Unapologetic: Claiming the Self as Woman

This article originally appeared in EdWeek.

This month, I’ll be featuring the voices of female educators in honor of Women’s History Month. More written about this is here.


When I was a kid, I used to look in the mirror and imagine my body was made up of puzzle pieces– each one a talisman, a marker of some part of my larger identity. My eyes, big and brown, slightly almond-shaped, were tied to my great grandmother’s Spanish roots. My long, curly hair was a flag that waved a crest full of similarly curly-haired women from past generations. My wide smile and doubled-over laughs were sure markers of my Filipina mother’s family. The soft, fullness of my hips simply identified me as: girl, Brown.

Like many women, I have analyzed my identity piecemeal for years. I have used eyeliner to draw focus to the shape of my eyes and bottles of products to manage the curly-haired flag. I have tried diets and not eating in an attempt to remove a whole part of myself, thinking I could tame the beasts of Vanity and Validation if I only fed them. As I grew older, the reflection changed but my hips remained. Still, they identified me simply: woman, Brown.

As I grew older, I learned it was not just my body that was divided for the spoils. Parts of my personality are also graded on a scale of effectiveness. Big emotional displays are a feminine “weakness,” the kind that tells girls they are alternatively “needy” or “bossy” when they make requests. The willingness to give love instead of fearfully squirreling it away are “naive” or “doting.” My desire to care for others are given diminutive names like “nesting” or “nurturing,” as though only baby birds are worthy of the strength it takes to open one’s hands and hold the heart of another’s.

Now as a teacher, I have been asked–and ask myself–to judge how these aspects of my femininity have affected my classroom. Do my eyes, hair, and hips affect the way I am perceived as an educator? Are caretaker tendencies a benefit to my students, or merely a reflection of the glass ceiling the patriarchal lens perpetuates to cap my own abilities?

Over the past month, I have sat with those questions. I have attempted to cut out the parts of myself I have labeled as “woman, Brown,” lay them out, and look at them in the fluorescent light of my classroom.

After reading some amazing voices this month, I am now struck by an important realization. I can’t help but wonder if I have made an error in my self-perception. While I embrace intersectionality of identity within my students (hence the title of this column), I perhaps neglected those intersections within myself.

I have assumed my parts labeled as “woman, Brown,” were things that needed to be cut out and analyzed. In doing so, I failed to realize that the act of separating these parts out inherently ignores that they are a core part of my being.

My femininity isn’t accouterment that I attach to my role as a teacher. Being a woman is a central part of who I am. If I assume the parts of me identifying me as “woman” were something I could easily set aside, I implicitly diminish their worth not just in my practice, but my life.

Obviously, a healthy reflection of the self is essential to our work. However, I think it’s important to consider the place from where we are questioning: are we seeking a deeper understanding of ourselves? Or are we attempting to justify the parts of identity that the oppressor has taught us are unworthy and weak?

After reflecting this month, I have learned that being a woman in education means breaking down walls and being role models. It means accepting hard truths and standing up and asking tough questions.

Most importantly, however, it means choosing to unapologetically claim my womanness as part of my identity as a person and, therefore, as an educator. Instead of attempting to separate it out as an “extra” part of me, I realize I must accept it as a central part of me. The first step to truly understanding what it means to be a woman in education is seeing my womanhood as woven into the fabric of my being, not just little labels on particular parts.

As women’s history month comes to a close, I step back in front of the mirror. Instead of seeing just eyes or hair or heart, I see the whole of myself named: woman, Brown, teacher.

IMG_8478.JPG

‘Often Imitated, Never Duplicated’: Black Womaness in the Classroom

This piece originally appeared in EdWeek.

This month, I’ll be featuring the voices of female educators in honor of Women’s History Month. More written about this is here.

Guest post by Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price.


“Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Ms. Aryee-Price, you’re not going to believe this. I’m writing an essay that was assigned to the 8th graders!”

