Defiantly Alive: How and Why I Became A Literacy Teacher

Dulce-Marie Flecha
Jul 3 · 8 min read

I want to write something beautiful.

I can throw a pretty scene onto paper when I feel like it, teach you Spanish, coax a Nueva York accent out of your flat tongue. I can make the South Bronx in the ’70s smell like steel, make steel smell like your grandmother’s cooking. I can turn a phrase when I want to. I really, really want to turn a phrase today. I want to be funny, to be creative, to be deep, to write the sort of shit someone will turn into an Instagram graphic. But I’m here to tell you how I became a teacher and, as much as I want to create something beautiful, it isn’t a really pretty story.

It begins, like most of the world does, with Mami. I am the great-niece, niece, cousin, and daughter of Afro-Dominicana teachers. Mami’s family moved from the Caribbean mountains to the South Bronx in the winter. Two generations of Castaño-García women taught in New York City public schools. Every once in a while someone in Mami’s grade team would walk into her Pre-K classroom, notice me sprawled on the rug, a stack of picture books from the classroom library near my elbow, and kindly ask if I wanted to be a teacher like my mother. I was not a subtle child. I never had the tact to fix my face when I said “No.”

I suspect Mami didn’t mind. I don’t think she ever really wanted me to be a teacher; when I first began applying to colleges she suggested anesthesiology. I’m not sure why she’d trust me with a career in medicine after she spent a year paying for Pre-Calculus tutors. I majored in English instead, stuffed my stack of books into a box that Papo sketched an arrow onto and brought them to Happy Valley, Pennsylvania. Mami seemed was pretty okay with my original plan to get a doctorate in literature.

She’s also surprisingly okay with my tattoos.

Before my 18th birthday Mami did make sure I knew how much she disapproved of name tattoos (“¿Pero necesitas ayuda recordando tu nombre, Dulce-Marie?”). We’ve got rebellion in our blood, though, me and Mami. I got the name tattoo anyway, a tiny arrow sketched onto my rib cage in honor of the arrows Papo drew on freshman year move-in day. I marked myself as a flecha while squeezing Sara’s fingers at a two-room parlor in the middle of Pennsylvania. Mami found a way to love it. “It’s like, arrows are pulled back, but they always fly forward. Like you. Pulled back so you can fly forward”

She doesn’t have much to say about my second tattoo, a line of text that begins in the center of my torso and wraps around my left rib cage, a spot I’d never reveal accidentally. I told Mami, my ex, and a particularly extroverted payaso at Coney Island that it’s my favorite line from my favorite book. It isn’t a lie. It also isn’t the whole truth.

My best friends realized I was in danger in July of 2012, long before I did. I imagine it must’ve been fairly obvious to them. They had seen me nearly every day for three consecutive years and I hadn’t grown into a subtle adult. Still, somehow, what was blisteringly clear to Sara and Jo was a mystery to me. I blame television. My 20-year-old understanding of depression was a two-dimensional montage of sitcoms and rom-coms, 10 minutes of a thin white woman in her late 20’s crying into a pint of Ben and Jerry’s over a very specific life event — a break up, usually, or maybe a lost job. She recovered off-screen with a sundress and a blow out, maybe a quick trip to Sephora. Depression was for white women with careers who lived downtown. It was not a character trait; it was a plot device; not something to be lived with but something to be conquered.

My first depressive episode was sleepless nights, the neon colors of a Spongebob reruns interrupting the barrenness of my dorm room. It was an ache that seeped into my skin, sank into my sinew, a heaviness from my fingertips down to my bone marrow. I didn’t cry. I didn’t feel sad. I didn’t feel anything, didn’t even notice when the weight fell off my hips — 10 pounds, 20, 30. Sara and Jo began to call a bit more often. They brought me groceries, drove me to the movies with vodka hidden in half-busted Aquafina bottles, sat with me in my dorm while I stared at the dust in the air. Some afternoons I made the mistake of wandering through campus and the heaviness hit my chest, a lead in my lungs that sucked out my willingness to move. I laid out in a staircase or on a library bench for a few hours, until my legs strengthened or Sara went looking for me. It was the summer before senior year. We were supposed to be getting our lives together.

My doctoral applications hadn’t been updated in a month. It wasn’t that my plans had changed; planning was just no longer something I could do. Depression efficiently erases the past and future tenses. I existed in verbs, not feelings, all in the present. I eat. I work. I lay down. Sometimes, when the fumes cleared from my mind, I read. I was about halfway through a book on pseudonyms when I read a sentence that sucked all the air out of my chest.

