I entered the classroom twelve years ago with a fist full of dry erase markers and a heart full of determination. I was freshly graduated from college, so I obviously, was an expert teacher. I walked up to my brand new class waiting for me in the school yard on the first day of school. A parent grabbed me by the arm and demanded to know how old I was. “Twenty- two.” I answered proudly. The epitome of a grown up. “Oh lawd a mercy! They sent a baby to teach the class!” and she began to pray.
Thus, began my teaching journey in my hometown of Newark, New Jersey at Miller Street School. I was fortunate enough to teach in the same school my grandmother, Beatrice Lang, attended as a young girl. I taught there for three years until non tenure layoffs and state takeover eliminated teachers and eventually closed the school. Since then, I’ve moved to NYC and teach and live in the Bronx. Yet, I will never forget those years teaching in my home community. Walking the same halls as my grandmother, having her visit my classroom and speak to my students. Home is where I found my teaching spirit. It’s shaped me forever.
While I love my hometown and I’m proud of where I’m from, I understand the hardships of growing up in a place like Newark. When I tell people where I’m from they often respond with “No offense, but you don’t seem like you’re from Newark”, as though there is an image in their mind of a person I’m not living up to. This person is much less intelligent, less articulate, and less educated than who stands before them. Newark is a community often labeled as impoverished. I remember an experience during student teaching, overhearing the white teachers discussing how their families were so afraid of them taking a job there. The public school system plays tug of war with the charter corporations, pulling apart black and brown children in their fight for control. Police presence is overwhelming and unfriendly. Sounds of violence fill the night and often claim innocent victims. Sadly, this year one of those victims was one of my former students, Jayla Green.
My sister posted the story. ‘Young teen killed in a drive-by shooting during a memorial service’. Another tragedy in Newark. The eyes of the young lady on the cover looked familiar to me and after they revealed her name, I knew. At the time, everyone was doing the ten year challenge. It was a social media activity where you post side by side pictures of yourself from ten years ago and how you look currently. I had passed on that aspect of the game. However, with the news of Jayla, I found myself scrolling through pictures of classes I taught years past, tearfully, to find those eyes I remembered so well. Each picture I found was of her bright eyed and with a book in her hand. I taught her exactly ten years ago. The loss of a student and classmate is often a yearly occurrence for Newark Public School educators and students. A unifying event that had avoided me until now.
Yet, in the midst of the rubble of adversity, are blooms of brilliance, stories of resilience, and promises of excellence embodied by our youth. We’re birthing olympic medalists, grammy award winning singers, and Oscar — nominated actors. None of use got here to where we we are at the easy way. Our knees are scraped and feet are splintered with glass but we stand to tell of the struggle and we command a bold presence.
This is my twelfth year teaching and this year, my “baby class” will be graduating from high school in Newark. While I’m close with all of my students, it has mostly been the girls who have kept in touch. They’ve messaged me on Facebook and WhatsApp and sent me pictures of prom and graduation invitations. I’m bursting with pride on both professional and personal levels. As many “veteran” teachers will tell you, there is so much I know now that I wasn’t able to teach my first class. Though I thought I knew it all at twenty two years old, life’s experience now wasn’t what it was then. There is so much more I wish I’d said to my class. There are so many ways I wished I affirmed them. So this letter is to my first year’s class, to the little girls in Newark, NJ, and all the girls thriving and surviving in urban areas across the country. This is especially for Jayla Green.
To the Young Girls In My Class:
You run the streets, play with you friends,
scream at the fire hydrant, laugh
on your porch. You shine. When you dance
at the #31 bus stop, your braids swing,
your beads fly over your shoulders and I see you.
In class you love to read. Every chance you get,
you grab books off the shelf and read and read.
You ask me questions. You play “teacher.”
I see you. I keep your letters in my box
at home. I watch you go from first
to second grade and I give you flowers
on your graduation day. It’s not just me,
it’s we. We see you. We send you on your way.
I need to tell you about life outside
of our classroom, outside of our city.
I need to tell you about them. They
will say you’re from a wasteland. They
will try to tell you about your city.
They will say, “Nothing good
can grow there. Nothing can grow in you.”
They will say you’re scary. They will seek
sass. They will deny you support.
They won’t allow you to be tired or weak.
They will make you feel like an imposter.
They. Will. Not. Win. Don’t let them win.
Don’t let them in. Affirm yourself.
Affirm every day. They do not define you.
You define yourself.
To Young Women You Will Grow to Be,
You create your life with full consciousness.
You are worthy of taking up space. They’ll pretend they don’t see you. They’ll walk past you without excuses. Bump into your flesh, as though your melanin can be ignored. Plant your feet even deeper. Exist loudly! From your hair follicles to your toenails. You have a right to your existence. Stand stall and show up! Never shrink yourself to make others comfortable.
You create your own path. Others may not understand it. It wasn’t meant for them to. You can move quickly with speed but go further when you stop to pause for clarity. The steps you are walking have been paved for you alone. I cannot promise that you won’t stumble. Or trip. Or fall. Or even stop sometimes because the trek is so high and you’re out of breath. In those moments, look back at how far you’ve come. Then glance towards the summit. Lean to the side and listen towards a friendly voice cheering you on, even if the only voice coming is from within. Take a deep breath and keep going!
You are multifaceted. Don’t stick yourself into any singular box. Get rid of people who try to. Take time to connect with yourself. Seek out understanding, not to be understood. You are allowed to leave board meetings to dance with friends until midnight. You are allowed to sign contracts with nails made of acrylic. You are allowed to play trap music on the way to work. You are multidimensional and you are perfectly packaged to carry it all.
You’re allowed to change your mind. Over and over and over again… You are not the same person, you were six months ago when you made that choice. Do not fret energy shifts! As your experiences grow, they will bring in new insights. If anyone questions how much you change, question why they haven’t.
You will be afraid at times. Be grateful. Fear signals that a change is about to occur. Trust yourself. Align with the wisdom that is inherent within you. Acknowledge the emotion and continue moving forward despite it. Either something you’re growing into or away from. Never let fear stop you from making those changes.
You are not alone. One hundred ancestors have been pouring of themselves into you for decades. Stand tall on the shoulders of those who came before you. Who poured all they had into creating this very moment. You are past lives incarnate. You are a living dream. Honor it.
Young girl, I honor your right to grow up.
Young woman, I honor your right to grow.
This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Challenge, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by my #Hfellow sister, Irene Castillon, and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog circle.