education

Remembering Antonio

hood rats

Hood rats of Holyoke

Forgive me, Jerica.

“That life – whatever else it is – is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. Death always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.” -Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

I have been meaning to write this for some time, though at first, I did not know what to say. Or perhaps more accurately, I did not know how to write about it. What prepares anyone for the finality of death?

Antonio Nieves Martinez was my professor. It is true that I did not know him that well. I did not talk to him as I should have, I did not spend enough time with him.

We met in my first year of graduate school, in 2014. He was a new professor in my program, and I was a new master’s student taking the hard blows of imposter syndrome for truly the first time. And I’m sure he had felt the same way years ago, yet there he was, graceful, charming. I don’t know how to say this. Antonio was not perfect. He had moments when all transparency went out the window, when I could tell he was only going through the motions, and wasn’t fully present or engaged. But there were other things he did so beautifully.

On July 13 of this year, I was nearing the end of the eighth day of my new job at Hampshire College. A friend of mine, a doc student interning in Alaska at the time, called me over Facebook messager out of the blue. She hadn’t contacted me in a while, and we were going to move in together in about a month, so I wondered if she had had some problem signing for the apartment. I wish that had been the problem. She told me instead that Antonio had committed suicide.

I’m not sure I fully understood in that moment, what she had said. I was living with another friend, and I knew I would have to tell her as well, when I got home that day. She and I were in the same cohort, and we both took Antonio’s class at the same time. In fact, at that moment, I was dimly aware that I really needed to tell all of my cohort and the one after mine, and anyone else who knew him, what had happened. Looking back now, perhaps it was not my place to have done that. But I also knew that the faculty of my program and the administrators of the College of Education would keep it quiet, and that felt wrong. Because personally, I did not care how he had died. He deserved to be remembered.

More than that, he deserved to be loved. The friend I was staying with went to New York that weekend after I told her. We were supposed to meet up with members of my cohort the Friday after that, to celebrate Antonio’s life.

I had the apartment to myself the next day. I drove to my favorite ice cream place, ordered a giant tub of blue ice cream, came home, ate it, and cried. I cried for a long time. I don’t remember when I stopped. I just remember thinking he must have been in so much pain near the end of his life, and I couldn’t bear to think of him feeling that way. Not when he had had such a colorful life, not when he probably knew so much more about living than I did. Of course I know now that he always assigns the Duncan-Andrade piece, the ones about roses that grow in concrete, because he was one himself.

I did my crying in co-counseling. And alone in my car on the way to work. I’d put on all the Spanish music I could find and it would remind me of him. And I’d cry. This man probably knew so many things that I don’t, and I never bothered to ask. I know because I’m going through life now wishing I could ask him.

After I graduated from my program in 2016, I spent a year in my hometown, Tampa. Intermittently, I would think of Antonio. I’d think maybe I should email him, and tell him what I’m up to. In May of 2017, I knew I had received the job at Hampshire, and I knew I would be moving back to New England. I didn’t know then, but Antonio and his family were moving back to Oakland. I thought I’d tell him I got this new job, eventually, perhaps once I moved back and settled in. I’d reach out to him, to the other professors, see how they were doing.

I will never tell him now. There was a gathering for him at UMass. I did not go. I could not talk to anyone besides my co-counselors about him. I remembered him by wandering around Western Massachusetts alone. I swam alone. Explored remote towns alone. Stood on the edge of large lakes alone. There was a gathering for him in Holyoke. I didn’t go to that either. His daughter will never have those important conversations with her father, like the one where she calls him at 3:00 a.m. to tell him her car has gotten towed. Again. Or the one where she tells him she finally got a job, so would he please help her move her stuff 1,000 miles away. He is never going to have those conversations with her.

My cohort gathered to remember him. However, they wouldn’t confess to past mistakes they have made. For their dishonesty, I destroyed the cohort. I scattered them to the winds. I did not go to meet them. How could they be such cowards when Antonio was dead?

Finally, my friend and I moved to Holyoke, where Antonio used to live while he was in Western Massachusetts. I know now why he chose to live here with his family. It’s a beautiful town, far too small for how much life it contains. On walks in the streets, I meet people who say “¿’ta bien?”. Little black and brown children run around barefoot in the summer. On my street, there’s an old Boricua who goes to Stop and Shop in an electric wheelchair and blares loud bachata music from two speakers that he rigged himself. I once had a little old brown woman follow me around for 10 minutes because she thought I was someone else. I didn’t really mind.

