Circles. When I heard this word in a keynote delivered by Gyasi Ross, it met my story in a way that few words have…ever. I guess I had never acknowledged the gravity of walking through the halls of my white education without a face that looked like mine. Overwhelming grief enveloped me like the blanket that keeps my convalescent body warm after a fever. Suddenly those halls that were once filled with memories of skipping class and playing my saxophone instead of doing homework were empty.
Circles. This word was an invitation. It was a moment. It was an opportunity. For the first time, in that space shared by a few thousand other beautiful people, I sat with a great sense of loss and sadness for something I never knew I was supposed to have. I ached for belonging and the incomparable feeling that someone cares for me and has my back. I searched for a guiding light, an example of what I could become. I longed for solid ground to stand on and a soft something on which to land. I grieved for the teacher I never had.
In his discourse, Gyasi told the story of a researcher whose name fails me at the moment. As the story goes, he discovered that human beings have a lot of trouble walking in straight lines. He placed blindfolded people out in the desert in hopes that they would have enough inner navigation to trek in a direct path. The overwhelming human response to being out in the middle of nowhere with no sight was the tendency to walk in circles and end up right back where they started. As I listened, my mind created very vivid imagery and I found myself leaning into the intense discomfort that the familiarity of this story brought to my body. All I could think was: I’ve been here before.
The concluding thought was a sudden breath of life: “People who are walking, even when they desperately want to walk in a straight line, without guidance or assistance will end up right back where they started. We need strong visual cues. Without these cues all you’re doing is tracking whether or not I end up in the same spot.”
There it was! The teacher who called me stupid. The teacher who told me they must have let me in the school because “they needed to make the numbers.” The guidance counselor who didn’t know my name…despite my troublesome behavior and failing grades. The music program that only included white shows with white leads. Everything said and unsaid that reminded me on a daily basis that I did not belong. All of it came together in a split second. I had no visual cues. No face like mine. No abrazos or ¿Como estas? No one to tell me “Le voy a contar a tu mama!” No Latina model of success inside the walls on my school.
My middle and high school years in an environment that, while promoting diversity in numbers still upheld white norms and blatantly made me feel invisible every day, were a vacuum of frustration and confusion. But I’m clear now. I’m clear that I am grieving an education that wasn’t designed for me. And educational system that failed me. It made me walk in circles. But I didn’t die. I’m still here.
Circles. Tenacity and persistence shrouded in shame and invisibility. Intelligence grasping for validation. Passion confused for loudness and anger. The liberating realization that I made it this far on the very attributes that those circles were designed to enclose. The responsibility to be a guiding light for my daughters. The willingness to see the blindfolds on my students. The courage to take them off. This is what my trek was for…
May we be the guiding light.
May we be the face that looks like them.
May we provide the visual cues that our students need for their journey.