Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Gifted, Female & Brown

According to a new study*, black students have an increased likelihood of being identified as gifted provided that they attend schools with higher proportions of black teachers. The same dynamic seems to function for Latino students, when they attend a school with more Latino teachers.

By the time I entered kindergarten at age four, my mother made sure I could write and read my name, address and phone number. She did it for safety's sake, but also because she knew I could do it. It set the groundwork for the high academic expectations she would have of me for the rest of my life. I didn't speak English very well, but I could say my name and where I lived. When my teacher asked me to draw the letter C to indicate my name, I remember writing my entire name instead. I can't recall what I was thinking at the time, but knowing me, I was probably confused as to why writing one letter would be acceptable in place of the nine that made up my first name. 

Academically, school was easy for me. In third grade the school had a meeting with my mom and tried to convince her to allow me to be bumped to fourth grade. I was already the youngest kid in my class so my mother felt that it would be socially detrimental, and refused. I was in a private school at the time and it did not offer gifted and talented programming. My mother transferred me to a public magnet school to give me more of a challenge. I attended a school in the heart of a Puerto Rican community in Chicago where the majority of my teachers were of color. At the time, I had no idea what a blessing that was.

Living in such a diverse area, it seemed the norm to me to have teachers who looked like me. They slipped into Spanish in the middle of presenting US geography, and taught me about Jose De Diego and Pedro Albizu Campos. It was perfectly acceptable to dance merengue and salsa for the annual talent show and Feliz Navidad was the most popular song at the band's annual Christmas concert. It was a Latina teacher who pulled me aside in sixth grade and asked me if I was planning to go to college. I told her that it was my dream, but I had no college savings and that Chicago Public high schools did not have the greatest reputation for preparing girls like me to go on to competitive universities. She told me that I was smart enough for scholarships, and told me about a program that would help me get into a college prep high school that would ensure I was prepared to apply to any college I wanted. 

I was nervous and excited to tell my parents. I knew they would want me to participate, and I wanted to as well, but I didn't know if I could make it. It required me to take high school level math and language arts classes every Saturday morning and throughout the summer for two years. It took place in a wealthy part of Chicago that I had only experienced through the view of a car window. I would have to take public transportation there and back. I would compete academically with the smartest kids in the city. I had just turned eleven. This was a decision that would impact the rest of my life. What if I got in but couldn't succeed in the program? I had never failed at anything, but I had also never been challenged the way this program would challenge me. I had a photographic memory that had helped me thus far, but would that be enough?

But, my teacher Mrs. Vargas, a Mexican American woman who was caring, energetic, smart and funny believed I would be perfect for the program. She had no doubt that I would not only get in, but that I would be successful and get into the high school of my choice, thus setting me on the path to college. She told me that I would go to college if I believed it and put in the work. I wasn't a stranger to hard work. The idea of getting a head start for high school excited me. 

I still remember going to my interview. It was the first time I had ever been interviewed. The Friday before I told Mrs. Vargas about it. She hugged me and told me that I was going to do great, and that they were going to love me as much as she did. I believed her. I felt the warmth and sincerity in her voice and it carried me through that interview. I remember feeling a mix of nerves and calm as I sat in front of the program administrators and answered questions about my background, my goals and my dedication to giving up my Saturdays and summers. I don't recall what I said, but whatever it was worked because a few weeks later I was accepted into the program. I was the first Latina from my school to be accepted and I'm proud to say that I wasn't the last. 

It was a tough program. I had to read books like The Jungle by Upton Sinclair that used a vocabulary I wasn't used to. The math classes just about killed me. The other kids in the program were super smart and all came from the same humble beginnings as I did. We'd cluster together on the bus ride home, relieved to be out of class for the day, talking about the next week's classes with excitement and dread.

When the summer program started we took classes from 8am to 4pm Monday through Friday. There were a few non-academic reprieves like dance, fencing and basketball electives, but for the most part, the days were heavy with English literature, intensive essay writing, pre-algebra, and learning how to fill out FAFSA forms and high school applications. At the end of the summer they took us on an overnight camping trip where we chomped on wintergreen Lifesavers in the middle of a dark field, saw more stars than we knew were possible, and played a mean game of survivor using a compass and common sense.

The program delivered on its promise and I was accepted to a college prep high school with a scholarship that made it possible. I was not intimidated by what awaited me academically because I had already taken so many high school level courses. I was able to get into AP classes earlier than some classmates and I was proud of that. 

The difference was that my high school had four teachers of color. I sought them out like a bee to honey and with the exception of the Latino Spanish teacher, they were all very receptive to being my allies in an environment that was incredibly different than what I had known. However, they weren't my primary teachers. They were contracted for a year or two and taught electives. I took their classes and loved them, but the core of my teachers were white. They were used to teaching privileged kids who looked like them. I was an anomaly and I felt like one. It was a whole different ball game being seen as the brown scholarship girl vs. a promising student.

