Growing up, I never wanted to be a teacher. Going to school was not always fun or liberating. It was tedious, uncomfortable and unsafe at times, but it was also an escape from the emotionally abusive and lonely environment I went to at the end of the day. School also presented a world with its own dangers – exclusion, verbal or cyber harassment, neglectful teachers and abusive ones. Too many times I had awful encounters with emotionally abusive teachers who were unaware of their sexism and racism, or perhaps were conscious of their actions and neglect. I remember being called a racial slur in front of my face as a 7 year old to a smiling white teacher who insisted that c**** was a vocabulary-safe definition (which wholly neglects the effects it has on people who look like me and is indicates her privilege of never having to think about my racial identity). I remember being asked as a 10 year old whether I wanted to see the school psychologist at the verge of an anxiety attack, which I was not emotionally nor mentally able to consent to as a child. I did not answer the question, similar to many of my responses later on in secondary school. I still cannot explain the reasons for my mistreatment, or why school remains unsafe for many like me today. I was treated as an adult who often had to translate everything from my day to necessary forms from English to my parents in Chinese. Despite my school district being in an area with a 25% Asian population (15% Chinese?), there is still no designated translator nor readily accessible services from human services to compassion and understanding in the elementary school I transferred to.
Even now as I embark on my Master’s in teaching, I question my purpose. There are so many fears holding me back, along with a mistrust of authority figures. Despite everything, I remember the teachers who stood out to me, who were patient and kind throughout the multiple times I shut down in class or ran away. I remember the Sunday school teacher who got to know me before my family members and complimented me on my crafts despite them not looking like anyone else’s work. I remember the college professor who said it’s always better to try when I was about to hand in my first failed psychology exam with the bonus question I thought I didn’t have the answer to. I remember my own mother who taught Chinese, who was my first Chinese teacher and saw through me as both student and daughter; who did not give any special privileges and if anything, was harder on me as a teacher because she is my mama.
Despite the trauma, I survived and I know I have what it takes to be an excellent teacher.
I thank the children and young women I worked with, survivors of trauma and violence. I’ve worked with 5 year olds who have one parent in jail and know the meaning of going to court before learning how to spell government. I’ve sat in the classroom with refugees from Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa who have to leave everything familiar behind and learn everything again in a strange new tongue. I’ve struggled with my mistakes and cried when I recognize my own self-defense tactics and meltdowns in other young women with disabilities and perhaps also a history of trauma and abuse. I’m grateful for being allowed to bring my presence and way of perceiving to the students and campers I have been blessed to work with. I’m also sorry for the limitations of school and camp because they are not always physically or emotionally safe. On the other hand, they may only be a temporary haven. I’m sorry I cannot do more for the brave and resilient students I am so honored to have worked with.
If there was only one thing I could teach my past and future students, it would be to spread love. To spread it from the kindness that they know, however small, to everyone they know.