You see, that’s Aida. A seventh grade, Afro-Latina student of Dominican descent whose thirst for knowledge reminds me of myself at her age. She gives me life within an oppressive system I find myself having to navigate and negotiate every day.

As a Black woman teacher who is also a numerical minority in my district, I often feel like a sea otter in a bed of sharks that are waiting to attack and devour me at any given moment. Making the wrong move, uttering the wrong sounds will cost me my life. That’s real. My Blackness and womanness intersect in ways that I cannot escape, so survival becomes the ultimate goal. My students are my survival.

I grinned; her enthusiasm for school gives me a unique kind of energy that keeps me coming each day.

girlreading.jpg

In a classroom discussion about The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton and the protagonist, Ponyboy’s obsession with Gone with the Wind, I encouraged students to critique this problematic story of the Old South. Aida’s constant questioning and wondering led us into a brief exchange.

“Next year,” I shared, “you all will read To Kill a Mockingbird, a text that explicitly tackles racism, power, privilege, and what justice looks like for some…”  She was intrigued.

I could see the wheels spinning in Aida’s head. In the only way that she could express, she blurted out, “I’m going to read that book.” And she did.

My hope is in the children I teach each day. Our language arts classroom discussions center their lives, their stories, and the experiences of people who look like them. It is important they get to see themselves represented in the classroom. It is important they get to see humanity in its fullest form and what happens when an oppressive system attempts to dampen their hopes and desires. And it is equally as important for them to see when people like them fight this oppressive system: win, lose, or draw.

 So when Aida told me that she did not pass language arts class last year, I questioned how that could happen. What went wrong? Did our system fail this child? How can a system that is not intentional about educating students of color, predominantly Black and Latino, succeed? Having a colorblind approach to teaching our students not only invalidates their lives but discourages them from seeing the divine and magic within themselves. As a Black woman who teaches mostly Black and Brown students, and as one who approaches the classroom from an anti-racist and social justice lens, it is imperative that my students see the divine in themselves. That’s their survival.

Unfortunately for many of us, we are born into this white heteropatriarchal society. It’s an oppressive society that we have all inherited, so anything counter to that reality runs the risk of being silenced, isolated, and defeated.

And because we were all born into this unjust system, we cannot escape it’s oppressive ways unless we actively and collectively work to disrupt it. As women, we internalize this oppression, and see it manifested and perpetuated in various forms between our daily interactions with each other. But as a Black woman in this system, I need to go into work fully armored.

So yes, I will be punished more harshly than my white male counterparts, and even more severely than my white female counterparts. No “bad days” because that courtesy is rarely, if ever, extended to me. There is no room for me to mess up. No do-overs, even though others may be allowed that courtesy.

Therefore, I stride into my classroom knowing that the world is going to be unforgiving to my students. So I forgive them endlessly. Yup, seventy times seven, I forgive each of them. I walk into my classroom knowing that the world has very little love for them. I shower them with love. I strut into that classroom knowing compassion sees them not. So compassion and empathy are the center of the approach I take with them.

I remember the very first comment Aida made to me when she introduced herself, “Language Arts is my worst class, Miss. And I don’t know how to write well. I just want to let you know that.” I smiled because I saw something much more brilliant in her than she thought I did.

Now, Aida has not only proven her ability to write well, but one of the other eighth grade teachers has collaborated with me by allowing Aida to sit in on her class discussions of To Kill a Mockingbird and to complete the work assigned to the eighth graders. If only you could see the pride on her face.

We sat over lunch last week to discuss the book. I remember sitting there, deep in conversation and seeing the determination in a child who needed to see herself represented in her classes. She needed others to see and know her brilliance. Aida knew it; the rest of us were slow to the party.

I am consciously aware that my Black womanness informs my teaching and my approach to engaging the learners in my classroom. My Black womanness is acutely conscious of the ways in which oppression intersects in my daily life, in and out of work, and the lives of my students. And that knowledge and awareness cannot be duplicated or experienced by those who do not share in this.

