I don't cry anymore or have the feeling like I could. I've realized his lately, especially when I've watched or heard sad things that I'm sure would have made me fall into a sad stupor before. It's strange, but I feel like my heart is hardening. And this time, not just the exterior. I mean the whole thing is just hardening. I don't feel compassion in the literal sense of the word: I don't "suffer with" anyone anymore, it seems. In fact, I feel almost nothing. Like a robot with all the answers--or at least a calculated response to things. Like a machine that just carries on to do its job.
I don't delve into the lives of my students anymore, and frankly--oddly--I don't particularly care to. I did in the beginning, but...not anymore. And I know that upon reading this, your eyes have probably narrowed and your brow has raised and you're wondering why this post seems so at odds with everything you'd expect. And you should know that I titled it "Lessons Unplanned" for a reason because I too have been wondering why this experience is so at odds with everything I'd expected.
But I expected a lot of things when I entered this commitment, and probably nine of out ten of those things did not go as planned. This has been an experience unlike any other in that everything I've ever done before now has been done exactly according to plan.
Well, Hello, Real Life, nice to meet you.
I thought upon entering this experience of teaching what we like to "politely" call "underprivileged children" (or "children from low income communities" or "high-risk children" or anything else that places humans with unique lives in very generalized categories) that I was very much aware of my identity as a privileged white girl. In fact, I wrote about it obsessively, and I certainly still stand by the things that I wrote about.
But teaching my kids--the beautiful little souls that fill up my classroom daily--has changed my identity in a profound way. It has changed me almost radically--almost as if it has changed the very makeup of who I am and who I have been all this time.
Before this experience, if you'd asked me to describe myself in three words, I would almost always say these: passionate, ambitious, and compassionate. But I'm replacing "compassionate," now, with something else to be determined when I sort through things.
In the first few months of the school year, there were so many days I'd go home and feel heavy. Some days, I would just lie in bed. Many days, I would just cry. Sometimes it was more like a desperate weeping. Because my kids would tell me things that would break my heart. I would see things that would break my heart. I would think about things that would break my heart.
Nothing has changed in their lives, but I did.
It wasn't that the weight of their problems became too much for me to bear. Indeed, I shed a lot of tears, but still it wasn't that. In fact, when I cried for them, I felt almost ashamed and weak. I wasn't actually crying FOR them. I was crying BECAUSE of them--as if their existence was just too hard on privileged me to witness. Crying because of them wasn't fair. How dare I drive home in and to my privilege, crying on the way and crying there--feeling sorry for these children who deserve better?
No. Because they would come to school the next day and they'd be humans just like me but better because they didn't go home feeling sorry for themselves. They just lived and trudged through--experiencing the range of human emotion and being--just like everyone else. And who was I to feel sorry for them when their very lives gave them the resiliency to keep going every single day? Just waking up means that despite ANY hardship they experience, they have a relentless hope and strength I couldn't even fathom rivaling.
They are incredible.
Incredible means "impossible to believe." And they are. To so many people. It really is nearly impossible to believe that people who experience the hardship they do can rise every morning and be excellent when I demand for them to be excellent.
The default stance is that "those" people already have a story written for them. Well, they don't. They wake up every day to write their story until society closes the book on them or takes the pen out of their hands. They don't choose to fail. And if it seems like they do choose failure, it's really that they just don't even know their own greatness. Consider it humility to a fault.
They are my teachers. They are the wake-up call I've needed since I was born into my privileged existence. Feeling sad and sorry, I have learned, is absolutely useless. Feeling sad and sorry sapped me of the energy I needed to be something useful. I don't delve into the lives of my kids because it doesn't matter the way we might think it does. Being their shoulder to cry on, I've decided, is not the role I'm best at playing, nor is it the role I want to play. Sure, when they talk, I listen. But I don't pry. My duty is to be for them what I know I can be: someone who loves them so much I'll look past their pains and push them to reach greatness because they've proven, just by living, that they CAN.
We were asked by Teach For America as corps members to write a short "Story of Self," which illustrates a moment in our lives that challenged us and yet showed us who we really are. This is mine.
We drove thirty hours in a broken down Suburban—a family of six piled in. I was fifteen and terrible, the rude product of too many years growing up in the invisible smog of White Privilege. For most of my life, I’d gone to private schools for the rich, despite the fact that we were really quite poor.
