I grew up with some truly abominable “learning moments,” most of which left an acrid taste of aversion to traditional education in mind. Take, for example, the underclassmen honors biology teacher I had the misfortune of trusting as a sophomore. Let’s call her Ms. Blundt. Ms. Blundt possessed various accolades in the news, of which some were displayed proudly in her classroom by means of clippings framed and decorated. She also had a penchant for marvelous experiments – truly rigorous and followed by detailed lab reports we would create. However, the one terrorizing memory I am still belabored with is her attempt at scientific debate. She made us pro and con for eugenics. I clearly remember being on the pro side — cringe-worthy, mind you. So, she forced a bunch of high school freshman and sophomores to argue a morally bankrupt debate. Further, my peers threw me under the bus – peer review was factored into the assignment, and, “fortunately” for me, I partnered with two jocks who could care less about any research I contributed to this foregone conclusion. My friends on the opposing side then accused me of merely choosing a side based on, again, appearances. It was utterly and completely demoralizing, and I left that year of honors biology with the adamant decision that I would never pursue a career in the science field.
Horrifying, isn’t it? To know that you, as a teacher, wield so much power in determining the future of any given student over the course of years. Yes, mistakes are made and lesson plans foiled…yet this memory plagues me still. My parents are food scientists. My mom has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry, and my dad graduated from college in mechanical engineering. He later entered food research and development as well. By all accounts and upbringing, I was wired into STEM from the get-go. However, my experiences in STEM education as a minority woman were often shot down. What would you do if a teacher asked you to support the pro side of an argument you, morally, have no interest in arguing? What would you do if your so-called fellow debaters, of which you are supposedly on the same side, make you take the fall in your final grade? I honestly was driven – too “good” of a student, I argued for something I had no belief in and left forever haunted.
Or, take the damaging Model Minority Myth, particularly in math education. If you didn’t know, the U.S. government virtually banned most Chinese people from emigrating unless they were an academic. So, historically, there is minute basis for “Asian success” or what have you. However, I didn’t want to be pegged as a math genius. I legitimately struggled in mathematics since I was in elementary school. My mother only caught me up and kept me afloat in the various grade levels through summer courses of her own making. I ate lunch in high school nearly every day with trigonometry instructors or the designated math tutor. Math was never intuitive or a forte. The only reprieve I ever saw was my AP Stats course, and I relied heavily on genius peers at that. I rejoiced when I realized I tested out of all math courses in college.
I want to make it clear – I’m not disparaging teachers. As one now, it is absolutely a behind-the-scenes battle embroiled with state and school policies. However, as an educator you have an ethical duty to make sure each and every student overcomes adversity in your classroom. You make sure voices are heard, not just your curriculum or agenda. The center will and always be the students. While my high school academically ranked one of the highest in the region, I have less than fond memories. Let me walk you through a few.
What people never seem to realize, no matter how many times you tell them, is that you will suffer if you’re APIA in the middle of the U.S. My parents did’t understand microaggressions. In fact, they give me the “I came with two suitcases” speech unfailingly every time I attempted to defuse a wound from school. So many afflictions… Young women at school mocked the way I hopped down the steps if I was feeling joyful that day, others talked just behind my back that my hair looked like a wig (too pretty to be my own), and students even commiserated with security guards about how ugly they thought I was.
I was thin-skinned. I was vulnerable, and I don’t think that’s a fault, but people certainly took advantage of it all. One of my close friends gave me a life-saving tip — to simply play music as I went down the hallways. I think I still have some ear-damage from blasting music through those white Apple earbuds, but it became a saving grace of sorts.
Confession: I never ran a race for the track team despite training with them. Something inside me broke. Too many voices talking behind my back, and the shin splints were simply an excuse. I became a shell. When trying out for cross country, these fellow teammates were cheering me on, so I waved at them. They thought I was telling them to stop, so one of them screamed, “Why is she holding her hand up at us? You think you’re fast? Who do you think you are?! YOU’RE NOT! HURRY UP!” To this day, I still make sure to mouth the words “thank you” or “good morning” or “hello” when I cross paths with other runners. Some days, I just look at the ground. While I ran the Chicago Marathon in 2016, I did not want to see any former track mates or coaches.
