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The Price of Education and Teaching: Part II

Words can be barriers or stepping stones

My high school teacher, Thelma T Reyna, at poetry reading, 2017.

High school was much easier than junior high in the sense that I was now at least beginning to speak my new language, and I was no longer afraid to speak broken or incorrect English. For me, the fact that I was speaking it gave me more confidence, and English turned out to be my strongest subject. The sciences were my weakest, but I especially hated math because it didn't make any sense to me no matter who or how anybody explained it to me. However, even I was surprised when I took what I think was my first ever Algebra course: binomials and polynomials, and I was acing every test and quiz. I recall students would say/ask, I wonder how she gets 100%? She doesn't even speak English. I kind of just smiled but never said anything. I did realize I didn't need to speak but simply look at and understand symbols. The teacher still praised me in front of the class. This would be the last time I'd see these grades in math again.

The next math course was also Algebra but so weird that I understood nothing. The teacher would try to encourage me, but I felt sad every time I turned in homework because I knew it was all wrong. But she never said anything about that. I'm sure she knew or suspected I had nobody home to help me, so she appreciated my effort. I remember that students would get certificates of achievement, but I only got one, and it was for perfect attendance. I realized she was looking for anything to motivate me to keep trying. Another teacher would've given up on me and/or flunked me, but she didn't, and I still have her facial image with me. In fact, there's a commercial with an African-American lady that looks just like my teacher looked, and I wonder if they're related.

In high school, we were required to make occasional or scheduled visits with our 'counselor.' I almost dreaded to see mine because he was neither encouraging nor pleasant to listen to. One of these visits went something like the following:

Him: What do you plan to do after high school if you graduate?

Me: I want to go to college but don't know where.

Him: You're not college material, but what major would you choose?

Me: I'd like to be a teacher.

Him: Uh, you don't have the language.

Me: Maybe a psychologist...

Him: You'll need a strong language background.

Me: I like writing, so maybe I'll be a writer.

Him: Again, your English isn't great.

I couldn't tell him what I was thinking, so I went straight to Mrs. Reyna's classroom, and immediately she knew something was not ok.

I told Mrs. Reyna what my counselor had said, and I said he was a jerk! She kind of smiled and politely agreed and told me she knew I could do whatever I set my mind to. She told me I was smart and hard-working, and she was proud of me. Again, this wonderful teacher revived my spirit, faith, and confidence in me. It was true that I always worked very hard, and I didn't want to disappoint teachers who showed they truly cared and supported their students through thick and thin.

The counselor wasn't the only bad apple in the basket; he had plenty of company. Some teachers told me I was going to be a drop-out, gang-banger, drug user, pregnant teen. None of that ever happened, and the so-called college-bound students totally dropped out of high school or got pregnant during high school, but I was determined to continue my education even when I knew nothing about going or applying to college. Whatever I did learn, I learned on my own, and that carried more value than anything any counselor could've done for me.

Other than the math and the counselor stuff, high school had progressed relatively smoothly, but one day during lunch, I got this strange feeling in my chest and felt the need to call home. I had no money, so naturally, I went up to see Mrs. Reyna. I told her about wanting to call home, and she asked why I felt the need to call or that something wasn't okay. She apologized and told me she had no change and assured me everything would be okay. I tried not to think about that feeling for the rest of the school day but was still a bit anxious to get home.

After school, I rushed to the bus, and as soon as I got home, I noticed something weird. My sister, who'd been there just over the weekend from another city, was there again. I can't recall if she said anything to me, but she led me into the living room, and I found more surprises. Two of my aunts were there, and they looked like they'd been crying. I asked about mom, and they told me she wasn't here. I told them she was here before I went to school in the morning, and that's when one of them told me, "Sorry mija, but she has left us." I didn't understand what she meant but knew it wasn't good. I told them I wanted to see mom, and they told me, "diosito" took her away, and THUMP! I passed out cold on the floor. When I came to, I went to find my little brother and told him mom had died. He didn't want to hear me, but I knew he understood what I meant and didn't want to accept it.

Later my older brother, who'd just gotten married over the weekend, came to pick up more of his belongings and told us what he'd found on his first trip that morning. He'd found mom and tried to revive her, but she was already dead. He said that, as hard as it'd been for him, he was glad it wasn't me who found her. The Friday before the wedding, we were getting the salon ready, and when mom saw her future daughter-in-law, she said the marriage wasn't going to last. The lady had been bossing my brother around and screaming at him and us the whole time. I think my brother felt mom's death had somehow been his fault.

That same day, aunts and uncles showed up like vultures to take my siblings with them, and I was to go with my older brother and his new wife.

The following day I went back to school and told Mrs. Reyna about mom. I can't imagine what went through her mind, as I'd told her about the funny feeling just the day before. She immediately offered me her support and asked if I'd be willing to see a counselor on campus who was a good friend of hers, and I accepted...

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