Teaching & Knowing Who You Are

At last year’s 2018 National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) annual convention, I was challenged multiple times in various ways. I was challenged to be my most authentic self in the classroom.

By Melissa Elliott

At last year’s 2018 National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) annual convention, I was challenged multiple times in various ways. I was challenged to be my most authentic self in the classroom. I was challenged to not be “concerned by or consumed by the thoughts of the other.” The first one is actually easier for me. In the classroom, I know- I know what I’m doing. I went into teaching knowing it is how I change the world: my subversive act. Am I living up to those ideals? Truthfully- not always and NCTE showed me ways I can do better. 

            But it is the second challenge that I grapple with on the bathroom floor with a spiral binder an hour before I need to get up to get on a plane home.

            Dr. Christopher Emdin, author of For White Folks Who Teach in the Hoodgave the Saturday morning keynote. I had heard of the book, and full disclosure, hadn’t read it. The title seemed abrasive and I’ve seen Dangerous Mindsand Freedom Writersand I get the problem of “white savior” stories. And despite the title, I am not white. 

            Last summer while I was hanging out with a group of college professors I have become friends with over the past couple of years, we were discussing how the larger group met everyone. When it came to me, the professor who had first talked to me said even though I was “mean muggin’” when she saw me she knew I wasn’t white, so she befriended me. I quickly defended my “mean mug.” I was away from my not even one year old for the first time and missing home. The rest of our predominantly white group was more concerned with the “not white” comment. My beautiful smart friend is also not white. She explained “other recognizes other.”

            My story and struggle with otherness starts from my childhood. I was a Puerto Rican/ English/ German/ Canadian Episcopalian in an all-girls Catholic school on Staten Island. I then attended a public NYC high school. But I didn’t fit in many groups there. 

            Yo soy Boricua but yo no hablo Española. At NCTE, I met and heard from Latinx authors but there are challenges with Latinx. As my father and I have issue with the term Hispanic. Hispanics are only Dominicans and Haitians because they come from the island of Hispaniola.

            I am Puerto Rican but even that has complications. My paternal grandfather’s skin was black; my grandmother’s white. But Puerto Rican’s do not use the Afro- identifiers as Cubans, Dominicans, and others do. Naively- and somewhat hopefully- looking for the answer I asked Lilliam Rivera, author of The Education of Margot Sanchez, why we don’t claim the African blood in Puerto Rican veins. She replied, “Racism. We have a problem with race.”

            I get the larger social implications of racism but what does it do for our identity on a personal level? I love talking about my family to students (and I jokingly claim it is why I am not in therapy). At the end of act 2, scene 2 of A Raisin in the Sun, when Walter dreams of the life he wants to be able to offer his son, I share my family’s multiple generations of interracial marriage: my grandparents, my parents, and my husband and me. I share my story with them because I believe once Travis picks his college the little blond-haired blue-eyed girl across the street who has been friends with him since they moved will follow him to school because she at 17 realizes she loves him despite it being the 1960s and knowing their life together would not be easy. Sidebar: I’ve known and loved “I’m in Love With a Big Blue Frog” since childhood because my mom in 1972 was 100% that my dad was just light skinned. He had a 17-inch afro (see 1972).

            Ten years later they have a beautiful baby girl. But I’m not white; I’m also English/German/Canadian. I’m Puerto Rican but I don’t speak Spanish (even though the previously mentioned Catholic school started teaching it in Kindergarten). I’m a New Yorker but I now live and work in West Virginia where my daughter was born and pronounces crayon like crown and I am 55 Strong and while after spending her whole life on Staten Island my mom (and dad) moved to. 

            With all this inside of me I sat in the General Assembly on Saturday morning and had my heart and soul ripped out/torn up/made whole again and put back in by Dr. Emdin. 

            NCTE brings together thinkers, readers, and writers for one transformational weekend. And last year was no different. 

            During the Q&A, I had to use my voice to ask how we, especially those of us who take everything to heart and feel judged, do what he has asked through the words of Toni Morrison to “no longer be concerned by or consumed by the thoughts of the others.” 

            I felt safe in a room of hundreds to ask because Dr. Emdin had started his speech coming from a place of love and his “Pentecostal Pedagogy” resonated with me. He saw I had been crying and affirmed what we tell ourselves about those who try to tear us down; “It is their inadequacies.” He also reaffirmed something I have recently come to realize by telling me to “pour into myself.” Finding time for ourselves as teachers is too often put on the back burner because like improv actors we say “Yes, and…” Yes, I can take over a club/sport/class I never taught before/extra tail gate and what else can I do. 

            New Amsterdam, a new medical drama, starts with a new medical director that repeatedly uses the phrase “How can I help?” And when, spoiler alert, his oncologist tells him the needs to slow down she (and the writers), as my husband noted, missed the opportunity to offer the phrase to him. 

            The question then becomes why at 36 am I still, like Beneatha, searching for my identity. Well that is an easier answer: Lily. Almost four years ago, this wild & wonderful little person was born. And all the insecurities and questions I have dealt with will be again complicated for her. My husband looks like a stereotypical white guy with a beard. However, he is not a stereotype and as was often repeated at NCTE there is never a single story. He is smart and sexy. He has loved me since we met. It took me a minute because I wasn’t ready to be open to the kind of love, unapologetically hopeful, he offered. He is from Northern Virginia and has a Scottish background. 

