By Vanessa Torres
As a college student, I now have about a decade’s-plus worth of experience with the benevolence of well-intentioned teachers. I say this as a student that grew up in low-income school districts and a high school in San Diego where the majority of students were minorities and the teachers were not.
Overcrowded classrooms and sharing a dilapidated textbook with your classmate was not out of the norm. The school year was initiated with the teacher’s usual disgruntled disclaimer that there would not be enough books to go around for the school year in yet another overcrowded class.
Teaching in and of itself is a tremendous responsibility a person undertakes as their professional career. Few other professions carry the weight that teaching does. A teacher has the ability to mold and inculcate a young person’s mind which ultimately adds to the prosperity of our community.
Some teachers take the seriousness of their profession and the resulting responsibility to heart; it’s not like they are doing it for the money. But I have to wonder about the others: As the incentive of a high paying salary is nonexistent, what is their reason for choosing such a significant profession? Were they looking for life-fulfillment? Or did they choose this profession as a way of escaping their inherent guilt?
Again, I say this as a student who has only been provided an education in school districts determined by imaginary boundaries and not pre-selected for me based on their faculty and curriculums, like some of my private-school educated colleagues.
Take my middle school English teacher — we’ll call her Miss F.
English has always been my favorite subject (and eventually my field of study), even though it wasn’t my first language. I was born and raised in Southern California but didn’t speak English until I started pre-school where I was exposed to English far more than I was to Spanish. I was in bilingual classes until about the 5th Grade when bilingual classes went the way of the dinosaurs.
Miss F. was the “cool” teacher who let us talk freely and ask questions and encouraged us to learn outside of the classroom. I never asked her, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if she volunteered in Africa or Nicaragua or another brown country the color of South Carolina’, or California’s, farm fields. She had that spirit of generosity.
Miss F.’s class was the first time I was exposed to Sandra Cisneros, reading and analyzing an excerpt from “The House on Mango Street.” A classroom full of students talked about English literature written from the perspective of someone with our same life experiences. On my next library trip, I borrowed more Cisneros books and excitedly told Miss F. how much I loved “Women Hollering Creek.”
After that Miss F. would see me in the halls, or at our next period, and ask me about what I was reading or about my family or what I did that weekend. She really seemed to care about us and about our education, and not just the white-washed curriculum to which every other English classroom was subject. She especially showed interest in my friends and me — two of us were children of immigrants and one was black. About the same ratio as our classroom.
Since we spent so much time outside of our allotted third (or was it fourth?) period English class talking, we became, you could say, friendly. We offered to help her during breaks and after class because we genuinely liked our teacher and she showed genuine admiration for us.
One day, I was at the supermarket with my mom and dad. I recognized Miss F.’s super cool black Buddy Holly glasses walking up the aisle towards us. Since I had often spent time after school or breaks in her classroom, my mother knew who Miss F. was and that she was whom I was usually with. I turned to my mom, who was distracted deciding between something on the shelves, and whispered, “Look, mom, that’s Miss F., my English teacher.” My mom was too busy and kept discussing something with my dad.
Always a shy person, I didn’t want to say hi or draw attention to the fact that I now knew she didn’t live in the parallel teacher-universe where they only exist at school and nowhere else. I figured it would be one of those awkward run-ins where you have to be an adult but you’re just a shy pre-tween with bad communication skills and would need to translate introductions between your parents and your teacher. I was used to translating for my parents though, that wasn’t the hard part. I had been doing it since parent-teacher conferences in the 1st Grade.
As she placed some cans in the basket hanging from her forearm she looked up and caught my eye.
Her faced dropped immediately.
I half smiled and got ready to do the polite thing as she was more than likely going to want to meet my parents.
“What part of El Salvador are they from? Were they farmers? How hard was it for them to move here?” were just a few of the questions Miss F. would ask when we were hanging out eating pizza, helping her set up her room and getting dibs on a bunch of books we were sifting through.
When she mentioned the Salvadoran Civil War I was surprised she knew anything about my country, let alone the reason why my parents emigrated. She seemed genuinely interested in learning about my background and heritage. I thought it was really cool of her to take such interest in her students and attributed that to her being such an excellent teacher.
She would sometimes complain about the commute in the mornings. She didn’t live in our neighborhood, so I was confused as to why she was at this little Mexican Bodega.
She returned my half-hearted smile and waved hi as she turned the corner to the next aisle.
I was relieved. I wouldn’t have to have a small awkward conversation with my teacher and parents and thought nothing else of it.
The next day at school Miss F. gave us the usual, “Hey girls!” as my friends and I walked into her classroom. The next year, Miss F. took a job opportunity at a north county school. I never saw her again.
That random moment while shopping, and the years thereafter that encounter were trivial. However, as an adult, that encounter is now imprinted in my memories. My “cool” white teacher — the one who quoted Sandra Cisneros — she definitely cared about my experience, but, more, so she cared about how she could affect that experience.
People will look for opportunities to assuage themselves of inherent guilt in ways that may seem well-intentioned to you, but ultimately are band-aids for their own inner quandaries.
Now, this isn’t to say every teacher you see outside of a classroom who doesn’t want to talk to you is selfish, quite the opposite actually. Give them their space! Remember, they like to live in the parallel-universe were they only exist in their classrooms to their students.
But Miss F. was interested in my life and that of my parents. Or at least I thought she was. How else would she know where I was born and where my parents were born and the story of how this little Salvadoran girl ended up sitting in her third (or was it fourth?) period class asking questions about Sandra Cisneros?
Outwardly projecting admiration for a students background, their family, heritage, the adversities that brought them to your classroom comes from a good-hearted place, for sure, but without sincere interest it quite frankly ends up in the realm of “White Savior.” This idea that as a white person, somewhere in your heritage there are atrocities you should be repaying to the descendants of those your ancestors wronged.
It’s great to have people who want to travel to underdeveloped countries (or school districts) and provide benefits taken by the same country they traveled from, but what good is it if in your heart you still don’t give a shit? Did you go on that volunteer trip just so you could take pictures with shirtless kids and upload an album to Facebook? Did you take that job in that school district to make a difference or just to say you made a difference? If you came back from that volunteer trip and all of your camera’s memory was wiped would the satisfaction of doing the right thing be enough?
Now, for every Miss F. I have a Miss G., the teacher who wasn’t looking to tick off their “good deed” box every day but instead wanted to make a real and meaningful impact through education to those who needed it. And for that, I will be forever grateful. Maybe, for this reason, Miss F.’s insincerity, and that of others like her, became more conspicuous over the years.
That happens when you grow up, you start noticing the microaggressions more and more. (Like the teacher who told my classmate they needed to learn to sign their name because, eventually, they would need it to apply to McDonald’s. True story).
Miss F. probably went on to her next school district and talked about the “rough” school she came from where students were disciplined for not wearing their IDs on their body (yeah, like in prison) and how she had a really smart student whose parents fled a war-torn country and how that student persevered and how she made a difference in that student’s life.
Miss F. cared immensely about my mom’s background. She was shocked when I told her my mom stopped going to school to take care of her siblings at 15. So where was the same inquisitive nature when the woman was standing right in front of her? Where was that look I had seen of reverent admiration for the struggles these two people went through?
She probably wanted to get on the road, away from this little neighborhood and back to her suburb to heat up that can of chili. I don’t blame her; I wanted to get out of there too.
This submission was written in response to The Shape of Human Heart, published earlier this summer in San Diego Free Press.
Vanessa Torres is an emerging Salvadoran writer local to Southern California and based out of San Diego. She is a full-time content developer and college student.