This was your city,
child of immigrants.
In your memory, in your name,
I will do everything.

We had our own remembering party, my roommate and I. We invited some of the Latinx folks we knew from our program, a small group of 5 people. It was good. We brought things that remind us of him. There was a lot of drinking involved. And bachata. I think Antonio would be proud.

I’ve left the Hampshire job. I loved the position, but my boss sucked. I remember all the ways that Antonio tried to help make my life easier, when it felt like nothing was going right. Coincidentally, a friend of mine who works at a school in Holyoke recommended me for an open position there. I now teach ninth graders. Antonio used to teach in high school, once upon a time.

I wish you were here. I’m bewildered and inspired by these young people every day. Most days, it’s really, really fucking hard. You would have known exactly what to do. I miss your guidance, and I miss you very much.

Antonio had these moments when he could be unfathomably sweet. I remember, on our first day of class with him, he asked us if we would mind if he took a selfie with us. He said that he would like to send it to his mother. He said his mother is a Chicana immigrant who doesn’t fully understand what his job entails. He wanted to send her a picture so she could understand. We agreed to let him take the photo. Who does that? Who remembers their mom like that? Even I don’t, family girl as I am.

I remember he was there on the day I graduated. I remember he asked what I was doing next, and I told him I was going to Tampa to continue prospecting for jobs. He told me congratulations, and I think he hugged me. I hope he did. Antonio deserved a hug.

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The Monolith Myth

light

Light in the night. Source: Leonie

I’m going to tell you all a little story. So I work in a tutoring center in a library at a community college. I work on a relatively tightly knit staff. All ten of the writing tutors know each other, and the younger ones frequently socialize outside of work. I remember this was a conversation I overheard one day, between two of the tutors, one a multiracial Asian man (MM) and the other a middle-aged white woman (WW). It should be noted, the story being told is, if I remember correctly, the story of how the multiracial man’s parents met.

MM: …at that point, my mother was thrown out of the house by my grandmother. This wasn’t an unusual occurrence because my grandmother was a pretty abusive person.

WW: Oh…how horrible.

MM: She used to do things like beat my mother with a broom. So she [his mother] needed a place to stay after being kicked out of her house.

WW: I used to know a Korean girl whose mother would beat her, too.

This was the point at which I removed myself from hearing distance of the conversation because I knew exactly what was happening. It’s something that happens a lot to people who belong to racial minorities. I suspect that, as a person who is multiracial and who has been raised by and befriended a lot of white people, the Asian man telling this story is a little naive to the intrusive and often dangerous assumptions white people make about marginalized people. Thus, he did not edit out the details that people of color usually do around white people to protect the collective that is their community.

As for the white woman, it was as though I could see the little gears turning in her head. I could see her trying to connect dots which are not meant to be connected. She hears one story about an abusive Asian mother. Her memory is jogged to another time when she encountered an abusive Asian mother. Just like that, a stereotype is born! Now she believes all Asian woman are abusive to their children.

And this is not some new occurrence in my life. I went to a graduate degree program that was dominated by (bless their hearts) white queers. Because I am obliged to (and only because I liked my program adviser), I will say here that there are a small handful of white people in my program who genuinely try and are doing the work to recognize their role in a racist society. And then, there are all the rest.

Their judgment came every day like the morning news. Black men? Too aloof, militant, very sexist, not worthy of attention. Asian women? Scary, too opinionated, emotional, incapable of restraint. Black women? Think too highly of themselves, standoffish, stingy, secretive. Latinos? Clannish, always hungry, annoying, not prepared for the academy. The only way you won approval as a person of color was if you were queer and you outwardly showed more commitment to the queer community than to any other marginalized community.

In front of that group, where we were so frequently asked to talk about our social identities and our upbringing as part of classroom participation, I found myself hiding the truth about my family. I was not about to give these Northern white people any other reasons to look down upon me, my family, or the community of brown people that raised me in a Southern city. So I did not tell them about how hard it actually is for me to go home, to live with a mother who constantly comments on my weight and how I dress, who thinks that using a vibrator leads to becoming a prostitute (like a gateway drug), who always has to know where I am going and who I am with, even though she never gives my brother the same constraints. I did not tell them because I could not. How could I express the truth without throwing my family under the bus? How could I tell the truth without allowing white people to think my mother is an uneducated, backwards, primitive person who suffers greatly from internalized sexism? How could I give voice to my individual experience without having white people conjure the image of the Starving Brown Child in India, just waiting for their help? How could I say those truths without sounding as though I was inviting white people to save poor little brown me from the clutches of my medieval South Asian parents?  These are things I only ever talk about with woke people of color.

