In the past week, much has happened … or rather one particular blight occurred, being called a racial epithet by a student (not mine) from behind while I was in a parking lot, loading my car in preparation to head off to a reading. I wrote an essay about it, not for the #52essays2017 project in which I have been engaging, but first to recount the facts for the bias incident report I would file at my workplace and then to process through essay and then to read for students and teachers as a way of clapping back, if you will, to a violence.
I’m not going to share that essay here. I’m submitting it Cogswell College’s COG on the invitation of a faculty member there who was at the reading. I may also submit to the Chronicle of Higher Education in a week, after I’ve given some time for my college to do its work. In that way, I can also share what occurred as a result. I do love my job. In my essay, I write about how I had just tweeted #ilovemyjob after observing a seminar class that day, on my way to the parking lot. I #stilldo. I want to know that my university responds in exemplar ways to such an act, that it is awful that it happened and proves there is so much more work to do, but that there are people constantly working to respond … not like most experiences in my life and as a student in undergraduate and graduate programs and as a professional educator in different spaces …
In the essay I am referencing, I also speak to what my mother’s advice was, “Don’t let them take your joy,” so here I am, struggling for joy, pushing back with joy. I want to talk here and now about family and legacy.
Recently, I was on Naming it, a podcast by Dr. Bedford Palmer II and Dr. LaMisha Hill. LaMisha had some work responsibilities to do and so, in addition to being a guest, I was about to co-host. At one point, Bedford asked me how I got into my work. I noted that my origin stories as an educator and as a poet are different. I recounted to him stories of my experiences as a junior at Penn State when there was a 10-day live-in student protest that occurred directly against the university that had not done much in providing a safe learning environment for students, particularly Black students. This had followed Black leaders on campus getting death threats and nothing being done. The university made significant changes and that experience mobilized many of those involved, at its core and at the margins, to social justice work. My calling was to education and so the direction of my life changed from journalism to that. As a poet, my mother is a poet and my father is a storyteller. Writing has always been my bridge over troubled waters, helping me make sense of a world that seems to make no sense to me.
In sharing a bit of that history and talking about family, Bedford noted that I had gone way back. I had also spoken of my grandparents in telling my story, because, as I said then, my story is not just me. My work is not just my own. Rather, there are aspects of my people that are carried forward within me. I have received great legacies and am carrying those forward, legacies gilded in community, family, and self love. He spoke about a practice that he does with his students, a genogram to speak to those characteristics that are consistent over the generations.
I want to do that here, though an educational genogram. I want to tell a bit of the educational histories that I know and hint at the ones that I still need to know.
I am a college educated Afro-Latina with an undergraduate degree in journalism with minors in English, Spanish, International Studies, and African American Studies. I followed this with graduate degrees in the Teaching of English, Educational Leadership, Fine Arts-Poetry, and finally my doctorate in education. I am a product of Catholic schools that I began to attend after two years at a preschool and kindergarten at a school called Children’s Village, where my best friend was Suet-Yee Liu who even taught me some Chinese (I believe that it may have been Cantonese, though I am not sure). I attended Saint Clement-Irenaeus School for elementary school, already a combined school when I went there. It no longer exists, as it was further combined with other Catholic schools in the late 90s/early 2000s to form Divine Mercy. After elementary, I went to the only co-ed Catholic school in the city, a Christian Brothers school, West Catholic High School in West Philadelphia. After that, on to Penn State, then Teachers College Columbia, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, Framingham State College (which became Framingham State University) and finally Saint Mary’s College of California. Until this academic year, I have never missed an academic year without some formal educational study since I was 4 years old. 31 years of formal study.
My parents, too, are college-educated. My mother went to Uniontown public schools, Penn State for undergrad, Temple for her masters, and the University of Pennsylvania for her doctoral degree in social work. My father went through Catholic schools (though I’m not sure what he attended in New York), Roman Catholic (a West Catholic rival) in Philadelphia, and then on to Temple. As a junior in college, with a family to support, he dropped out of college, not returning to his studies until I was a junior in high school. The year I graduated, my father graduated in May. I grew up watching my parents, both parents at different times of my life, deepening their knowledge while working full-time and taking care of our family.
On my mother’s side, my grandfather never graduated from high school. He would have, but was taken out of school in 10th grade. He had spoken to a white girl in his class and got in trouble by a teacher. My great-grandfather went up to the school, spoke to them. My mother doesn’t know what was said, but knows that my great-grandfather took my grandfather out of school. I can’t see this as happening for any other reason than safety, particularly considering the time. From there, he went on into the Air Force, perhaps under the age limit of 18, and then later into the Army before returning to Uniontown and starting his own business as a car mechanic. He died, relatively young from a broken heart and cancer. My great-grandfather had only an elementary education. I believe he made it to 6th grade, but I need to ask my mother again. My great-grandmother, I believe, had more education, but I can’t recall. My grandmother finished high school while pregnant, went away, as you did, to have the baby. Came back to Columbia, South Carolina for a cosmetology certificate and somehow met my grandfather who was stationed in Georgia, I believe), got married, had my mother, and then moved up north with him. Though she had taken courses along, it wasn’t until she was in her 50s that she went back for her bachelor’s degree at Bennett College in South Carolina. She died soon after from cancer. Her parents, I just don’t know what they were able to achieve in South Carolina.
These were people still deeply rooted in words in the Bible and in the church as well.
On my father’s side, I had thought that my grandmother had a 1st grade education, though she herself had said she had an 8th grade education and then told me where her school was in Puerto Rico. I wish, now, that I had recorded this when she told me the story on one visit. Sometimes I still listen to her voice through the recordings. My grandmother practically lived in the church it seemed until she got sick, always going on spiritual retreats and Mass, deeply rooted in the Word and the church. My grandfather had only an elementary school education, though I’m not sure what grade he completed. I want to say remembering that he had completed 2nd grade, but I’m not sure. He died young, also from cancer.
With each generation, more education and more opportunity. With each generation, do more with less and really more with any more. I’m thinking of Betsy DeVos and her comment on HBCUs being the “pioneers of school choice”. It wasn’t about choice. They did more with less during the times of hardship, slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, violence, our times now as a continuation of a long history of struggle. It was about survival and pride and love for self, family, and community.
I haven’t hung my degrees on the wall in my office yet. No point putting holes in the wall of an office I’ve had for coming on 6 years if I don’t get tenure and have to take them right back down. They are stacked in my office, though, ready to go up. Maybe I should hang pictures of my people as well. They are much a part of my credibility and growth as any degree. This history is part of my joy.