It is because of my experience as a Black woman that I commit to justice within and outside the walls of my classroom. This is not to say that white teachers cannot do this work; they must. There just needs to be more intentionality when approaching the classroom. It must be free of paternalism, and full of self reflection, equity-driven, justice-driven anti-racism education.

I spent most of my years in public schools in the United States without having one Black teacher until my senior year of high school. I was desperate to see someone who had a similar experience as a Black woman, so I took accounting, a subject I hated, only because I wanted to experience having Ms. Holloway.

I envied the students who had Ms. Mack as a teacher, or Ms. Bolden as a guidance counselor. Those students appeared to be seen, heard, encouraged and loved so much more. I longed for that in school. As a teenager, I immediately recognized their value and power and wanted to be that for my students. Hence, it should come as no surprise to me that my students understand the value I hold for them, even if others pretend they do not know. But in the words of Fabulous, we’re “often imitated, but never duplicated.

Image via Flickr.


Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price is a grade 7 Language Arts teacher, a part-time Organizational Development Consultant with the NJEA, and a member of EduColor. As a partner and mom of two, Okaikor still finds time to do the work she truly loves: community and teacher organizing that centers anti-racist principles and social justice.

When Higher Ed Means Going Through Hell

This post originally ran in Education Week.


 

 This month, I’ll be featuring the voices of female educators in honor of Women’s History Month. More written about this is here.

Guest post by Sydney Brady.


“Take martial arts,” my mom says, “or you’re probably going to die in college.” While this is obviously hyperbole on a very inappropriate level, it is true on so many others.

What are the statistics we, as high school seniors, look at when we apply to colleges? Acceptance rate, rejection rate, graduation rate… and date rape? While there’s a 14% chance I’ll get accepted into the school of my dreams, there’s a 25% chance I’ll be raped or sexually assaulted while I am there.

And isn’t that horrifying?

On Pinterest, the college survival kits for girls recommend not only cute pens and notebooks but also Mace to, at most, frighten off my inevitable attacker.

When you enter “how to prevent college rape” into the Google search bar, the third article that pops up is from The New York Times. It says that the risk of rape was lowered in colleges when females took a class on how to protect themselves from potential attackers. But measures like these only allow women to be reactive once a sketchy situation occurs. These techniques fail at one key aspect: they don’t teach men to be proactive and not rape in the first place.

And isn’t that horrifying?

I read a draft of this speech to my mom and asked her if it sounded good. She replied with a grimace, saying, “It’s horrifying… but true.”

And isn’t that horrifying?

The woman who has raised me for 16 years has come to accept the fact that for me to advance my education, I will have to go through hell. My mother has accepted that the pearls on the gates to my dream school only bedazzle an iron frame that locks me into a one-in-four statistic.

Shouldn’t I have the right to walk through campus, free from gripping my bag a little tighter when I leave the library at night, free from being scared of footsteps behind me, free from having worry about screaming, and Mace-ing, and rape-whistling? But the reality is that I won’t be free.

And isn’t that horrifying?

So while I will protest martial arts, as I hate them and am uncoordinated, I will reluctantly go. After all, statistics show that I may be gearing up to enter the most traumatic experience of my life.

And isn’t that horrifying?

college.jpg


Sydney B. is a junior at Kauai High School. She is a diehard fan of J.K. Rowling, and a self-proclaimed master of Harry Potter trivia. When she’s not in school, she can be found running at the track or feeding her fish slices of cucumber.

 

 

I, Woman, Teacher.

This post originally appeared in Education Week.


 

This week marks the beginning of Women’s History Month. I am interested in hearing from other female teachers about how their gender identity affects their practice in the classroom. Please contact me if you’d like to share some of your thoughts.



IMG_8494.JPGWhat does it mean to be a woman in education?
I asked myself on a run this morning. For all my discussion about “identity,” I realize that I have actually done very little reflection about my gender identity as a teacher. I deconstruct it occasionally in my personal life, but I haven’t really thought about what it means as an educator.