            My daughter is an Afro-Puerto Rican/English/German/Canadian/Scot from West Virginia. To be able to explain to her what that is and how it will inform who she will become and influence how people see her, I need to know who I am. My parents, while not perfect, made me believe that I was the embodiment of their love. This is how I see my daughter also. But the rest of the world does not always look at you and know you are love. 

Melissa Elliott is a high school English teacher in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Even after becoming a mom, she most clearly defines herself as a teacher. For the past 20 years, becoming a great English teacher has been the focus of her work life. Melissa would like to give a shout out to all of the teachers, mentors, and friends who have helped her on this journey.

Looking Forward to NCTE 2017: Jimmy Santiago Baca

By Dustin Hixenbaugh

Attending this year’s NCTE Convention are a number of ELA celebrities (Sherman Alexie! Jacqueline Woodson! Jason Reynolds!) that I’d love to run into and snap a selfie with while we’re all standing in line for the water fountain. But the famous person I’m most looking forward to seeing is the author and activist Jimmy Santiago Baca, who will be delivering the Friday keynote address.

Since he is the first speaker of the day, Baca will be beginning his talk at the unholy hour of 8:00 AM. This may be later than teachers typically show up for work, but I bet it is still well before most of us want to roll out of our hotel beds for a conference. In case you’re unfamiliar with Baca or just need an extra kick in the pants to rouse yourself early enough to be able to catch him, I have decided to share a few words about his life and works. In short, I want y’all to be as excited to see him as I am.

Baca is a towering figure in Chicana/o literature and the recipient of prestigious honors including the American Book Award (1988), the Pushcart Prize (1988), the Hispanic Heritage Award (1989), and the International Award (2001). However, what makes his long list of accomplishments all the more incredible is that he did not learn to read and write until he was in his 20s. As he explains in Stories from the Edge (Heinemann, 2010), he spent his childhood and teenage years on a lonely “journey to be loved.” He was abandoned by his birth parents at age 2, taken to an orphanage by his grandmother at 8, living on his own (as a homeless runaway) at 13, and sentenced to 5 years in a maximum-security prison for drug-related offenses at 21. It is unsurprising that he would be functionally illiterate at the time of his conviction considering how few years he had spent in school.

Stories from the Edge is a brief, autobiographical collection that Baca wrote with the hope of reaching reluctant YA readers who might not appreciate that getting an education offers them an alternative to following him on the path toward drugs, crime, and imprisonment. In the introduction, he describes how learning to read and write helped him realize that he was a person of value who deserved a better life than the one he had been accepting for himself. In his own words:

I devoured books. I wrote my first letters to people, I kept a journal, wrote poems, and miraculously the power of literacy took hold and dug in and embedded itself in my heart. I became known to myself and loved who I started to know in me. Through the mist and darkness, through the tears and misguided intentions, through the anger and despair that entangled me for so many years, Jimmy was emerging — a strong, beautiful Jimmy, with the growing capacity to think and analyze the world beyond, and to make courageous choices interacting in that world.

I predict that Baca’s speech will elaborate on his life story and reflect on the writing workshops that he leads in prisons, community centers, schools, and other places where he goes to inspire people to reshape the world through language. This would make sense considering that he will be speaking to a crowd of English teachers who will be receptive to this message and would be fine with me so long as the speech includes such lovingly rendered paeans to “the power of literacy” as the one I printed above.

Even so, I not-so-secretly hope that Baca also treats us to a poetry reading. Although he seems to be writing more prose than poetry lately, he became famous for the poems that he began composing while still serving out his time in prison. The Baca compositions I know best, “Immigrants in Our Own Land” and “So Mexicans Are Taking Jobs from Americans,” righteously turn the tables on demagogues who characterize “Mexicans” as opportunistic foreigners. Toward the end of the second poem, he writes:

I see this, and I hear only a few people
got all the money in this world, the rest
count their pennies to buy bread and butter.

Below that cool green sea of money,
millions and millions of people fight to live,
search for pearls in the darkest depths
of their dreams, hold their breath for years
trying to cross poverty to just having something.

In these lines, Baca suggests that pointing figures at racial/ethnic minorities is a distraction — a political game intended to draw people’s attention away from the economic inequalities that actually do separate US Americans from one another. Though published a quarter-century ago, Baca’s words continue to resonate. Sadly, it is beginning to look like they always will.

Like I mentioned above, Baca’s address is scheduled to take place Friday, November 17, at 8:00 AM. NCTE has not yet identified the location, but you can bet that I will be there, front and center, with a very large cup of coffee. I hope you’ll join me.

Recommended reading: Baca’s memoir, A Place to Stand (Grove, 2001), is his most sought-after book and includes a number of shocking/inspirational/philosophical passages that you could excerpt for classroom use. If you prefer to share briefer, complete works with your students, I recommend Stories from the Edge for prose and Immigrants in Our Own Land & Selected Early Poems (New Directions, 1990) for poetry. Happy reading!