The words, “I don’t know I can’t”

This summer I have been working as an ELA teacher for the non-profit College Tracks in San Francisco. The premise behind the organization is that taking students from traditionally under-resourced communities and giving them added academic and personal assistance throughout their four years of high school and then making sure to keep track of them and help them through the four years of college will ensure that they not only go to the college they want to, but that they finish it and become productive and inspiring citizens through the process. I have been nothing short of inspired by the stories I have read from College Track students or the ones who are three, four years into the program and I hear all that they have been able to do because of the program. College Tracks turns every ‘I want to’ into an ‘I did it.’

Today during GRIT class, the character building session of the program, the topic was resiliency. The students were reading speeches that college students had written about times in which they had shown resiliency and what it had come to mean to them. One of the speeches really struck me and stuck with me throughout the class. It was a young man who had gone to Cal and was writing about raking leaves with his dad and wondering why he would “choose” the job that he had. He went on to write:

…I also had to study twice as hard because I walked into my first semester at college and opened Plato’s “allegory of the cave” for the first time, while everyone had already read it 3 times it seemed, and got Cs on my first papers compared to the As I was used to in high school. So much was new to me that wasn’t new to other students, and I had to play a game of “catch up.” I knew that I did not start my education at Cal on an equal playing field when faced with other more affluent and privileged students, and that the root of this inequality was not in me or in something I did wrong, or that I didn’t work hard enough or prepare enough for college, but that it was in our society…feeling a little lost, behind, and like I didn’t belong… But…very appreciative of what the sacrifice of my parents and the struggles of my community did for me: make me unbreakable.

 

I felt drawn to the words of this student. Drawn to the fact that I am a girl who lives a wavelength of high frequency. My low points are very low, but they give way to high points, and through that the birth fo my resiliency. I remember well the faces of people who didn’t seem to quite grasp why my father had two jobs, the fact that only around 40% of a graduating class from my high school went on to higher education, or the “incidences” one is privy too when they are racially different from those around them. I know it is not everyone’s life and I would never want it to be. Everyone gains their wisdom in various forms. But for me, I am the sum of all the strange and terrible things that happen in the trough of my wavelength. I am Delia’s Law that things that don’t happen to other people have happened to me or will happen to me. I don not say that to call it upon myself, but rather as an acknowledgement that in those times have been shaped an unbreakable spirit. I don’t know I can’t.

I didn’t know it was a big deal that the lone black girl from rural Cascade could be the first in her district to go to Harvard. I didn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to go there and thrive. However, I did know that people had more than me and seemed to be starting with a lifetime of extra book knowledge and AP courses and counselors who always believed they could go to college. But I didn’t know that just because that was true that I couldn’t still work harder and get just as far along. It’s like I said: I don’t know I can’t.

I say this to my students, that the type of strength given to one who has faced adversities and beat the odds is the type of strength built to endure a lifetime if you let it. Resiliency has shaped my life at every corner, and today in GRIT class I realized again why infusing it into curriculum is so important to me. Believing that one could turn troughs into resilient steps to stand on until the crest of the wave is reached may not be the end all of inequalities, but it’s certainly a fortified beginning. And as one who has ridden the wave time and time again, I know this to be true. 

 

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