I Hope
Let me start with a confession. For some period of time, Freedom Writers was my favorite movie. Before you judge me, know this was before I became a proper, enlighted liberal at my properly enlightened liberal arts university. If you ask me TODAY to comment on this movie, I will, without missing a beat, tell you that it is a problematic display of white saviorism and thus, unbearable, and I will scoff at anyone that says otherwise. I will, unironically, walk away and return to my job as a white (ok, Jew Rican) teacher of brown students in an “underserved community” in East Los Angeles where I am a celebrated pillar of selflessness.
Have I proven to be “self-aware” yet? Should I throw in some more Teach for America alphabet soup? Privilege, community, safe space, empowerment, intersectionality…more? Or can I just tell you the truth?
The truth is…
And when I say hard, I don’t mean Ivy League education hard. I don’t mean “push yourself for a week, chug some coffee, pop an adderall, and at the end you can relax in a bubble bath and smile that it’s over” hard. I mean relentlessly hard. Physically, mentally, emotionally. My first year teaching, I would come home, open my laptop, and continue planning furiously for the next day while my legs throbbed, unaccustomed to walking 5 miles within a 1,000 square foot classroom. I still spend at least 6 hours on Sundays preparing for the week ahead. Yet, these are the challenges that you can quantify. There aren’t numbers to calculate the shame that accompanies your first stern “conversation” with a “noncompliant” student, only to find out, after you already made him cry, that he is recently homeless. There are no numbers to articulate the inadequacy you feel when a lesson you thought would cause school wide celebration tanks, or you go on your first home visit and are slapped with a new, truer understanding of what your privilege has meant. At the same time, there are numbers to count the tears that fall when your toughest student hands you a thank you letter before his departure (approximately 347,124,892), or how many people you tell when your moodiest advisee invites you to her quince (everyone on Instagram). I don’t say teaching is hard because I want empathy or accolades; I say it because I want respect.
I am in my third year of teaching 7th grade to exclusively Latinx students in Boyle Heights, which means many of them are English Learners, many of them are or have parents who are undocumented, many of them have learning or physical disabilities, many of them have dealt with incarcerated family members, gang affiliation, abuse, most of them are 4 or more years behind in their reading abilities, bla bla bla. That’s the picture Freedom Writers would want me to paint.
What you really need to know is that they are resilient, but not every day. They are empathetic, but not towards everyone. They’re complex…like you and me and everyone else, and the absolute lassssttt thing they’d want me to do, is group them all together (ew miss, I’m nothing like Vanessa). For the sake of this article, however, I think they’d forgive me. They’re regular preteens, they like trash rap, Supreme stickers, and the latest slang, but offer hot cheetos with limon or play “El Caballo Dorado” and the dance floor will o-v-e-r-f-l-o-w. They are the perfect picture of a 1.5 generation, and thus the perfect portrait of 2019 America.
I get to spend the majority of my days with humans that are floating in the precarious liminal space between childhood and adulthood, and trust me when I say this in-betweenness is magic. They begin to question…everything. This is where I come in. I have the honor, the responsibility, of answering some of these questions or probing them further, of knowing when to slyly smile and say “I don’t know, you tell me,” and when to be real, of reminding them they are loved and valuable when they are unabashedly being the worst version of themselves…Did I mention teaching was hard?
So three years in, a relative blip in time, what have I learned? What have I become? Am I prepared to Hilary Swank my way through an inspiring yet honest Ted Talk? Not quite (although I have become the smoothest maxipad dealer you have EVER seen. I can slide those babies into a backpack while carrying on a lecture without a single person having the slightest idea of what’s happening). What I will tell you, however, is that I have learned the value a short memory. Students, and people if we are being honest, are going to disappoint you. They are going to fall short of your expectations, they are going to make harmful choices…repeatedly, and they are going to hurt your feelings when they’re having a bad day. These things are inevitable. What matters is that you address it (using “I feel __when you… statements, of course), you collaborate on a plan to make it right, and you move forward. My students have pushed me to expand my emotional bandwidth until a breaking point. Yet while my job is to teach common core standards and prepare them to think critically in a world of “fake news”…
My obligation and my privilege, as Hollywood as it may sound, is to love them, perhaps ferociously, until they become their best selves.
Please Give!: Classroom Donations
Please Give!: School Donations