I was told by the head of the language department that I couldn't enroll in Spanish classes because of my last name. He said I was just looking for an easy A. Yet, my non-Latino classmates with last names like Smith and Jones were not banned from English classes. With the exception of my advisor, who was sweet and had taught at an inner-city school before, I don't recall a single teacher taking any special interest in me. I'm not saying that I expected special treatment, but it makes a difference when you feel valued as a student vs. feeling like your success is not vital to anyone.

I never had problems with any of my white teachers, but the support I had from teachers of color was definitely missed. I felt the void of having allies who believed in me. Many times I felt as though my high school teachers were expecting me to fail, or wondered if I got in the school because of affirmative action rather than the same standards as the other students. It made me feel that I did not deserve to be there, even though I had worked hard for years to get there. As a result, I became quiet and shy, afraid to speak up for myself. I often wanted to be invisible, but as one of ten students of color, there was no way that I didn't stick out in my classes.

High school was one of the roughest times of my childhood. I excelled academically, but my self esteem plummeted. I felt alone and regretted the hours I had put in getting into a private college prep school. For the first two and a half years I saw every day as a self-inflicted hell that I couldn't escape. My alternative was to attend a local public school, of which I was terrified. Nerds like me didn't generally do so well in the high schools in my neighborhood. 

Luckily for me I became adaptable and resilient. I found a small group of friends who were quirky and creative and they helped make my time there more appealing. I never felt a connection to the teachers like I had in previous years, but it turned out to be a good lesson to learn before I embarked on a college career where the likelihood of a professor who looked and sounded like me was close to nil.

I will forever be grateful that Mrs. Vargas saw the potential in me. Before high school I had wonderful teachers who saw past my color, socio-economic circumstance and neighborhood and made me look to the future. I recently visited a middle school with my daughter. During the tour, a black male student was having some sort of tantrum and had to be escorted down the hall. I saw the white counselor stiffen at seeing him come down the hall, while the white teacher who was escorting him looked slightly afraid to be that close to him. I get that volatile kids are scary, and that disruptive kids come in all colors. Yet, I couldn't help wonder how much of their fearful, disgusted vibes he was picking up on, and how it was affecting his behavior. I recalled how I had shrunken and become a meek version of myself when I felt de-valued and imagined that he had felt the same many times. It was heart-breaking to say the least. I wanted to wrap my arms around him and tell him that his success mattered and was possible.

It saddens me that my daughter has yet to have a teacher like Mrs. Vargas. However, I have met some wonderful teachers of color in the area, and I'm hopeful that even in the middle of the Heartland she will have that experience one day, and it will be as life-changing and affirming as it was for me. Those teachers are few and far between, but they are here and they are some of the most passionate and committed people I know. Their students are lucky to have them, and as a parent, I hope I can support them as much as they support their students.

*The study’s research was presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in Chicago. The data of the study was conducted within more than 2,000 schools in the academic years of 2003-4 and 2011-12.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Book Expo America

The end of May is a bid deal for authors, both published and yet to be. It marks Book Expo America, known by the acronym BEA. It brings together the biggest names in publishing. The authors speaking are some of the most decorated and well known, but the event also draws debut authors with books coming out that year. That is where I want to be one day. If the stars align the way I hope they will, I hope to be at the next BEA promoting my first novel.

A year ago, I would never have had the courage to state that to myself, let alone post it to a blog anyone can read. I had this story that I had been committed to for almost two years, but I wasn't sure where it was going. Publication felt more like a possibility than ever before, but I was more focused on completing my MFA and figuring out what I could do with it. There was no agent who believed in the book, and only one other person had read the entire manuscript. I had classmates who had already gotten multiple book deals and were going to be at the upcoming BEA and I couldn't wrap my head around that being me one day.

But, I've grown a lot as a writer since then. Not only because I've written so much in the last twelve months, but because I know more about how important stories like mine can be. After meeting and listening to so many authors talk about the need for diverse books; the need for powerful female protagonists; the need for stories that show a true depiction of the issues teens face today, I feel like my book has a purpose far greater than I imagined when I started. I didn't set out to write a novel that fit this bill. I wrote from the heart and of my personal experiences, but what came out feels so much like what teens today should read, especially given the events unfolding in cities throughout the country.

There are such high rates of poverty in urban areas. Children are going to school for meals and food pantries are struggling to keep the shelves stocked. Young people are frustrated with the lack of options for activities after school, opportunities beyond low wage jobs, and access to college funding. These are the themes writers should write about if they want to capture the attention of today's young readers. Kids are protesting alongside adults and capturing it all on video. They are doing heroic acts like cleaning up after riots and speaking out to encourage other young people to stand up for their rights. Who is telling their stories? Who is capturing them as the heroes they are? 