I think it’s important to remember with this month, as with all months devoted to a group of people, that simply because it’s “[_____] History Month” doesn’t mean that the conversation is only about the past. It is important to know not only where we come from, but also consider how this aspect of our identity influences the present spaces we are in with our students.

Here’s the thing I realized: I know that being a woman in education (where I am in the majority, which also has interesting implications), is important and affects the way I interact with my students and my work. I just have no. idea. how.

I am eager to keep reflecting and hopefully hearing other’s thoughts on the subject. All I have right now are a few moments from over the school year.


“WOO-woo!” A sharp, high whistle pierces the air. My students and I all instinctively turned towards the street and watch the truck slowly stop twenty feet ahead of us at a stoplight.

Back on the field, a few girls and I roll our eyes instinctively. I am surrounded by my fifteen upper-classmen drama students, and we are stretching on a field bordered by a busy street. While the whistle doesn’t surprise me, it does fill my stomach with a white-hot rage. It’s frustrating enough when I am whistled at on a street while running or merely trying to get from point A to point B. It is infuriating that someone felt it was their right to harass my underage female students.

I look back at them, then back at the truck. “Was that the car that did it?” I ask, knowing the answer– the window is still open, a man’s arm hanging out with a sly face occasionally peeking back and laughing, as though he is daring me to say something. My girls nod.

I look back at them, think for a moment, then begin moving towards the car. I briefly turn to my students and lob my room keys at one of them. “Go back to the classroom. I’m going to go have a talk with them.” The kids cheer briefly as I run over, before heading upstairs.


“I just…” she trails off. One of my ninth-graders sits above my desk on a stool, reading her paper rough draft to herself. In a paper about love, she has revealed an emotionally abusive relationship she was in. She wants to finish the paper by writing about how she learned to love herself.

“I just… I don’t know how to write about myself. I feel weird talking about what being strong feels like,” she finally finishes.

I take a second, understanding her sentiment completely. “Why do you think it’s hard?” I ask.

“It… feels weird,” she shakes her head.

“I think a lot of times we as women are told not to write about ourselves or what we like about ourselves,” I offer. “Because, you know… the patriarchy.”

She smiles. We have often talked about “the patriarchy.”

“I think writing about yourself can fight against that,” I continue. I look at my own computer, full of open drafts that I, too have abandoned because they felt “weird.” I look back at her, “Maybe writing about ourselves can be a radical act.”

She thinks about it, then nods her head.


“Ms. Torres, do you ever wear make-up?” A student asks me towards the beginning of the year. With the exception of the first day (where I wore slacks, a button-up, and a bow-tie), I rarely go beyond combing my hair and throwing on a pair of baggy jeans before school.

My regular day-to-day wear consists of ripped jeans and UFC gym attire. I often mention to my students that I am headed to an MMA class or off for a run or to lift weights.

All of this is with purpose. At some point, I began to see traditional, stereotyped forms of femininity as weak– or, at least, as vulnerable. To be feminine and pretty meant to conform to societal norms that seemingly put me in a place of oppression.

So, I gave up those things. I rarely wore makeup. I no longer danced Salsa. Instead, I ran and punched. I decided to see how much I could lift or how fast I could run. I tried to subvert the patriarchy by showing I could mimic its forms.

I look at my student and laugh. “No, not unless I have to,” I said. Then, in a mock-conspirator’s whisper, I say “I’m a bit too busy to worry about stuff like that.”

The student laughs, and I do too. Then I catch the gaze of another female student. She is often well-dressed and wearing make-up. I don’t know if she has heard me, but I can’t help but wonder how she would feel about my comment. Would I have embarrassed her? Shamed her? Angered her?


Now, I am forced to hold up a mirror to my own ideas of femininity, power, and vulnerability. It took years to let go of the idea that my identity as a woman was tied to dressing and looking a particular way. If I am trying to subvert the patriarchy then I would hate to be complicit in the myth that femininity is somehow weak.

