Growing up, whenever someone asked me if I wanted to be a teacher, like my parents, my response was a vigorous head shake and an emphatic, “Me? No. Nope. Never. Absolutely not. No.”
It wasn’t because I didn’t want to be like my parents. My parents are fantastic, funny, creative people who, despite my best efforts, put up with me, their only kid.
Looking back, I honestly think it was because I felt a profound sense of distrust and anger toward education in general. In my eyes, I didn’t want to be a part of a system that I felt didn’t care about students or their learning.
That, and I thought grading looked really boring (I wasn’t totally wrong about that).
My first negative experience with school happened when I was four. I was attending a private preschool, and while it offered a lot of amazing things (minuscule class sizes, three teachers for all ten of us, lots of great toys, and one heck of a playground) it didn’t offer a whole lot of diversity, and I was definitely the only child of color there.
One day, I had snagged the best swing on the playground, and as I took a breather from pumping my small child legs up to the heavens, another little girl approached me. She stood in front of me and gazed at my legs, which were bare under my awful frilly dress (sorry, Mama). She peered, eyes squinting, at my slightly darker leg hair (an amazing perk of being Hispanic) and then looked up at me.
“You’re reeeeally hairy,” she said, pointing at my legs. “Ewww.”
“No I’m not,” I remember saying, pulling at the hem of my dress and kicking some bark dust lamely in her direction with my Mary Janes. By that point, she had wandered off in the direction of the sandbox, probably already having forgotten her insult.
I remember trying to get my legs to pump again, trying to swing away from what had just happened, but for whatever reason, I couldn’t get this feeling, one that felt kind of like a tummy ache and mosquito bite all in one, to go away.
These sort of moments continued throughout my educational career, and they didn’t always involve my peers. Sometimes, they involved my teachers, coaches, and other parents. In 2nd grade, I was told to stop being someone’s friend because her mom said I was a, “bad influence.” In 7th grade, I was asked to give the “Spanish perspective,” when we were learning about world explorers. In 9th grade, I was asked if I wanted to sit with “my people,” meaning the three other Hispanic students in my class. I was given the nickname Speedy Gonzalez by my softball coach. In all of these moments, that uncomfortable feeling from the playground would surface, and I couldn’t figure out how to make it go away.
Instead, I got angry, bitter, and resentful. Every time a teacher mispronounced my name, I would roll my eyes. I sat in the back. I talked back, and got sent out to the hall, where I would honestly feel less alone. This persona, however, was boring to me, because I did actually want to be in the classroom.
Seriously. Throughout all of this, I kept my grades up, because I didn’t want to worry my parents, or be thrown into the stereotypes about “dumb Mexicans,” that my friends were always talking about. Plus, I loved learning. I really did. I started writing stories when I was in kinder, stapling construction paper pages together, and I was a voracious reader, hitting a 12th grade reading level by 7th grade.
Yet there were moments when it seemed like those in charge of making the most of me as a student refused to believe I was anything but the stereotype. For example, I was asked by one teacher, in the middle of class, “Do you even like to read?” because I wasn’t exactly filled with enthusiastic joy when presented with a poem about a Yucca plant. Because of the power differences between a teacher and a student, I just squeaked out a, “yes,” as I fiddled with my pen. Later, at the end of my senior year, I was meeting with my guidance counselor and she asked, in that chipper, overly positive voice that counselors have, “So, will you be working or going to community college once you graduate?”
I remember how I furrowed my brow, trying to figure out how to navigate this situation. This was a person who had “known,” me since I had come to her as a Freshman. She had signed me up for all of my advanced and AP classes. She had listened as I had told her about my worries about a classmate and an eating disorder. And now, she was just gazing at me blankly, having asked the question that I’m assuming she asked all Hispanic students (all 15 of us at my high school, anyway).
“Neither,” I responded, my fingers tightening around the arm of the cheap plastic chair I was sitting in.
“Oh? Why’s that?” she said, giving me the patented Counselor Head Cock.
“Because I’ve been accepted to college, early admission,” I said flatly. The cooler, movie-version of me would have walked out at this point, throwing a peace sign and saying something super cool like, “thanks for all the guidance, beeyotch.” But unfortunately, this was real life, where I had learned to not stand out, for fear of catching a stereotype.
“Oh,” the counselor said, pasting on a smile. “Well, hun, good for you!” she exclaimed, in the same tone one uses with a toddler who just peed in the toilet for the first time. I almost expected her to clap and hand me a Cheerio or gummy bear.
I heard myself saying, to my own chagrin and shame, “Thanks. I’m really excited,” while looking at the doorway. “I better go. I’m sure you have other students waiting.”
That was it. That was my last real interaction in the K-12 education system. What a bummer, right? And looking back, my response to my guidance counselor, or any of the other moments isn’t so uncommon. It stemmed from the deep internalization that I, as a student of color, simply wasn’t as good or as deserving as my white peers. That feeling, way back on the swings, was just the beginning of my frustration toward not being treated fairly. Obviously, I couldn’t vocalize this as a four-year old (although, how cool would that have been? “‘You can’t opppress me!’ screamed the preschooler, throwing a tiny, hairy fist in the air. ‘You will not place your unfair standards of beauty upon me!'”) but I am thankful that I did learn why I had harbored a tide of anger and frustration for the majority of my education, and as an educator, I often see the flickers of frustration and resentment my students have when they get to me in 7th grade. When I tell stories of my education, I often see other mocha heads nodding. That’s why I am making it a priority to help my students of color, and their white peers, navigate a more diverse world.
Stay tuned for Part 2, where I tell you all about what a French Bulldog with a flatulence problem and middle schoolers have in common.
A Drop of Mocha