Can’t Look Away: Towards projects of hope, love and resistance

A few weeks ago, on this very blog, an anonymous commenter posted a comment on my photograph. “Kvetching half-breed,” he wrote. “Hypocritical c*nt.” Words that are opposite of love, rather, a racialized, gendered micro-aggression. A harm, a trauma, words designed to wound. More wounds: one of my immigrant high school students sobbed in my arms a few weeks ago. She, and many of her classmates, are agonizing about whether they will pass the high-stake tests that bar their high school graduation, tests that haven’t been designed with English Language Learners in mind. Sixty-one percent of ELLs do not graduate in New York. And other traumas, too:  the murder of Lacquan McDonald, the vicious beating of a Muslim store owner by someone screaming “I kill Muslims”– as happened a few days ago in a neighborhood close to me.

Sometimes the collective trauma we suffer is almost too much and I wonder if I will break. Friends– activists, writers, educators– hold me up when I think I cannot stand upright anymore. A friend texts: “you have to be strong enough”, and I know he is right, because this is the fight of our lives. Once we see trauma and harms enacted on the bodies of young people– once we see, we cannot unsee. We cannot unhear. Cannot look away.

In 2002 I took a job in an under-resourced classroom in the South Bronx. My students were all recent-arrival, black and brown immigrants who were learning English as a new language. I grew up moving across three countries and two languages. My heart met their hearts in our shared experiences of loss and belonging, transculturalism and multilingualism. And yet, when it was still and I was alone, the uneasy space rose up inside me and I knew that I was failing them: my students needed a more experienced teacher than me. I was part of a quick-fix program that offered a becomeateachernow! crash-course with only six weeks of summer training.  (It would be much later, in a Ph.D. program that I learned that teachers like me had been failed too, failed by policies that devalue the deep professional preparation in linguistically-rich, culturally-saturated pedagogies that teachers need before they ever walk into classrooms.) A few weeks before the winter break I heard a colleague say angrily: “I can’t wait until break so I don’t have to hear Spanish anymore.” He wanted, I suppose, to look away from the courageous young people being failed by a system that pushes its most vulnerable out of educational opportunities through lack of services, punishing tests, and underprepared teachers.

Can’t look away.

And more trauma: a friend in Los Angeles who had been brought by her family across the U.S.-Mexico border fleeing violence in Central America in the 1980s. Undocumented still and in her forties, she dreamed of having a child. She and her husband are unable to have any of their own, but cannot adopt due to her documentation status. “We are waiting for immigration reform,” her husband told me one day. “Maybe this year.” It was 2008. (As of today, comprehensive immigration reform is dead in Washington).

Can’t look away.

Thirteen years later: I taught those rich pedagogies for a long time, extolling the possibilities and ways that teachers can “be change agents” and “work within the system.”  But lately I have changed my approach. I am tired, as I mentioned. I taught a class this semester in the same school where I received my teaching credential: a home-coming, a chance for reparations of sorts. I tell my first year teacher candidates about the realities of the system they are walking into, about the things I faced and the things they will continue to face. Yes, there is hope– but it is limited, I say. You are up against a lot. You need more than just good pedagogy. You need activism and each other, you need a systems change.

They tell me their stories too, about trying to include their students’ home languages in their classrooms and fellow teachers walking behind them to correct students to speak English only. I worry that I am too *negative* somehow: I will discourage them? They tell me class is *therapy* and write poems about learning to love love love their culture/language/racial affiliation/undocumented status.

I hold them up as I am held by others. I tell them they are strong enough.

At the end of the semester they produce bold projects, documenting the rich resources of the neighborhoods in which they work–  immigrant Mott Haven in the Bronx, Dominican Washington Heights, Chinese Sunset Park.

student project 1 student project 3

Their work is colorful and bright and plumbs deep histories of truth and resistance. They narrate the activism of the Puerto Rican Young Lords, and document myriad languages spoken in Little Senegal in Harlem. I cannot look away from their hope and pride, and when I look, as we look, as we see, there is simply– love.




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