I am not yet a parent, so the proudest and greatest thing I have done with my life thus far, is to teach elementary aged students in Brooklyn, NY. It was the hardest job I have ever had. It was also, the only truly rewarding experience I have ever had.
In my years as an educator, I taught 2nd – 4th grade, but most of my years were spent as a 3rd grade teacher. It’s poignant really, because the most crippling and most influential year of my early life was when I was a 3rd grade student.
That year, I had an ignorant, racist bitch as my 3rd grade teacher. Mrs. Kline. I’m sure she was a general racist, but at that time she had specific animosity against Asian people because her daughter wasn’t accepted in to dental school and she blamed this on international Asian students. Up until this point in school, I was painfully shy in class. I was ok socially, but I was a kind and quiet student. Mrs. Kline, would routinely single me out and randomly get angry and upset and yell statements at me like, “I don’t know why you people even come to this country.” “Why don’t you just go back to where you came from.”
This was also the year my family took our first family vacation. We went to Disney World…allegedly, the happiest place on earth. While I was walking through one of the theme parks, a boy with reddish blonde hair and a southern accent came over to me and just spit on me. I was stunned. I didn’t even know how to react. But I felt humiliated, singled-out and exposed.
But I too, was also ignorant. I grew up in a mostly white, blue-collar city in Upstate New York. I did not grow up in a household where racial slurs or ignorant expressions were ever used, but I was exposed to this in school and some of that permeated. The main issue with my upbringing was the complete vacuum of conversation around race, injustice and the continual way bigotry was ignored, and therefore accepted.
I had to internalize and understand that if the worst, and most painful experiences of my life were when someone judged me because I’m Asian, then how dare I ever do that to someone else. I started to grow as a person, and question what is innately right, and what is intrinsically wrong in the way I thought about and understood others.
As a teacher, I had the privilege of bringing two incredibly special classes of students, one from 2nd to 3rd grade, and one class from 3rd to 4th grade. In the class that I took from 3rd to 4th grade, most of my students were first generation Caribbean immigrants, 3 students were from Yemen, 1 student was Latino and 1 was from China, and they had me, a Korean American adoptee as their teacher. We were an entire class of immigrants.
In 3rd grade social studies, educators have to introduce the concept of religion. In this particular class, we had two very different devout religious groups represented – Christians and Muslims. If this concept wasn’t aptly introduced, it could’ve easily become an explosive topic.
But instead, we discussed how there isn’t a “right” or “wrong” way to call, to worship or to have faith in a god. We discussed that the purpose of religion has always been to help people find meaning in life, to teach people a moral code and how to behave, and how different forms of religion have always existed to help people endure this difficult journey called life. Instead what we did, was teach acceptance, empathy and understanding.
When I reflect on the memories and meaning these two groups of students have had on my life, I am filled with an inexplicable mix of emotions, and tears start pouring out. These were some of the kindest, sweetest, most loving young people I have ever met. They were also wise beyond their years. We would talk about police brutality, Martin and Malcom, the shootings of young men of color like Treyvon Martin, the horrific massacre at Sandy Hook, the inspiration of President Obama. I would look at the faces of my babies (I say this, because I love them as if they were my own)…and I helped them see that they are more powerful because they have or inevitably will know hardship, in a way that some white people never will, because they too will know what it is to be singled-out, judged, generalized by what they look like, labeled by the hate that some people see, before they can be seen for who they actually are.
For anyone who has grown up different in this country…either racially, spiritually, different in their sexual preference, or simply different because they are empathetic beings; we are overwhelmed with what’s happening to our society. All of the injustice taking place in our nation right now feels personal. These are the stories that have unfairly shaped our lives. We are standing up for all of our cumulative experiences of being singled-out, judged and humiliated. We are standing up, because we can’t stand watching decent, loving people and families experience some of the most brutal and unjust discrimination we have seen in our lifetime.
The proudest moment of my life, was when I was called down to the lunchroom because “my 4th grade girls were being difficult.” I knew there was NO WAY they did something wrong. They were the easiest, most pleasurable class to teach. I went in to the lunchroom, and saw all of my girls sitting together at a lunchroom table. The lunch lady was upset that the girls refused to eat, and they refused to go outside and play. I went over and started talking to them. They looked up and told me that they were all fasting to support Leila and Maram, two of the Muslim girls in the class. That is what you get when you teach love and empathy. It was beautiful.
Years ago on my Facebook timeline, I posted a note that Maram wrote to me…she made an adorable card saying she’ll love me until she’s 100 or 101 years old. I remember being at an African dance performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. A row of my boys sat behind me, and I heard one of the boys say to the other, “wow man, that’s so beautiful.” My kind, sweet boys…appreciating art, and the exposure to a different culture. I remember my girls supporting their Muslim classmates, and being better human beings than the now leaders of our country. These are the people being labeled terrorists, gangsters and criminals. IT MAKES ME SICK to think of anyone labeling these beautiful children with these disgusting, and INCORRECT labels. I think of Mrs. Kline…and I am truly disgusted that any person who calls themselves a teacher can harbor blind hatred towards a child.
I will fight what’s happening until the bitter end because I promised my students that they would have a better, more progressive world to be themselves in. And that the countries and cultures their parents left behind to give them a better life, in a better place was not for nothing. I will resist what’s happening to our country…my country, because even after the profound experience of returning to South Korea this past fall to meet my biological family, it actually solidified that I am American, and that this is where I belong. And I want America to be the place that I know it can be.