“One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes.” (Eleanor Roosevelt)
And this is what I subscribe to. Not wasting time arguing my point with words, but rather, making choices that clearly indicates who I am and what I am about. But it wasn’t always this way. Very early in life, I realized that I would never really get a chance to voice my opinion, let alone express my philosophy. And that my appearance, skin color, gender, and whatever current stereotypes that may exist about my “kind,” would always be first to speak louder than any words I could ever muster. So I stopped trying to talk over them and started to rely on the choices I made to anchor who I want to be and shout out my philosophy.
It may have started earlier than that, but Mr. Richardson’s Social Studies class was the first time that I remembered. I don’t think I honestly understood what Social Studies was because it was my first week in an American school, and only my second week in the United States. My mother explained to me that we were here because she had a case she was working on and that unlike other cases she has worked on before, this particular one was going to be a long case. I didn’t understand why she couldn’t leave us with dad and the cook and the house girl and the nannies like she had before. Or why Patricia, my older sister, couldn’t come with us. My sister whispered “ils son divorcé” to me when she hugged me goodbye before my brother, and I boarded the plane. I didn’t quite understand what that meant. What divorcé was, but knew that It felt a lot bigger than just a case. But since mother never left room for questions.
She told us to be, and so we were.
The only black child, sitting in a sea of white faces
Trying to keep up with a language that I understood better than I spoke
Trying to contain my anger because, in my country, the 7th grade doesn’t look like this.
And there was no need for a Social Studies class because we carried our history on our backs,
In our clothes,
In the books that we read,
In the language that we spoke,
In the faces of the educators that reflected us,
In our flag,
In the papita and the fresco that we ate after school,
In the camionette, we took to get home.
But here, in America, I was a black girl (country of origin irrelevant), who did not speak English well enough to earn the respect of my peers, but rather odd enough to be starred at, snickered at and pointed at.
And I know what you’re thinking. That maybe it was all in my head, that new places can be scary, and really the language barrier is what created a distance between them and me. Most days, I went home thinking and telling myself the same things. Well, actually, most days I went home crying, and my mother told me those same things.
But it didn’t matter because, on a fall day, I sat in Mr. Richardson’s class to learn Social Studies. And though I didn’t quite know what that was, Mr. Richardson told us it involved infographics. And as he placed a printed a transparent sheet on the overhead projector, he instructed us to figure out our chances of success in the American society based on proven research and studies. Thought I didn’t quite understand all of the writing on that paper, I remember pictures. I remember arrows that flowed from one square and one category to the next, and percentages and that at the bottom right corners of this transparent printed sheet was 100%. And your number belonged on the line right above it.
I remembered Mr. Richardson coming right to me, worried that I might not understand the directions he had just given to the class, decided to repeat as loudly and as slowly as he possibly could, the exact same words he had said to the class just minutes before.
CALCULATE. YOUR. CHANCES. OF. SUCCESS! START. AT. AFRICAN AMERICAN. THEN. FOLLOW. THE ARROWS. ADD UP (he gestured something with his hands). PERCENTAGES.
At that point, the class was looking at me, looking at him, trying to make sense of why he was speaking to me like this. And though I can’t be sure that they decided to calculate their chances of success, I am sure, that at that moment, they decided to figure mine.
—> Start at African American. I am not African. Collect my 20%.
—> Follow the arrow to Child of a single parent home. But I had a dad. Collect my 10%.
—> End at the arrow that says an immigrant/ child of an immigrant. Is that what I am in this country? And immigrant? Collect my 5%.
And while I calculated my results in my head, somebody from across the room had shouted it out for me; 35%! And hysterical laughter ensued from everyone in the class.
At that moment, it didn’t matter that my mother was a highly respected, practicing attorney with several degrees. That, in my country, I had all of the luxuries that money could afford. That I spoke and wrote and read fluently in two other languages. Or that in my country, in the school that I was enrolled in less than 3 weeks ago I was at the top of my class.
Because in 1999, in America, in brockton Massachusetts, in North Junior High, in Mr. Richardson’s social studies class, I became nothing more than an African American girl, from a single parent home, who could not speak English, with only a 35% chance of making something of myself in society.
And I bit my lips, warning the tears that had gathered in the corner of my eyes not to fall. Because my mother always told me to hold my head high and never let them see you cry.
And because Mr. Richardson responded with “ok class, let’s move on.” And they simply did.
But I never could.
I never liked school. And every time I graduated from a stage in my life, I vowed never to come back.
But 35% haunted me.
I chased after valedictorian and found it, and sacrificed sleep for Summa Cum Laude.
Because in my mind, settling for less was the gateway drug to 35%. And the worst that I could do was allow Mr. Richardson and his statistics to ever be proven correct.
So I married my best friend, in hopes that my children will never come to experience what life feels like in a single parent home. I chased degree after degree so that my knowledge and expertise in my field might overshadow and speak louder than your stereotypes and statistics of me.
And, as an educator, I challenge my colleagues to think about the last time they communicated to a student that they only had a “35%” chance to succeed With your actions. And inactions. With your words, or with your inability to get past what other teachers or society have told you about who these students are. And never giving them a chance to tell you, themselves, who they are and who they hope to be. To stop fearing those whom you are responsible for teaching and extend to them your respect.
I make it my mission to teach my students how to recognize racism and social injustices and speak out against it. And I lead by example. I remind the little brown and black boys and girls that I teach that they will always be more than an arbitrary statistic. That they must fight through the obstacles that seem never-ending and dare to dream. Because even if society has all of the odds stacked against them. I believe in them.