Instead, I only acknowledged the good things about my community in front of my colleagues–the parts about how, as children, we were basically raised gender-neutral until we reached puberty, and how radical that was. Or how arranged marriage was actually a financially and socially radical thing to do because it gave us kids the social capital we needed to survive in America. Or how the sex-negativity of Asians is also a radical concept because it precluded queer people from being ostracized from society. They only got to know the radical stuff. They were only allowed to see my community in a good light. I would not expose my community and my heart to the degrading nonsense of a bunch of people who think meals can be made out of oats and kale. Or worse, a bunch of people who think that because they understand Foucault’s theorizing, they are somehow the designated saviors of the Previously Colonized World.

You’ll notice, of course, this left (and perhaps, still leaves) me rather isolated. I present one truth to the world, and that is the only way I allow them to perceive me, and I know another, very different truth. This is not a strange or even rare practice. For people of color completing graduate degrees, compartmentalizing in this manner is a commonplace tactic.

If I’m being honest, I do not know that I have yet come across anything that feels like a solution to this problem, the problem of white people lumping people of color into monoliths, in which no one person of color is discernible from another. I also do not think I am obliged to find one. I think, before I even jump to solutions, it is worth proposing, to all communities, actually thinking about what this implies for our realities. What does it mean for people of color to constantly be protecting their communities? What kind of toll does it take on us to never tell anyone the whole truth? What are the implications when communities of color frequently don’t have access to things like mental health counselors because these are not critically conscious institutions and/or because counselors are too expensive? What does it say about the still-predominantly-white country we live in that we have to protect our communities when we are in the academy?

And for white people, what does it mean that communities of color go to this length to make sure you don’t interfere with their affairs? What does it mean when people of color are not comfortable telling you the truth about their upbringing? What does it mean that people of color try to protect their communities from you? What does it mean when people of color do not trust white people whose gender analysis is stronger than their racial analysis? What does it mean that in Massachusetts, a place that claims to be pretty liberal, a person of color can feel unimaginably lonely?

 

I don’t really have answers. I’ll end on this note. A few days ago, I went to the wedding reception of an old friend. All the people there were brown, and they acted like it, with moms feeding kids with their bare hands and people shoving people out of the way with absolutely no manners. I was going to post a funny status on Facebook about how you know you’re at a brown party when you feel like you’re surrounded by barnyard animals. It was just people having a good time. If it was a wedding reception full of white people, I probably could’ve gotten away with it. But I thought about how a post like that might come off to people who only know one brown person, or none. I thought about the mile-long list of stereotypes that already exists for my community. Did I want to add “barnyard animal” to that list? No, I didn’t. So I decided not to.

11 Things That Helped Me Survive Graduate School

It’s been a hot second since I posted anything, and I am glad to be back! I just graduated with my master’s degree in May, so I figured I’d share a couple things with y’all–in true blog post style, a list. Admittedly, this might be a more helpful list for people in social science programs. These are also intentionally vague. I don’t think there’s anything specific you can do to prepare for graduate school because programs can be so different depending on where they are and what kind of program you’re in. Most of the stuff I learned is about people, so that’s what I’m inclined to write about, but I’m happy to answer other things, too. Feel free to post comments with any questions.

sailboat

Sailboat in St. Pete Beach, FL. Stay afloat! You can do it!

1. If you ever make a request, always bring a bargain to the table. For example:

Leonie: Can I still turn in my paper?

Professor: The semester is over.

Leonie: I’ll clean out your office?

Professor: Done.

2.  Food.

Leonie: Hi students, today we’re going to talk about—

Students: *asleep*

Leonie: I have food.

Students: *wide awake, super engaged*

3. In organizations, there are mountain-movers, and then there’s everybody else. Mountain-movers enter your life at the rate of around 1 in 100. You’ll know them when you meet them.

Leonie: Hello, I am interested in a graduate assistant position.

Everybody else: I give no fucks.

Leonie: Hello, I am interested in a graduate assistant position.

Mountain-mover: Well, it’s great that you visited. Give me a second.

*leaves room*

*comes back in 7 minutes*

Mountain-mover: The office next door would like to give you an interview.

4. The reward for work is more work, so pace yourself accordingly.

5. This is grad school, not activist training camp. Professors will not hold your hand when you’ve experienced something blatantly racist or sexist. So if you’re emotional in class, be prepared for a complete lack of sensitivity to your feelings.