Fellow women took pictures of me in the dressing room and shared them. They terrorized me. I once opened a door for another athlete and they answered with “F**k you very much.” A rock was thrown through our kitchen window. Kids in my architecture class junior year spent 45 minutes each day talking to each other, behind my back, how I looked like a toad, my eye-shape, my countenance, how I dressed terribly, how I spoke, how I interacted, my college decision. They would stand up and exit the room like nothing ever happened, but they never had the audacity of making eye contact. Ever. True cowards. It was a police state, and a prison sentence to go into those hallways every morning. I sported an institutionalized paranoia of people talking behind me…even people who seemed trustworthy. A well loved teacher took a moment at the beginning of the year to tell everyone how my chosen name was a far-cry from my given one. She smirked.
I was a horrible student because school was hell for me. I lied, I was snarky, and I used sarcasm as armor against the everyday berating of bullies. I glared, I snapped, I stood up in small ways because God forbid I stand up to those who pennied me, taped their eyes in a gross parody of Asian features, or mumbled “ching chong” in the hallways. It took every fiber of my being just to keep going. My parents never considered the power and privilege dynamics at play at a diverse high school where APIA students were labeled merely “trace” percentages. To most parties, except a few close friends, I was a joke.
This story is not meant to make my school, my classmates, or my administration feel guilty. In fact, if not for a few determined, passionate, and hilarious teachers and classmates, I do not know if I would have continued in education or simply as a person. I found solace in theater and art, particularly stage crew and costume makeup. Theater…those were my people. Even having left stage crew after a short stint, I still remember sitting and watching orchesis or a musical rehearse. It was a gift. As it were: fellow students chatting in the hallways before and after school, teachers forcing me to take a compliment no matter how hard I tried to deny them, and friends sending me flowers when I thought no one cared. The invites to graduation parties, inside jokes in ELA classes, the frantic push towards AP Lit studying, squirreling away into study carrels in the library, eating with my favorite authors in a rooftop classroom, conversing with the ghosts on the pages or “reading” as we like to call it…those memories, though few, I remember fondly.
This is a call towards socio-emotional learning and investment. Scholars have grit. They sometimes have lived through wisdom, pain, and heartache well beyond their years. I need to remember that as an educator. Growing up is sometimes beautiful but also truly awful. It is an absolute paradox. As one of my students from last year said, “Miss. School is a prison. Our uniforms are jumpsuits, ISS is the hole, the bars on the windows make us feel trapped, the school store is the commissary.” Tongue in cheek humor? Yes. Some truth? Every student voice holds some.
Don’t talk down to students. Don’t condescend to them. They have lived through scathing comments, harsh realities, and the worst of those older than them. On my best days, students have let me earn respect. On my worst, I rightfully earn their ire. However, if I could give my past self one piece of advice, I would say: don’t be afraid to grow alongside the people in your room. Yes, I know I’m a young educator. For many of my predecessors and mentors, this veers towards “green” and negative. However, I truly believe this: it is okay not to be okay. Our society values masks and facades so much that when someone asks, “How are you?” we are conditioned to respond, “I’m well / good / fine. Thank you.” That’s the script. I want more – as a person, as a teacher, as a friend… I want behind the veil.
So…I eat bullying for breakfast. I digest the bitterness and release it into the ether. I’m better for those years of torment if only learning how to fight back, to spit fire instead of extinguishing my own. To resist and fly, as Maya Lin might say. But I’m not taking any more of that Lord-of-the-Flies bullcrap. Oh, no. I will forever defend the underdog, the misunderstood, the neglected. What I’ve learned this year though – sometimes bullies are the most insecure people you’ll meet. This is not to excuse any of their behavior – just another layer to the all-consuming puzzle of American education. Most of which, students consume each day like breakfast. Maybe…today’s the day you stop with them and invite them to coffee. To sit, to ponder, to wait alongside. To pause. To ask, “And you?” Maybe that’s all it takes to change an all-American die-t.