I am challenging myself to stand in that mirror and love the feminine, “girly” side of me as much as the one that runs marathons and talks sports with my students. I worry that to do anything less would send a detrimental and subtly misogynistic message to my students. Instead, I want to reclaim that aspect of identity as anything but weak, and see it for its full worth as wonderfully and beautifully powerful.

Courtesans and Questions: On Rediscovering Femininity

“You need to…,” the choreographer tilted her head, looked at me. Then she grabbed my shoulders and gently twisted them back. “Chest out.” She smiled. “Seduce the audience! You can do this.”

Can I? I thought to myself. I had been working on this piece for nearly an hour, and I was slowly realizing that my body was… different than it used to be. There are some things I’ve obviously grappled with (and written about), but this was an entirely new experience.

In college, I was a Salsa and Ballroom dancer (the video below was from about 6 months or so of dance training. I ended up dancing at a sort-of competitive level for a few years. What I mean to say is: I got better than this, I swear! But I thought it’d be fun to share).

I wasn’t amazing (and yes, I can tell you most of the technique mistakes I make in this video). I just loved doing it.

Furthermore, it was part of the way I learned to embrace myself as a young woman. When I was a teenager, I was chubby and dark and had upper-lip hair. I liked sports and hung out with boys. In Laguna Beach, California, this made me a target.

So, from high school and into college, I began to embrace what I thought of as my “feminine wiles.” I body-rolled and shook my hips. I learned to wear lots of makeup, handled the lip situation, and wielded the power of glitter and sparkly dresses. I had fun.

salsa

My partner, Rigo, and I with awards in 2007.

Then, after college and becoming a teacher, my body started changing. I also started understanding my physical relationship with the world a little differently.

I began lifting and running and building muscle. For many women, fitness involvement often puts us in the position where we must defend our femininity.  This has made me question the perception and objectification of my body– both internally and externally– ever since. I have been questioning gender expression and trying to push my own biases both in myself and my students.

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 3.30.46 PM.png

 

I have been living in that place, it seems, for years now.

Then, a few months ago, I was cast as a courtesan in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. I was (and am still) incredibly hyped to do something that I haven’t done in nearly a decade.

Also, a little part of me was scared and excited to do something I really haven’t done in years: act girly. I have to shimmy (which I am bad at) and shake and ostensibly seduce an audience. This leaves me where I began: standing in a mirror, trying to make my body do things that, years ago, were my shield, armor, and power.

Now, I am slowly realizing something: at some point, I began to see traditional, stereotyped forms of femininity as weak– or, at least, as vulnerable. To be feminine and pretty meant to conform to societal norms that often seemingly put me in a place of oppression.

So, I gave up those things. I rarely wore makeup. I no longer danced. Instead, I ran and punched. I decided to see how much I could lift or how much faster I could run. I tried to subvert the patriarchy by showing I could mimic its forms.

As I dig deeper into this show (which, as a piece of satire, says some interesting things about women), I am forced to hold up a mirror to my own ideas of feminity, power, and vulnerability. I have written that, as an educator, to show one’s vulnerability is often the greatest show of power (Brene Brown talks about this too). If I’ve held to this belief in my teaching practice, maybe it’s time to try and put it to work in my, you know, existence as a woman as well.

Instead of running from the parts of this that are scary, it’s time for me to remember something essential: I had fun being girly! I felt sexy and strong. I enjoyed myself.

It took years to let go of the idea that my identity as a woman was tied to dressing and looking a particular way. If I am trying to subvert the patriarchy– and I am, all the time– then I would hate to be complicit in the myth that female sexuality or femininity is somehow weak.

As I move through 2016, the challenge isn’t just being in a show for the first time in years. I am challenging myself to stand in that mirror and love the sensual, feminine, “girly” side of me as much as the one that runs marathons. I am reclaiming that aspect of identity as anything but weak and seeing it for its full worth as wonderfully and beautifully powerful.