I hope to be that writer who paints them as heroes. I want them to read about others who match their courage and strength. Hopefully my writing can show them that their past, their circumstances and their realities matter. Through reading they can see that their world isn't any less important than the ones that feature tranquility and simplicity where the biggest dilemma of the day is why your equally privileged best friend isn't speaking to you. May they see that it doesn't require money, an elevated social standing, a suburban zip code, or a two-parent home to carve out a future of happiness and justice.

When I first heard of BEA I thought it was the ultimate place to become established as a writer and become entrenched in publishing. It was a very public means to getting noticed and meeting all the right people who make things happen within the industry. As I think more about how it fits me, I see it differently. It no longer seems like a platform for me as an author, but more like a platform to validate that books like mine deserve a place on bookstore and library shelves. When I think about being there some day, I hope that it is to represent a book that speaks to those readers who others haven't known how to reach. As authors are booked for the day, I want to see more writers who take risks with their writing to appeal to the kids so few have appealed to. It would be phenomenal if the line up included those who write about heroes with special needs, kids saving the world while challenging gender norms, protagonists who shun societal standards and take the road less traveled. It would be refreshing and reflective of the world we live in and that is an experience I will continue to work towards.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Hardest Job Ever Judged

There are countless articles that talk about the competitive sport that is parenting. I try not to read them because they generally piss me off, but I've read enough to know that judging and shaming parenting styles is a perversion that isn't going anywhere any time soon.

Personally, I admit to comparing myself to other mothers all the time. I see their posts on Facebook about how they woke up before the sun to make their kids pancakes using organic flour they milled themselves, served from the cow they raised and milked to make sure their kids don't ingest growth hormones. It makes me feel a little guilty for grabbing a bagel and apple for my kid as we fly out the door. It's admirable to spend every waking moment catering to little ones in hopes that they will never lack for anything, but I am not that kind of mom. I am probably the opposite. It makes me proud when my kid works for what she wants. That doesn't mean her needs aren't being met, or that she's not privileged in many ways. She lacks for nothing and has a ton of crap she doesn't need. She's been on more vacations than most adults I know. She's visited more cities than my mother. Her closet rivals my own. But, I constantly tell her no, veto her requests, draw the line at certain luxuries, and make sure that she is aware of her privilege. My fear is that I will raise a self-centered asshole, and the world has plenty already. I don't want to add to that population. 

Parenthood wasn't really my choice. My kid came into my life and it seemed like God was telling me to take on a challenge I had never envisioned for myself. My entire life I knew that I did not want to be a mother. I never felt the urging of my uterus or the tick-tock of a biological clock. Incubating another human inside me was never on my bucket list. 

Don't get me wrong, I adore my daughter, and am forever thankful that she is mine. I just never wanted to be responsible for a child of my own. But, life has a way of taking what you think you know about yourself and turning it on its head and therefore, I became a mom. 

My kid is pretty great, as many people tell me. The problem is, I have super high expectations and it takes a lot for me to see the greatness that others see in her. It is a blessing and a curse.

It is a blessing because I firmly believe that people produce what you expect. If you expect nothing, you get nothing. But, if you believe that a person has amazing capabilities and you hold them to those standards, chances are that they will read that vibe from you, appreciate that you think so highly of them, and do what it takes to meet your expectations. That is what I want for her. I want her to lead an amazing life. I want her to be kind to others and put them first as often as possible. I want her to be a leader among followers. I hope that she develops compassion and gumption, and I let her know this as often as I can. It usually comes on the heels of reminding her that actions have consequences, and that having a choice is one of the most important freedoms we have, and we should not take that lightly. 

It is a curse because I don't fit the mold in this day of "all positive, all the time" parenting. It seems like it's not enough to enroll your kid in the best school you can afford. Today parents brag about non-traditional curriculums and home schooling. You used to be doing good by your kids if you got them the latest video game for their birthday or Christmas. Now the kids and their peers expect you to stand in ridiculous lines to buy them the latest gadgets and games the day they come out. Allowances used to be earned and now my kid tells me that her friends get $20 a week because they "need it". What ten year old "needs" an income? Of course my kid wants money, too so I told her she can earn it by doing at least one chore per day. I made it clear that she will still be expected to help around the house for free because we're a team and that's what it takes to keep a household running. She didn't like it but she didn't argue too much, either, which made me proud that her feelings of entitlement are in check. But, it's another example of how my expectation differs from other parents. My daughter lives in my house as much as I do. I don't see why I shouldn't expect that she take responsibility for her home. It's not like I'm expecting her to bust out the snow blower and clear the driveway after ten inches of snow, but if the trash needs to be taken out, the dog fed and the bathroom cleaned, there's no reason she can't be expected to take care of it, without expecting something from me in return.

