When I was 12 years old, I moved with my family from Guyana, South America to the Bronx, New York. As one can imagine, the shock that I experienced was immense because I went from living in a small town with many friends and relatives to a large city where I knew no one. And so, unwillingly, I embarked on my journey to learn what it meant to be a New Yorker. Consequently, there was a time where I lost myself, but only to find that the lessons learned during my struggles have helped me to create unique lenses through which I am able to view myself, my students and my world.
Shortly after our move in May, my parents enrolled me in our neighborhood school. The memory of my first day of school in America has stayed with me and in some ways, still impacts my practice. It was a warm and sunny morning and I was dressed in a turquoise capri pant and matching shirt. Even then, I loved colorful clothing and as I have grown older, it is something that has not changed. On my feet, I sported a pair of white high-top sneakers laced with neon pink laces. I was nervous. I was worried. I was afraid. Although I had not met many people since my arrival, I knew enough to know that I was different. I looked different and sounded different. It would take many lonely afternoons and tremendous practice speaking to my reflection in the mirror to successfully mask my Guyanese creole accent.
As we walked into the school building, I am certain that I held on tightly to my mom’s hand because she reassured me that it will be fine. As we found our way to the main office, my mom inquired within and we were told to sit and wait for someone to see us. Because it was close to the end of the school year, I did not have an assigned class; I had to be placed in one. After waiting for a while, a tall lanky man walked out to where we were sitting and asked if I would follow him. As I rose to my feet, my anxiety skyrocketed. Little did I know that the next few moments would determine my placement in my new school and leave a lasting effect on my views on educating a child. After walking through a hallway, we came to an office where I was asked to have a seat. As I sat, I kept my eyes peeled on what he was doing and saw that he had pulled a book from his bookcase and opened it up to a seemingly random page. Then, he asked me to read. My hands shook as I took the book and my voice seemed to disappear. I had always been a voracious reader and consumed any book that my parents and teachers put in front of me. Moreover, I had consistently been one of the top ranking students in my class. However, at that moment when I was asked to read from that book, I was not myself. I stumbled upon words and hearing my accent-laden voice all around me made me feel afraid and ashamed. I do not believe that I read more than two sentences before he said that that would be enough and quickly jotted something down on a sheet of paper. I was somewhat relieved, but still nervous because I knew that I had not read well. The next thing I knew, I was walking to my new classroom, which was 6-19. At that moment, I had not yet realized that my reading, or lack thereof, had placed me in the second class from the bottom in the sixth grade. There were 20 classes: 6-1 was the best and 6-20 was the worst. I was in 6-19. Almost the worst.
Entry into that classroom began many successive “biker bar” moments. At twelve, I was quite innocent and naive, so when a student leaned over and asked, “Do you have a boyfriend?”, I was flabbergasted and shook my head “no.” There were other questions to which my answers were “no” as well. I was in the bar and I was not going anywhere, so I did the only thing imaginable, I worked hard to become invisible and to my relief, everyone allowed me to do it. By the end of my sixth grade year, I had accomplished my mission: I was invisible.
Although I spent only two months in that classroom, before moving to 7-8 and then 8-2, my time there was difficult. I couldn’t articulate it then, but over the years, I have come to realize how painful it is when others see us in ways that we do not see ourselves. I dedicated many years to fitting in. I read every situation and person before altering myself to fit. I knew that I was not being myself, but to some extent, I thought it was my only choice.
I am happy to say that although there were times when the negative voices in my head were loud, I have been lucky enough to have had supportive voices and I managed to listen to them. The result is that I have thrived in every educational endeavor–from being accepted to the honors program at my high school to being invited to join Kappa Delta Pi in college to completing my graduate studies at a prestigious Ivy League college. Since becoming an educator, my personal experiences have certainly informed my practice. While in my high school English classroom, my students spend time considering their personal identities and roles within various contexts. I assure and reassure them that their voices are necessary and important in our classroom and in our world. If they are still reluctant to contribute, we develop a plan that will help them to make progress. There is never a silent voice or invisible body in my classroom.
As James Gee (2012) examines in Social Linguistics and Ideology: Ideology in Discourses, the concept of discourse embodies “ways of behaving, valuing, thinking, believing, speaking, and often reading and writing.” In other words, these “ways of being” are the things that help to shape our identities and impact our language and literacy. As I have presented in my anecdote, what a child experiences in a classroom can have lasting effects on performance, personal identity, language and literacy.
Gee (2012) also makes the case that context plays an important role in this development because it dictates meaning and guides perception. As I begin this new school year, I am intrigued by the ideas of “consumption” and “production” because I do believe that it is important to allow “more and more people, young and old, to produce their own media, designs, games, books, ideas, knowledge and information.” In this way, those who are willing to become contributors and producers will play important roles in the collective discourses of our society. Helping students gain a sense of confidence in who they are as learners open up possibilities to allow them to speak and be heard.