|Day 27 of 31 at TWT!|
It's the beginning of first period and A. and I are chatting about school and life, still getting to know each other. Suddenly, she makes a comment that shoots straight to my heart:
"Hay muchos racistas aquí."
"Really? I don't know about that..." I try to reassure her and myself. (I really didn't know what to say!) "What makes you feel that way?"
Lots of racists here? The town where I teach is my hometown and I love it. I've lived there since I was two and I'm so proud to have gone there K-12. We have high-achieving schools and a beautiful, wonderful community. If I had to characterize our students and their families, I'd say they are kind, caring, and polite, while somewhat entitled in certain parts of town. Maybe she misunderstood someone...
But she goes on and I realize that she hasn't encountered the same side of people that I know. She describes how she got into a fight (and got suspended for 3 days!) in the school she came from (also part of our district, just on the other side of town). A fight? Cheery, studious A.? Some girls kept yelling at her in the hallway to go back to Mexico. "I just couldn't help my self, the rage just boiled up in me..." she explains. I know that many of these kids' opinions are formed by what they hear at home, what they see on T.V., what their friends say and do. I know that teenage girls are mean sometimes. But it really hits me hard to think of students in our town saying that to someone.
She keeps going. She tells me how some girls at her table in art class insult Mexicans. "I don't know everything they're saying, but I know they are talking about me and I know they are saying bad things about Mexico." I guess there's more than one reason she always wants me to come to art. I know there's a chance she's being paranoid, but I also know that sometimes, you can understand perfectly that someone is making fun of you, without hearing a word they say. I'll have to talk to the art teacher...
So I let her know I understand how awful that must feel, but I also explain that those kids shouldn't represent our town or all Americans to her, that there are lots of good people who are kind to everyone. "I know," she says, and grins, with what I'll come to think of as her trademark phrase: "Usted es buena gente." ("You are a good person.") I love when she says that, but it also makes me sad. It shows that she's met plenty of people who aren't.
Several weeks later, the racism topic makes a sad return. It's Spirit Week, and Friday is Jersey Day. At first, A. is really excited about wearing her Mexico soccer jersey. I feed her excitement, explaining how much fun it will be to see what teams everyone is proud of! Midweek, she starts to waffle. "There are so many racists here. I shouldn't wear it." I try to encourage her that she shouldn't feel the need to hide who she is. She should show her pride in her country and it could be a way to teach the other students. Now that they know her, they might be curious about Mexico and want to ask her questions. Maybe other students who like soccer might want to be friends with her! She shrugs, obviously not so sure.
On Friday morning, I race down to first period, hoping to be greeted by some red, white, and green. But A.'s just wearing a regular shirt. "You should've worn your jersey!" I playfully scold. "No, I didn't want to..." Except I know that's not true. I remember how excited she was on Monday, before the fear crept in. I feel a lump in my throat and a pit in my stomach. Hatred and fear have overcome hope and pride... for now.
This is why I teach: to build a better future. A future where A. wouldn't think twice about proudly wearing her Mexico jersey to school... even if it wasn't Jersey Day!