I had a paradoxical identity. I was the daughter of a white immigrant from Jamaica, who got knocked up at the age of 18 and had me. We grew up together, living above our means entirely, and feeling the strain of a low income frequently. After eloping and remaining married for a whopping month and having another daughter, my mother married a Mexican man seven years her junior and accidently had two more girls. Jaded and overprotective, I abhorred this new husband, associating his culture and his race with him and lumping them all into the same hate bundle.
He and his family were different, and I didn’t like it. Life at home was miserable for me, so I estranged myself from my family and clung to my private school friends whose wealth and privilege abounded. It was, at least superficially, a lot greener on their side. I became an elitist without the official certificate—I didn’t have the bank account to back it up, but I still believed profoundly that I was special by affiliation and (without explicitly admitting it) race.
Needless to say, my admittance to Mexico was coupled with a jarring culture shock like I’d never experienced before. As soon as we crossed the border, it was as though I’d been transplanted to another world. The disarray was overwhelming. Men latched onto our cars, asking for money in exchange for directions or assistance. People scrambled about outside, speaking loud Spanish and dragging little children by the arms. The cars were shoddy old things, blaring horns seeming to be their only fully functioning part. A mixed smell of manure, fried foods and thick pollution struck me as we drove through the cities.
I remember the Mexican flag—the biggest flag I’d ever seen. I looked up, out the window, behind the glass that kept me sealed from that world. I got the message loud and clear, but I didn’t understand it. This country—these people—had pride.
For the first part of our stay there, I could not figure out why.
Our trip was meant to be just two weeks. By some act of fate, however, the car problems we’d had on the way down ended up prolonging our stay to almost a month. It was in that month, without even realizing it as it happened, that reality slapped me out of delusion. And despite popular belief, the reality was a whole lot better than the sealed bubbled I’d been living in.
Trash littered the streets, the smells of fried food permeated the air, the pollution was thick, graffiti covered the walls of every building, the people were loud, the food was strange, the Spanish was incomprehensible, the buildings were dilapidated, hungry stray dogs roamed the roads, the bugs were rampant. I had never been outside of the manicured suburbia of America, and Mexico was diametrically different from everything I knew.
I wondered on an hourly basis during my first weeks in Mexico how anyone could live this way. It was like the chorus to my lamenting song about how much I despised everything Mexican.
In time, though, I became too distracted to notice the hum of that sad song in my mind. Something was happening to me as I was coaxed by time to take off my shoes and hang up my jacket and stay awhile. Get comfortable. Sit down. Have some tortillas and homemade salsa. Play soccer in the streets with the little boys in the neighborhood. Make friends with my cousin’s friends, taking pictures at the sites we visited. Fall in love with the precious little boys and girls that lived nearby. Succumb to the cheek-kissing and the hugging at every greeting and goodbye. Dance to the traditional music with the uncle that asks at every nightly gathering. Enjoy the fresh taquitos made by the old woman at a stand on the roadside in the mountains. Stand and look out at the splendorous pyramids made by the ancient peoples of this beautiful country.
The invitation was there every day, and without meaning to, I took it. And in the meantime, I fell deeply in love.
Though my initial journal entries don’t show it, a transformation was taking place in me after every day spent with the Mexican people of my stepfather’s family and friends. There was something authentic about them that I’d seemed to have forgotten could be a trait of humanity. They were not polished and plastic the way Americans were. They were people filled and colored by a rich cultural heritage that centered on family and community. Their hospitality and genuine kindness were warm and filling.
As I let myself become fully immersed in their world and their culture, my perception of them was renewed: they were not strange “others” anymore; rather, they became humans that I could value and appreciate and, most of all, love.
The journal in which I wrote during my stay in Mexico is filled with (sad and yet comedic) rants about how much I hated it and dreaded being there. But my last entry—written on the drive back home—reveals what a transformative experience that adventure was:
“I really wanted to go home—I really and truly did. But when the entire family lined up outside those two bright pink and bright green houses, it took too much effort not to let that ball in my throat get the best of me. God, I hate Mexico. But I’ve found that I can’t really hate Mexico if I love the people who make it up.
That was the day I decided to wake up. Since that time, my world has been enriched because I have become fascinated by and appreciative of the cultures of people of color. I went to college and studied the world as one of my majors. I studied abroad in South Africa and Israel and Palestine and listened to the stories of the beautiful people that comprise those places. I developed a mission while in college to do everything I can to ensure that those narratives are not silenced by mainstream Western culture. Being a Teach For America corps member is my first step in a career dedicated to making sure that all people are perceived as and treated like the invaluable humans that they are.