So, my journey began in the Bronx, New York, in a one-bedroom apartment, with my two sisters and immigrant mother. I loved our neighborhood. It was lively. There was all this merengue blasting, neighbors socializing on building stoops and animated conversations over domino playing. It was home, and it was sweet. But it wasn't simple. In fact, everyone at school knew the block where we lived, because it was where people came to buy weed and other drugs. And with drug-dealing comes conflict, so we often went to sleep to the sound of gunshots.
I spent much of my childhood worried, worried about our safety. And so did our mother. She worried that the violence we witnessed would overtake our lives; that our poverty meant that the neighbors with whom we lived and shared space would harm us. Our entire life was in the Bronx, but my mother's anxiety spurred her into action, and soon we were driving so fast to Connecticut —
to boarding school campuses, with full scholarships in tow. Man, don't underestimate the power of a mother determined to keep her children safe.
At boarding school, for the first time, I was able to sleep without worry. I could leave my dorm room unlocked, walk barefoot in the grass, and look up to see a night sky full of stars. Happy novelties.
But there were other novelties as well. Very quickly, I felt like I didn't belong. I learned that I didn't speak the right way, and to demonstrate the proper ways of speaking, my teachers gave me frequent lessons, in public, on the appropriate way to enunciate certain words.
A teacher once instructed me in the hallway: "Aaaaaas-king." She said this loudly. "Dena, it's not 'axing,' like you're running around with an axe. That's silly."
Now at this point, you can imagine the snickers of my classmates, but she continued: "Think about breaking the word into 'ass' and 'king,' and then put the two together to say it correctly — 'Asking.'"
There were some other moments that reminded me that I didn't belong. Once, I walked into a classmate's dorm room, and I watched her watch her valuables around me. Like, why would she do that? I thought to myself. And then there was the time when another classmate walked into my dorm room, and yelled, "Ew!" as I was applying hair grease to my scalp.
There is emotional damage done when young people can't be themselves, when they are forced to edit who they are in order to be acceptable. It's a kind of violence.
Ultimately, I'm a quintessential success story. I attended boarding school and college in New England, studied abroad in Chile and returned to the Bronx to be a middle school teacher. I received a Truman Scholarship, a Fulbright and a Soros Fellowship. And I could list more.
But I won't.
I earned my doctorate at Columbia University.
And then I landed a job at Yale.
I am proud of everything that I've been able to accomplish on my journey thus far.
I have eternal imposter syndrome. Either I've been invited because I'm a token, which really isn't about me, but rather, about a box someone needed to check off. Or, I am exceptional, which means I've had to leave the people I love behind. It's the price that I and so many others pay for learning while black.
I police myself all the time. Are my pants too tight? Should I wear my hair up or in a fro? Should I speak up for myself, or will the power of my words be reduced to: "She's angry"?
Why did I have to leave the Bronx to gain access to a better education? And why, in the process of getting that better education, did I have to endure the trauma of erasing what made me, me — a black girl from the Bronx, raised by an Antiguan mother? So when I think about our current education reform initiatives, I can't help asking: What are our students of color learning about themselves?
Three — three decades of research reveal that students of color are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students, and are punished in harsher ways for the same infractions. They also learn this through the absence of their lives and narratives in the curricula. The Cooperative Children's Book Center did a review of nearly 4,000 books and found that only three percent were about African-Americans. And they further learn this through the lack of teachers that look like them. An analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics found that 45 percent of our nation's pre-K to high school students were people of color, while only 17 percent of our teachers are.
Our youth of color pay a profound price when their schooling sends them the message that they must be controlled, that they must leave their identities at home in order to be successful. Every child deserves an education that guarantees the safety to learn in the comfort of one's own skin.
It is possible to create emotionally and physically safe classrooms where students also thrive academically. I know, because I did it in my classroom when I returned to teach in the Bronx.
So what did that look like? I centered my instruction on the lives, histories and identities of my students. And I did all of this because I wanted my students to know that everyone around them was supporting them to be their best self. So while I could not control the instability of their homes, the uncertainty of their next meal, or the loud neighbors that kept them from sleep, I provided them with a loving classroom that made them feel proud of who they are, that made them know that they mattered.
You know, every time I hear or say the word "asking," I am in high school again. I am thinking about "ass" and "king" and putting the two together so that I speak in a way where someone in power will want to listen.
There is a better way, one that doesn't force kids of color into a double bind; a way for them to preserve their ties to their families, homes and communities; a way that teaches them to trust their instincts and to have faith in their own creative genius.