Most of the time, I feel like I'm at a loss for being the kind of mother she doesn't fantasize about shanking. I don't believe that children and parents should be friends. I tell her all the time that I am not her friend, I am her mother and the difference is that I take responsibility for her future. That also means that most of the time, I am the "mean" mom in the group. I don't coddle, I set firm rules and I make sure to have a life outside of being a mother. There are moms who dedicate all their time outside of work to being with their kids. They don't believe in babysitters or Ladies' Night Out. They take their kids to adult restaurants even though their kids are prone to tantrums. They assume that their kid is invited anywhere they are, and when that isn't the case, they are offended. I am so far from that parenting style that it boggles my mind how women can do that. In my heart, I don't believe them when they say that being a mother is all they need out of life. We are exquisitely made with talents, needs, and dreams. I don't see how one aspect of life can fulfill all that we were crafted to be. But, perhaps this is just one of my many flaws.

I'm sure I have lost people in my life over this opinion. In fact, I know that I have because there are people I was close to before motherhood showed us how different we were in our approach, and we've been distant ever since. Becoming a mother has tested my limits not only in taking care of another person, but also in what I can tolerate from the adults around me. I gravitate towards other mothers who believe in mother/child vs. child/friend relationships. They share in my view of the importance of carving out a life for themselves outside of being a mother. It's sad how many times I have felt judged by other mothers for making time for myself. Mothers who can't understand why I would want to go on vacation without my daughter, or who make snide comments about my allowing my daughter to attend sleep overs so I can have a night to myself. At times, those reactions make me feel like the worse mother on the planet. But then I take a step back and remind myself that:
  1. I am doing what is best for me and my child, which no one else on earth is responsible for.
  2. My child isn't the one complaining or expressing a need that I am not fulfilling.
  3. Motherhood is constant work and there are no rules for how to do it right.
  4. There are no guarantees that no matter what we do we will raise productive members of society who are kind-hearted, good people.
  5. I do a ton for my kid and she has a good life, even if I don't cater to her whims, or give her the false impression that she is more valuable than any other human, myself included.
Sticking to my parenting beliefs isn't easy. They are mostly outdated and unpopular with the "be their friend" parenting models so prominent these days. They are also a work in progress, as am I. It's sad that as so many of us embark on the hardest job in the world, so many choose to critique the efforts of others, instead of encouraging those who are trying at this parenting thing. No one has a definitive formula for getting it right, so all we can do is resolve to make an effort every day and leave the discernment for jury duty.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Writing What I Want

Some of the best advice I got from one of my advisors is to write whatever the heck I want. It sounds simple, but when you read as much as I do, and you read about writing as often as I do, it's easy to convince yourself that you should write a certain kind of story. I think this is especially true for writers who hope to be published. As I pursue that dream, I try to keep my finger on the pulse of what is selling, what types of deals are happening for various genres, which books are making it on the big screen, etc. As with anything else, trends emerge. Most recently, in the area of books for children and young adults, it seems that the more action-packed and alternate-worldly the plot, the hotter the book. Those books are being bought, promoted and converted to screenplays at a faster rate than most other genres. When you don't write in that category (or read very much of it), it makes you think that perhaps you're not writing what anyone would want to read.

The stories that most appeal to me are firmly planted in contemporary America. It's what I know, the environment I navigate daily, and full of characters and wonders that excite me. As I've blogged about before, I like to write protagonists of color who kick butt, take names and show kids that no matter where you come from, you can be a hero. I tend to write stories where my protagonist faces unbelievable hardships, yet finds a way to be successful in the end. Like all writers, I struggle to raise the stakes and make the obstacles harsher when I start to love my characters, but in the end my story is stronger for it, as am I as a storyteller. 

But, there are times when I feel like I need to stray from what I love to write if I ever want to see it in print. I have thought about giving my characters a super power, or plucking them into some Zombie-infested scenarios that might be more in line with the stuff on bookstore shelves right now. The problem is, that style of writing doesn't come naturally for me. Can I write it? I'm sure I could. Would I love it? Maybe. But is it the writing of my heart? Probably not. 

Fantastic adventures just aren't where my sincere interests lie. I appreciate that writing and admire those who can take themselves out of this realm and create a whole new one, but I like to stick to the places and spaces that speak to my every day life. It may sound boring, limited, or safe, but there is so much going on in the world that a writer like me can explore, that I don't feel the pull to write beyond the here and now.

Does that mean I will never try it? I doubt it. Maybe one day I will create a character and setting that goes beyond anything I've ever experienced and it will be wonderful, or I will fail miserably, or I will wonder what took me so long. But in the meantime, I am committed to write what feels true to me, to stick to the writing that moves me, no matter what is selling or making it to the Silver Screen.

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