It Does Get Better: Thank You Ms. G
I often like to moan and groan about being the most bullied kid in my high school. To some extent this is and is not an exaggeration. Kids will be kids, and when I think about it most of the kids I grew up with were merely reflecting the norms of our time and are not bad people, especially those who teased me about my hair and at our ten year high school reunion pointed out the irony that they were balding, and by our twenty year reunion pointed out how they were completely bald.
My teen years were not as bad as I might have you think. I have always been a reader, and felt comforted by the words of my favorite writers. As John Steinbeck says, “A writer out of loneliness is trying to communicate like a distant star sending signals. He isn't telling, or teaching, or ordering. Rather, he seeks to establish a relationship with meaning, of feeling, of observing. We are lonesome animals. We spend all our live trying to be less lonesome. And one of our ancient methods is to tell a story, begging the listener to say, and to feel, "Yes, that's the way it is, or at least that's the way I feel it. You're not as alone as you thought."
Yet, more than the writers I read, I had teachers and friends who helped me not turn into a completely savage and lonely animal. In my sophomore year in high school my relationship with stories changed. I had an eccentric English teacher, Ms. G, who encouraged me to THINK. She explained what Mercutio really meant in the Queen Mab speech – and the extended metaphor and imagery was very much what we were learning in Health Class about syphilis. She was the first teacher I had who discussed themes of race and gender in literature, and she was the first teacher who said to me I had a good mind, and that I should be taking AP classes. It was in her AP class, my junior year, that I began to keep a journal. Before school every morning I wrote – often asking questions how the literature I was studying was reflected in the world around me. I played memory games – writing from what I remembered the day before, about the sunlight coming through the trees, the feel of the morning air. I could remember everything, every detail. Unfortunately all of this was a time when I was struggling to forget –not just family, but the ugly things children can do to each other. Yet, these memories I have HAD to think about in order to find peace, and forgiveness. To forgive, to truly forgive, means to never forget....read more (2/3)
I understood Piggy from Lord Of The Flies all too well – except Piggy did not change from a diverse school in Marina, California where his mother was a teacher and thus was protected from racism, to a private Catholic school where the kids ignored him throughout the fourth grade. Piggy’s classmates did not tell him that their parents didn’t want them to be friends with him because of his last name, or because he was brown. Piggy wasn’t teased mercilessly about the name of his younger cousin Niña. Piggy’s grandparents were not immigrant cannery workers. Piggy was never laughed at by the school secretary for the name of his dad’s girlfriend, Lupe. Piggy was never told by his sixth grade teacher that he did not deserve the book award for best story. Piggy never had his teacher change his test scores to keep him out of the honors group, and when Piggy’s principal discovered the mistakes he never told him it was too late to do anything about it. Piggy’s dad was never told to not come back to Piggy’s school when he called the principal out for racism. Piggy was never called the “n” word because of his hair, or told “go back to the ghetto” when he transferred to Carmel Middle School. Piggy did not have his locker repeatedly trashed with severed lizard tails and words so vulgar they are not worth repeating. Piggy was never voted “best hair” as a joke in the 8th grade. Piggy never had the kids write horrible things in his yearbook like “lose some weight and get some self respect” “why don’t you shave” “you’re so hairy.” Piggy’s dad never called his orchestra director out for being racist by having the audacity of saying the orchestra was reflective of Monterey County, when it had no one from Salinas or King City. Piggy was never told by his orchestra director that if he ever saw his dad again he’d kick his ass. Piggy was never slammed against a locker, and had his house egged numerous times because his friend rejected the class bully. Piggy was never eighteen years old and a second year student at UC Davis, with a triple major of English, History and French, and still thought he was dumb, an academic imposter. Piggy was not a girl. Piggy was not me. ...read more (3/3)
Ultimately, the same stories I loved as a child are the same stories that hold meaning for me today, in ways I am still discovering. The same novels I first read and loved as a teenager: James Joyce’s Portrait Of An Artist, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. The past is sometimes more difficult to examine than the present, in particular when it re-manifests in the present. We all are haunted, some more than others.
After fifteen years of teaching in San Francisco, I have long stopped thinking about the ironies of becoming a high school teacher. I thought, when I moved here, kids would be different. It pains me when I hear my students experiencing some of the same cruelties, and same kind of pain I experienced in high school: not feeling like they belong, not seeing themselves in the curriculum. Hence, I find myself thinking about how I can be like the teachers who reached me at a young age, and introduced me to the writers and poets who let me know how I was not so alone.