6. Talk to your professors. This is absolutely key. Tell them if the workload is a lot, or if the readings seem irrelevant or if you want to have more input in your classes. If they’re good faculty, they usually respond with some kind of pointers or individual attention. If they don’t, they’re not good faculty.

7. No one is going to give you the recognition you deserve. Keep your besties close.

8. Find your squad fast, if you need one. All grad students are not the same, and some are just cruel.

9. Don’t put too much stock into new friendships. Even the people close to you in grad school might hurt your feelings in the heat of a moment, out of political differences or because you just operate in the world differently. Be prepared to swallow your pride many times. Also be prepared to stand your ground. Hold out, though, because some folks are surprisingly kind.

10. Graduate school is unique (certain programs, anyway) because people of a lot of different age groups come together in an academic setting. Try not to alienate older or younger classmates/colleagues/co-workers. There’s a lot to be gained from a different perspective, something you can’t do when you’re surrounded by people who all have the exact same cell phone. This is a time to exercise your compassion.

11. Graduate school can really break you down. Just remember you’re not a bad person, even if you have made some pretty embarrassing mistakes. Usually, you will perceive things to be much worse than they actually are. It’s par for the course.

Mobilize

I often reflect on the time I spent in elementary school. Many of the experiences I had then take on a different meaning now that I see them from a social justice perspective. I find it interesting that, in spite of society’s best efforts to be “colorblind”, I was very aware at a young age that I was not white (or not “normal”). This may have been because my mother taught me my family’s cultural practices early on, thereby conditioning me to present as a person of color. There were other indicators as well, like the way my parents and I thought I had to adhere to rules more strictly than a lot of my same-aged peers. For example, there was a very lenient uniform code at my school. While I showed up every day in red or white school polos and pairs of khaki or blue pleated shorts at my mother’s behest, other girls showed up in tee shirts of every color and jeans and denim shorts, and no one ever passed a comment for them.

I believe the real red flag for me was the way people treated me. It’s not as if they were ever rude, but I distinctly felt that people didn’t listen to me. In group projects, I’d give suggestions that somehow never made it on the paper. I’d volunteer for tasks, and then my name wouldn’t appear on the list. I might have taken it personally, except I knew other Asian American students to whom the same things happened. However, if a white student said something, anything, no matter how silly, misinformed, or off-target it was, they inevitably received some reply, even if it was just another student saying “shut up!” or “that’s stupid.”

One particular incident comes to mind to illustrate this point. I was nine years old, in fourth grade. It was after lunch one day, and I was waiting outside the cafeteria for the next class period to begin. There were several other students out there, too, and we were queuing up to go back to our classroom. I was standing behind two girls from my class. We all knew one another, but we weren’t good friends or anything. I was in choir with one of the girls, and they were talking about how she was nervous because she had received the solo in one of the songs we were going to perform. I tried saying something to help her feel better, but I received no reply. Just in case they hadn’t heard me the first time, I repeated myself, louder this time. They still did not reply. Both continued to speak only to each other.

It’s been a while since fourth grade, but I still remember the embarrassment I felt after that encounter. I had wondered if anyone had watched me being ignored. I also felt strongly indignant because the two girls had behaved as if they did not have to reply to me. It made me think twice before approaching either of them again.

At school, all the white children fell into a hierarchy. They also seemed to have a protocol in place when someone at the bottom of the social hierarchy happened to encroach on another person or another group’s space. In their own special way, they would tell the unpopular ones to get lost.

For me, there was no place in this hierarchy. Regardless of whether I was welcomed or not, I invariably received little to no acknowledgement in the social groups of white children. On one hand, that meant I could flit in and out of groups at will, and stick with whichever ones I pleased. On the other, it also meant I never truly belonged to any group, and if I needed help or got hurt, I usually had to deal with it by myself.

Now this is not to say I’ve been heartily accepted into every group of Asian people I’ve ever come across (as I’ve mentioned previously). This is also not to say that there aren’t groups of white people into which I have been truly accepted nor that there aren’t white people out there who are not accepted by other white people. In spite of the picture I am painting, I had a lot of fun in school as a child. It is where I discovered how smart, creative, and capable I am. But I think knowing what I know now gives a depth to those experiences that I couldn’t see when I was that young.

