Somehow it is Thursday again and as I sat here staring at the snow falling heavily outside my window and on to the evergreens in the yard, I laughed as my mom told me it was 79 degrees back in my hometown of West Covina, CA. Days like this make me feel as if I am so far away from my childhood – and, yes, leave me longing for Southern California winters! But my mind has been on home a lot lately as some high school classmates have started a page to begin planning our 20 year reunion next year. I still have no idea how that has happened but seeing all the pictures and posts has brought back so many memories I didn’t even realize I had forgotten.
I loved high school. Now, seeing my high school or hearing about it, you might not guess that. You see, my beloved high school was the school on the wrong side of the tracks. The high school many families avoided. The high school that led to many of my neighbors going to private schools in order to avoid being bused to the “gang” school with unruly kids, teachers who didn’t care and graffiti everywhere.
To be fair, we did have gang members. I even knew who some of them were. And some kids acted out. And like any large high school, we had our share of burned out teachers who should have found a different calling. And we definitely had some interesting graffiti – Johhny loves Maria PV (that’s por vida for you non-Angelenos), Baby Giggles in “gang” font (yes, that is someone’s scary gang name) and all sorts of fabulous insults aimed at opposing gangs, teachers or just the world in general.
But we also had incredible singers and dancers who won national competitions and are now performing on Broadway and have won famous singing shows I won’t name here. We had gang members who walked around making sure that nobody was bothering the kids with identified disabilities. We had scholars who studied at Harvard and Columbia and Cambridge and CalTech. We had hundreds and hundreds of kids who started families and took jobs steps away from our high school. We had teenage moms who kept coming to class determined to be the first in their family to get a high school diploma. We had incredible athletes who were recruited by top programs and eventually went pro. We had too many funerals for classmates who had been shot or stabbed to death. We had incredibly dedicated teachers who didn’t give up on us, who didn’t see us all as “those” kids but as human beings with a future. And we had each other.
My high school was diverse in so many ways besides the traditional categories of race and class. We also had layers and layers of categories within each generic racial label. Take a name like Consuelo Garcia. At our school, she may have just moved from Mexico or Central America or she may have been Connie who didn’t speak a lick of Spanish and whose family had been in California since before California was even part of the U.S. Somebody with the last name Wong? They could have been part of the large wave of immigrants that arrived from China or Taiwan when I was younger. Or their family may have been in California for over 100 years. All those ethnically ambiguous kids walking around? Good luck trying to figure out “what they are” – half Japanese and half Mexican; one quarter Filipino, one quarter Mexican, one quarter White and one quarter Black, perhaps, or any of the other possible mixes of humanity that existed. What if you had seen an African American boy with baggy pants and flashy Nikes? He may have been living alone with his mom in an apartment or he might have been driving a fancy car and living with both parents…and oh yeah, Dad might be a doctor. The cute blonde with the high pony tail and sparkling eyes? She might be Daddy’s little princess in a fancy house or in between foster homes praying every night to be adopted.
The point is, you have often have NO CLUE what is going on with anyone just based on a glance. Or 100 glances. Or 1,000 glances. Everything in the paragraph above is based on actual people I knew in high school. And there were so many more, just like them, just like you and me, who didn’t (and still don’t) fit into neatly stacked boxes of stereotypes.
And I don’t mean to make it sound like a utopia. My high school had its share of troubles like anywhere else – drugs, racial tension, kids who fell through the cracks and every other high school struggle. I didn’t think of my high school as different during those incredible four years. I was just trying to have fun and get to college. But when I got to college, I realized that unlike most Cal (Berkeley for all you non-Californians) students, I didn’t have a zillion AP classes offered to me. And most of the kids in my dorms had not known someone who had been shot. Or whose family was receiving public assistance. Or had an ex-boyfriend who was in jail. Or who had a baby in high school. Or who was an undocumented immigrant. Or even someone who wouldn’t be going to college. I was shocked at how much more homogeneous most people’s high school experience appeared to be. And how much fancier. In fact, it took me a while to realize that while most of my dorm friends and classmates had attended much more prestigious schools, they too didn’t fall into neat categories like I had first imagined. For a long time, I was just jealous and probably bitter.
And yet, I now consider myself privileged. Incredibly privileged. So incredibly privileged. I had a chance to experience through my friends and classmates so many different views on life and the world. I am not talking about the silly surface-level sharing of diversity embodied in eating food from around the world but rather, the more complex subtleties that make up humanity. When I hear a story about a gang member, I don’t think of a hardened criminal but rather, a scared little boy who needed a connection. Or my ex-boyfriend who wrote me poetry. Undocumented immigrants are not some statistic to be debated philosophically but family after family who worked themselves to the bone to give their kids a better life and seniors in high school who make straight As but can’t get financial aid due to their legal status. I don’t assume that people in an ethnic or socioeconomic group all have the same habits, or wishes, or political views or experiences. I never say a student is African, because oh my word, Africa is a continent and not a country! Sorry, that one seems to hit me extra hard!
Don’t worry, I still have my own set of biases and prejudices that I carry around with me and have to unpack and put away day after day. Just ask me how I feel about people who claim to be “color-blind” or don’t value diversity…you’ll see all sorts of biases and more come out of my mouth. My first instinct when I hear a Southern drawl – before my reflection and common sense kicks in – is to feel slightly afraid as I remember movies about slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. And I am sure there are many, many biases and prejudices I have demonstrated in this post that I have not even realized yet and that I count on my friends and colleagues (and strangers) to help me understand.
When I cringe at the stereotypes flying out of other teachers’ mouths or get bug-eyed when they can’t remember if a student is from Guatemala or Peru (seriously, though, how do you get those two mixed up?), I have to bite my tongue (really hard sometimes) and remember that their experiences are different than mine and that they may not have had the same multi-layered tapestry of human experience wrapped tightly around them during childhood. And then I politely bring up my point and stand up for our kids.
Because being understanding and patient does not mean I sit in silence.
There was a point in college when I wish my parents had sent me to a “better” high school so I could have had internships, and Latin and other things my nineteen year old self deemed crucial to a successful future. I didn’t know then that going to high school on the wrong side of the tracks would actually set me up on the path I am currently on. As a teacher, I thank my parents and the universe every day for allowing me to have the high school experience I had. For helping me to see that every human being is such a unique mosaic of experiences and characteristics and values. For showing me that I must connect – person to person – with every student and every family before I can even begin to understand anything about them. For making me realize that just because a child’s family has a completely different viewpoint on education, or politics or finances or child-rearing doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot in common and doesn’t automatically make me right just because I am the teacher. My high school on the wrong side of the tracks embodied both the beauty and the challenge of a diverse society.
Diversity is sacred to me. But goodness, it is hard. As it should be. Because diversity is about people and people are hard. But they are beautiful. And that’s what makes it worth it.