I’m currently part of the Education Pioneers Analyst Fellowship, and this week I’ve been at a convening of the fellows. I was asked to develop and present my leadership story, which is a fancy way of saying I had to tell people what about my life pushed me to go into education. Here it is:
I’m going to tell you three little stories first.
I was in band from the 6th grade through the end of high school. I played French horn, and I was actually pretty good at it. When I was in the 8th grade, I tried out for district and got through. I tried out for regionals and got through. I tried out for state and made it. It was kind of a big deal. The concert for the state level band was out of town. My mom drove me to it and was supposed to stay there and watch, but she left partway through. She was just not there. I can’t really say I was surprised, but I’ll get to that later. The upshot was that I waited, my heart slowly sinking, growing more numb than anything else, as the other kids left with their parents. My band director was there, and he realized without having to be told that she wasn’t coming, and he drove me two hours home.
Ok, here’s the second one. I wish I could say that I applied myself in high school, but the truth is I didn’t. I was smart enough that I could skate by. I was chronically absent – like, missed two or three days of school a week on the regular levels of absent – and I still graduated third in my class. Anyway, the absences stacked up, and there were some times where both me and my kid sister had unexcused absences on the same day. One of the days I did actually manage to get to school and stay there longer than a period or two, my government teacher stopped me in the hallway. “Hey, is everything ok?” I told him it was, and I felt like it was at the time, but the truth was it wasn’t. “Are you sure? Because you’ve missed a lot and when the office tried to call your house the line was down.” My parents hadn’t paid the phone bill. “If it happens again, they’ll call social services,” he said.
Fast forward to college. There was a Christmas where I was not welcome at home and I didn’t really want to go there anyway, so my plan was just to stay on campus. It was well in to winter break and I think I was returning some videos to the public library or something. Anyway, I went to college at Oberlin, which is a tiny little town in Ohio which ends up totally empty when the students clear out on breaks. It wasn’t that surprising when I ran into one of my professors at the library. I’d taken four classes with him, and he knew me pretty well, and he asked me why I was still in town. “Family stuff,” I told him. And he just knew, somehow, without having to be told. He had me come to his house, with his family, for Christmas dinner. I ate really good turkey there and played with his granddaughter. It was the best Christmas I’ve had before or since.
Through the course of this convening, we’ve heard over and over again how education is a people business, and that’s what I want you to take away from me. It is a people business, and the people are children, who sometimes are drifting along and helpless. As you’ve probably gleaned from these stories, my family life was not great. I was dealing with some real Tennessee Williams shit – rampant alcoholism, physical and mental abuse, neglect. I won’t get into the specifics. I have a kid sister, and my childhood was mostly centered around taking the brunt of it so she didn’t have to. I grew up poor, and I grew up visibly, noticeably queer in Texas, and I might as well be honest I grew up struggling with my gender in a family that was not comfortable with that at all. What I’m saying is I was a total mess as a kid and a teenager. I acted out, got in fights. But the thing is, I was smart, and I knew college was a way out. And I was lucky enough to have teachers who pushed me back on track when I started to drift too far. Teachers helped me fill out college apps and write entrance essays, not my parents. They helped me score scholarships.
So I got to college, and I loved it. I really blossomed there, because it was safe. There’s a common thing with people who grow up in abusive families where they don’ remember that much about their childhoods. It’s like that for me. Memories of home are fractured. It’s weird. But I remember a lot about school pretty clearly, because school was stable and safe. College was even better because it was stable and safe all the time. I was lucky enough to really bond with some of my professors, and it was the absolute best thing for me. I could not be more grateful. They were a support network for me, and I needed it, because even though I was states away my crappy home life still haunted me. My dad got cancer, and fought it, and died, and though we had a complicated relationship to say the least, we were close and it was hard on me. And then the shit really hit the fan, because my mom just lost it. There were suicide attempts, and then she started telling my sister they should both kill themselves, and I had to move my sister into my dorm room.
My sister moved back home after a few months even though I didn’t want her to, and she dropped out of high school. I felt powerless, and some of my professors could tell and reached out to me. I was estranged from my mom by then and they helped me figure out how to get financial aid to work around some stuff and they did a lot of talking with me about what to do after college. I decided with a lot of encouragement to go to grad school.
I did really well in grad school, but academia is not really my scene. I need more on the ground, meaningful impact stuff than you get with psych research. So I started community organizing, much of which was about education, which fed into working with teachers in Detroit. And then I got pregnant, and I started thinking about what being a professor is like and how meaningless academic work felt to me, and how I wanted to really model social change for my kid. And I thought about how transformative education had been for me, but how I’ve been one of the lucky ones, and how my own sister is not one of the lucky ones. So I bailed on academia and went into organizing full time.
Working with teachers is really powerful stuff, and meaningful, but being a full time organizer means you can only talk about certain things to certain people in certain ways. I found it very limiting. And I wanted to be more directly involved with the education system, doing something that had a more direct line of advocacy for kids like me. I found the ed pioneers listing on idealist and was like “holy shit, this is perfect. This is just perfect.”
And here I am. And I’ve landed in this job where I get to think and talk about race and class in education all the time, where there’s tons of data to work with. It feels really hopeful. For the first time in a long time I feel really hopeful.