Years later, in college, I received the education that helped me understand being a person of color at a predominantly white institution. I learned the vocabulary–microaggressions, bias incidents, internalized racism–to describe what had gone on for years in my life. The 20-year-old me could not help wishing that someone had told me these things a long, long time ago. I think this is something that we, the children of Asian Americans, need to encourage Asian American parents to do more, or perhaps do for our own children. Sheltering me did not help me at all; if anything, it kept me from speaking up when I should have. In the work that I do, I hope I can bring the age threshold down for when Asian American children learn the truth about race in America. This movement would move faster if, instead of having to educate twenty-somethings on basic social justice issues, they already knew the issues and were ready to mobilize when they reach adulthood.

Invisible Disabilities 101

Today, I was reading these great blog posts about chronic illness and the spoon theory. (You might want to read them, too, before you read this post). They inspired me to create a workshop about understanding chronic illness and invisible disabilities. Because I have a background in programming for undergraduate college students, I envisioned that this workshop could be facilitated by people who work directly with students, such as professors, resident assistants, staff members in student activities, multicultural centers, service learning, and others who work on college campuses.

I ought to preface this: I do not personally work with people who have chronic illnesses or disabilities. I also do not have a chronic illness or disability, and I do not speak for anyone who has one either.

I do, however, think able-bodied privilege is something people need to be more aware of, and I think this activity is an easy way to raise that awareness.

In my experience, undergrads are usually introduced to conversations about disability through simulations. You may be familiar–think “disability dinner/lunch/meal,” in which the facilitator randomly chooses a disability for each participant and then proceeds to tie a bandana around one student’s head to cover their eyes, tie an arm for another, give ear plugs to yet another, and so on, and this is supposed to help students “feel” what it’s like to have a disability. The participants then eat their food in slight discomfort, admit this would be a frustrating life to lead, and then never think about it again beyond the 30-minute discussion. Rarely do invisible disabilities and chronic illnesses (besides STDs) make their way into this conversation. Yet, there are millions (up to one in two people in the United States, according to disabled-world.com) in this country living with autoimmune disease, mental illness, hormone imbalances, and degenerative disease.

In the post about the spoon theory, the author talks about the choices a person with chronic illness has to make every day. Students in college hardly ever think of these decisions because they assume they are at the peak of their physical fitness and that no one their age could ever be chronically ill. My hope is that this activity will introduce students who have no prior experience or knowledge to the needs of people living with invisible disabilities.

Invisible Disabilities Activity

Materials:

pencils

paper

*10-15 plastic spoons for each participant

*may be replaced with any number of small objects, such as beads, slips of paper, paper clips, etc., as long as each participant gets between 10-15.

Procedure:

1. Hand each participant between 10-15 spoons, but don’t give everyone the same number.

2. Ask everyone to make a list of tasks they did that day, and tell them to include things they still have to do. Tell them to be very detailed. For example, instead of “I woke up”, tell them to break it down into brushing their teeth, showering, putting on clothes, wearing makeup, walking up or down stairs (if that’s what they did), cooking, eating, etc. Tell them to include chores like homework, laundry, and washing dishes, as well as social activities like meeting friends, shopping, or going to the movies.

3. Instruct participants to count the number of spoons they have. Explain that this represents how much energy they have to do what they need to do in the day.

4. Tell them to count the number of tasks they have written down. Ask how many of them have enough spoons to do everything they have written down (it shouldn’t be that many).

5. Tell them to go back through their lists and pick the tasks they would most like to get done in the day given the number of spoons they have. Explain that if they have skipped a meal, that also costs a spoon.

6. Allow participants to discuss how their days would go differently if they “had” a chronic illness. Draw attention to what choices they had to make. What did they choose not to do? Why did they make that choice? What do they choose to spend time doing? How do they think their lives would change if they had to make choices like this every day, with the same number of spoons for each day? Explain that it may be possible to use more “spoons” than usual in one day, but then they would have fewer to work with the next day, since they would have to recover from having exerted themselves.

7. Discuss ways to be an ally to people with disabilities and chronic illness. For some suggestions, click here.

 

I realize this is a simulation, too. And if there’s anything that needs to be changed or can be improved, please let me know. My goal in creating this workshop was to change the one-sided and reductionist conversations that come from “disability dinners”. I was getting tired of how participants are often more patronizing after leaving those dinners than when they begin. I hope this activity shows that people with disabilities still have agency and independent lives, albeit it’s different than what able-bodied people might imagine.

Something that struck me about the spoon theory post is when the author said she has forced herself to slow down. She has to constantly think about several factors that affect what she can do, and that it is the “beautiful ability” of able-bodied individuals to just do things without thinking.

I want people to reflect on that, on how they have unlimited spoons that they can spend doing whatever they want every day.