When You Don’t See Yourself in Your Heroes

As a child, I wanted to be two things: a scientist and a mother, just like my own mother had been.  My mother was my hero in many ways.  She raised me as an older single mom; she did everything she could to put my education first; she was a role model as a person of integrity, courage and intelligence.

However, there were many times I couldn’t understand my mother.  As a first generation American-born child, I wanted to be like every other kid at my school.  However, my immigrant mother refused to let me socialize in the same ways my friends did, insisting I stay home and study and that I couldn’t date until college.  She was also weird to me, in her own life. She did not speak up when she was unfairly passed over for a job promotion, even though she was over-qualified and would tell me an earful about it at home. She chose not to make me learn my native language because my brother had been tested for English Language Development classes (despite being recommended for honors English) when he marked that he spoke two languages on the Home Language Survey when he entered school, even though she said I’d later regret it.  At these moments, my mother seemed, at best, to be an enigma, and at worst to be overprotective, overly cautious and over-reactive.  I know now that she wanted the best for me and was doing her best, seeking security and putting her hope in my future, trying to avoid anything that might jeopardize that future, but I wish I had someone to help me figure that out then. It would have saved much heartache on both our parts.

When my mother died in a car accident, I was 16 years old.  In her absence, the closest things to heroes to me were my best friend’s family and my teachers.  My best friend’s family took me in when my mom died.  They were kind and loved me in their own way, but it was a very, very lonely time. (They were White, which will be important later, but wasn’t important at the time.) I wasn’t myself because I didn’t know who I was. All I felt was overwhelmingly lost. The only thing that I thought I was good at was school, and it was the only place where I felt like I belonged.

The love and support of my teachers were likely part of the driving force behind my eventual choice to become a teacher myself.  My teachers loved me and I loved them.  I did everything I could to be the best student in every subject. I worked hard; I did extra credit; I never complained.  I went back to school three days after my mom died (she died on a Friday so I’m not even sure that I missed a full day). I literally fulfilled every part of the “Model Minority Myth” in my academic life.  School was the safest and most secure place I knew.  It took the place of my home in many ways.

For many, many years, my life has been driven by this desire for validation in academic settings.  Whether as a student, a teacher, a teacher educator or an academic, the loss of my greatest hero at a critical moment in my life sent me reeling, and looking for a way to establish my identity.  I made many poor choices in my personal life, but at least, in my academic life, I was getting it right.

And I was getting it right by playing by the rules of the system–observing until I knew what those rules were, then becoming strong at them so that I could establish my worthiness in any academic situation, and avoiding any situation in which I might not be the best, for fear of losing my fragile worth.

I’ve internally struggled greatly with the compromises I’ve made along the way: staying silent rather than advocating for the things I believe in; not doing the research I’m most interested in doing for fear that it wouldn’t be the “right” research to do (i.e. the research valued by others); saying yes when I know that the right thing (for myself as a person) would be to say no.  I couldn’t figure out why I was so deeply conflicted and struggled so much to be my true self within this educational setting that I so deeply valued–why my values, my work and my voice weren’t always aligned the way I wanted them to be.

Until Friday morning.

I was sitting in the first morning of the 2018 Institute for Teachers of Color Committed to Racial Justice (feeling, as always, somewhat like an imposter, and certainly less woke than probably x% of the people in the room) and co-founder, Rita Kohli, asked how many of teachers of color we had had in our K-12 schooling experience.

I literally could not remember.

I began furiously thinking through elementary school and I got halfway through middle school before she had moved on with the activity.  I obsessively began listing my teachers (why hadn’t I thought about this before?) and, finally, when I finished my list of 35 teachers, I could count a single non-white teacher.  That teacher, a Latino man, had one of the least culturally responsive classrooms I had been in, helping to kill my love of science by having us read daily from a college textbook and take notes to prepare for the Advanced Placement exam.

And things suddenly began to unravel a bit.  My (White) teachers were not racially identified to me because whiteness was such the norm of my schooling.  I did not have an Asian-American professor until my undergraduate work, and not one in education until my post-baccalaureate work.   I could not find my voice in many issues of education because I loved my (White) teachers and I was worried that speaking up FOR what I had needed would be betraying all the kindness they had shown me. I was worried that they would think less of me and that I would be dishonoring my family and my teachers whom I respected greatly.

I’m still sorting through this. But, it’s important to me.  I needed a role model that understood me culturally, so that I could have someone to aspire to be like.  Especially as someone who lost my mother as a teenager, I needed an Asian-American adult who could really get me and guide me at a critical point in my life.  I only know that this is what I needed because I now have a mentor who is Asian-American who has helped me so much in this academic journey (even though we have VERY different acculturation and generational experiences).  I needed someone who could affirm my identity, and at that time, it would have been extremely helpful for that person to be a person from my own racial group or with similar culturally experiences.

I know that not everyone gets to have a mentor that looks like them.  In some families (including ours), the parents don’t even look like all the kids.  But, it is something that shaped my perception of who I was and could be at a very critical point.  Again, this post isn’t to discredit the incredible mentorship and love that I’ve received from a multitude of mentors from across racial boundaries, but it is to say, if anything, that teachers of color matter.  It matters who children and adolescents see around them, how people in their racial groups are portrayed, and what about their racial groups are valued (or ignored). It certainly mattered in the trajectory of my life.  And the realization of how much it mattered will continue to fuel the work I’ll do for the rest of my days in this world.