Living My Own Narratives

What does it mean for something to be mine and not yours? what “right” do I have to a space, a land, a boundary? Maybe I’m the “good” immigrant to them. The Ivy degree, no criminal record, “good addition” to this country checkboxes. I think about the first time someone told me that I should distinguish myself from American-born blacks. “You’re not like them,” they said. They were attempting to sell me what they thought of as a dream –no, a nightmare. An acceptance based on placing my foot on the throats of another; an unholy union with whiteness.

But I look into the mirror, and I see brown skin and eyes that are haunted by ancestors crying from unmarked graves and the bottoms of the oceans both east and west.

Is it love if they only love you if you present in particular ways? If your story is one they can exploit to vilify another? We cross oceans in search of a different story, and find ourselves forced into another we did not author. I became an “immigrant story” –which gets your family featured in the local paper under the title “The American Dream.” Sometimes though you dream of things and wake to find that they are empty of any promises that keep you whole. That’s when you realize the sacrifices it takes to pen your own story. To be you, not a trope, not a one size fits all existence.

Not the “good immigrant.”

But a person. A person who crossed an ocean in search of the room to build a different story.

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The Importance of Sharing ‘Stories of Self’

“I’m tired of being normal. I’m tired of being inner city. I’m ready to be somebody else’s inspiration.” –Anonymous student going on Boston college tour

I noted in one of my last blog posts that I don’t often talk with my students in detail about the fact that I went to Harvard, for a variety of reasons. It wasn’t until recently that I was faced with a moment in which I was strongly reminded that there is power in sharing stories of self beyond any lessons that one can often teach in the classroom. And there are times in which I just need to be more open and vulnerable with students who need to hear it.

It happened at the last meeting we had for the students going on our college tour in Boston in March. We had broken up into small groups to get to know one another better (I have only taught one of the students who is going on the trip). We went around and talked about what we were involved with and what going on the trip meant for us. I was blown away by the powerful narratives the students were sharing and how strongly they felt toward the trip and how it would open their eyes to new opportunities. I had to smile because I see so much of myself in these incredibly gifted and driven 24 students that are going to Boston. Their denouncement of the little life had initially set on their plate was boldly palpable in the room.

However, when we got to them asking me questions about college life and applying, one of the girls shyly began asking the question that would drive the rest of our conversation in that circle. She told me that she had recently seen a movie and in it the lead character was an admissions officer at a prestigious university. She continued that all the applications she was reading and accepting were from wealthy, well-connected youth. So she wanted to know if students like her really had a chance and were ever really accepted to prestigious universities.

When I said I had to smile because I see so much of myself in them, I also had to feel a pain shoot through my heart because, again, they reminded me so much of myself. It is natural in the face of a life that you know is already more than anyone thought you would live, but not quite what you have always seen of these schools from a distance, to believe that you will be overlooked, cast aside to make room for the ones who ‘fit.’ I stared at her for a moment, knowing the moment well when you have to decide if you truly believe that you are, without a doubt and casting aside the differences, just as deserving of an opportunity as anyone else.

After what seemed like an eternity, I slowly began to talk to the group. I began by telling them that those thoughts are the reasons those schools do not have the types of students who have excelled against the odds in an environment that can literally kill them, because they feel like they won’t get in. I told them that yes, people like you get in, and I know that because I did it. It may not be the exact circumstances, but the same truth that where I’m from, people hardly even go to college, let alone some of the best universities this country has to offer. It’s the same truth that I had a family that I did not want to let down, and a father who worked two jobs tirelessly, but still would not be able to afford a private college’s tuition. But there’s always a way when you believe that you can make a way. And as the words flowed from my lips about where I came from, and not being from a high income household, I felt truly connected to those students. And later when a girl pulled me outside to cry on my shoulder to tell me that she did not believe she deserved to be on the trip because her GPA was not as high as others, and I cried there in the hallway with her myself, telling her that it doesn’t matter if you think a door was opened by mistake, you have to walk through it and know that there’s something in you that makes you unique enough to make it. And I told her about times that I found myself wondering if I had what it took when others around me seemed more prepared, and just knowing that nothing I really wanted would come easy. It was a day of outpouring; a day of sharing life’s battles fought and won. And what I saw in the eyes of the students were faces eager to hear a story that made them believe just a little more that the words that they speak about themselves of what they want for the future can one day be true. That as I hope to be an inspiration for them, moving beyond normal and into a realm of knowing I can change myself into what I want to be, that they too one day can do the same.