I’m not a good enough writer to carve a pretty sentence out of the moment I realized I was suicidal.

The realization hit me strangely, like the surprise of missing a step while walking up the porch to your front door. I hadn’t consistently experienced emotions in over a month. I was not prepared to deal with two emotions in a single day. The relief of finally understanding what was happening to me quickly washed away under panic. I called Penn State’s Counseling and Psychological Services, spitting out sentences between sobs, texted Sara, then, exhausted by the effort of feeling but still very unable to sleep, hid under a pile of dirty laundry on my bed.

I’m not sure if it was a stroke of scheduling luck or if that receptionist was an absolute gem, but I was booked to see a Black Psychology Graduate Student who recognized my New York area code and asked if I was from the Bronx or Brooklyn. A good Caribbean daughter, I wanted to explain immediately that my mental health was not my parents’ fault.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Everybody gets sad sometimes. My friends get sad. They’re not like this.”

“But it isn’t really the same, is it?” Autumn asked, an undercurrent to her voice that I still can’t place. Understanding, maybe, or comfort, or empathy, or expertise, or a blend of the four. “You don’t feel sad.”

“Heavy, me siento heavy” my desperation slipping back into my mother’s language.

I sobbed all the way into September.

I stumbled towards my 21st birthday with two new medications hidden in my bag and some new vocabulary. Learning the language of mental illness was, somehow, harder than learning English had been (which is truly saying something because English is an obnoxious language itself). I only really got to practice it with Autumn, and I spent most of those sessions too choked on sobs to speak. Despite it all, though, I was still my mother’s daughter, a Caribeña, a García woman, with a whiskey mouth and a concrete skull. I read the Zoloft side effects six or seven times before I finally took the pills, two days after my 21st birthday, two weeks after they were actually prescribed. Feeling finally came back to me. True to my mother and the women who raised her, the first feeling I regained was defiance.

Defiantly, I survived.

I had spent the majority of my life believing that the solution to every problem I’d ever face was buried in a book. My brain, still drunk on depression, had begun to do some calculations and I was concerned. I had spent three years and a perfectly good merit scholarship studying the English language but, somehow, I was running out of words. I had exactly one word to describe my depression to Autumn — “heavy” — and used it at least 9 times in each 45 minute session. A sentence in a book had saved my life that summer. I genuinely, seriously believed that if I ran out of sentences — if I could no longer read or write — I’d die.

I decided to collect them. An English major in her 7th semester reads four books a week, easy. I wrote every sentence that tugged at the air in my lungs onto an index card in a different color then taped them over my desk. They were all nice sentences, but none of them devastated me quite like the first did back in July, so I forced myself to write my own. It was painfully slow, the sentences were rambling, and my English grammar has always been awful, but they were mine. I was thrilled by my ability to produce words, no matter how much those words may have sucked.

In early January of 2013 I called home to let my parents know that I wouldn’t be submitting any doctoral applications after all.

“¿Y que vas a hacer el año que viene?”

“Quiero ser maestra.”

Maybe Mami saw the writing on the wall — all of my senior research had centered on childhood literacy sponsorship in digital spaces, or maybe Mami had finally mastered the tact that always eluded me, but she didn’t ask why I chose teaching. Thank God. I didn’t really know the answer. It would take me a few years, a few heartbreaks, one school and two shelters to realize that I’ve dedicated my career to the intersection between literacy and pain. There are no straight lines in my life; my path to teaching is curved like a playwright’s heart, like my hair, like my hips, like a road through the Dominican mountains that my ancestors lived and taught in.

I’ve dedicated a career to studying and teaching in the intersection between learning and pain. Part of that work is making space for the pain I feel. I work in a tough setting, a space without summer breaks, without book orders, without clear victories. It’s easy to forget why I voluntarily walk into a building that I know will hurt me. I curled into my couch one afternoon and wrote this story as a reminder to my future self, the Dulce-Marie two shades away from submitting a resignation letter: I came into literacy, teaching for the kids desperate for language, a sentence, a letter that guides them to survival and beyond. I teach for the kids who need words as badly as I did in the summer of 2012. I’ll fight for them in every facet of my work; my teaching, my presenting, my workshops, until I run out of words.

I teach for the kids who are defiantly alive.

Identity, Education and Power

Pathways and Intersections of Understanding

Dulce-Marie Flecha

Written by

Educator, alt-ed admin. Bilingual Sp.Ed + homelessness + immigration + equity + literacy + trauma. Cardi B Curriculum Scholar. New Yorker. Tocaya. she/her.

Identity, Education and Power

Pathways and Intersections of Understanding