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Mr. M—with his bird-eye view, long-winded conversations that often dipped into digression, and signature loose Hawaiian shirts for all seasons—wasn’t your run-of-the-mill teacher.
Every other week, we took the subway somewhere: the crimson-soaked stores of Chinatown, the historic Ellis Island, even a swanky party where we dressed for festivity. He bought us momentos before we left each place, like hand-sewn fans and pristine snow globes. Back in the classroom, he displayed artworks and discussed the artists’ styles, until I knew by heart that Edgar Degas had a knack for depicting dance and I tried painting bright outstretched flowers like Georgia O’Keefe’s.
What I clung to the most were the TIME for Kids magazines. Emblazoned on the glossy covers of the issues were headlines in glaring white: WOMEN ON THE FRONT LINES OF COMBAT. EARTHQUAKE DESTROYS HAITI. OBAMACARE WILL CHANGE HEALTHCARE. As I digested one news story after another, questions darted out of my mouth.
“Why aren’t women allowed to fight like men?”
“Why do earthquakes happen?”
“Why does that family in the photo need Obamacare?”
Mr. M stood beside me, answering my tilting tower of inquiries and asking, “What do you think about this event?” Slowly, I realized that the lives of people and communities were shifting in every moment with a new law, disaster, discovery and that I was a global citizen. The brinks of my curiosity only extendedwidened from then on, but it did so as I heard others’ stories.
After the recent president inauguration, I asked a fervent pro-Trump classmate in my overwhelmingly liberal high school, “Why?”
He said, “My mom works in a hospital that treats many undocumented immigrants. The patients leave without paying and the staff can’t find them, so the hospital’s been losing money. Lots of the staff have been laid off. I’m worried that my mom could be next.”
His answer wasn’t what I anticipated at all. I imagined that those who supported President Trump for economic reasons were mainly from the Rust Belt, not here in what-new-job-can-we-create-next New York City. I had hoisted my perspective as the only possible one, but suddenly, it was crowded against those of others, as if on the subway during rush hour. We began to have a discussion about amnesty for undocumented immigrants, and although I still stood firmly against President Trump’s policies, the way I formed my views had transformed.
When my immigrant parents stressed that education is the equalizer for “success,” they didn’t mean the sort that gradually builds self-awareness, that evolves unpredictably from conversations, that exists beyond the covers of a textbook. Yet that is the kind I crave. But not everyone is as fortunate as I am to have someone like Mr. M who broadens their world.
I began to see that fostering learning communities could shrink that gap. By founding the Sonorous Writing Workshop, I cultivated an uplifting space for young women and non-binary people of color to uncover the vitality of their stories. My mentees trusted me with intimate slices of themselves, and I fueled their literary growth with resources and endless support. One mentee first began interpreting poems as I directed her with open-ended questions, as Mr. M had once done with me. Soon thereafter, she leaped into the landscapes of works by writers of color by herself. After weeks of treating herself as a distant character, another mentee finally untangled her shifting thoughts about a faded friendship in a poem, saying that my lesson on emotions was quite helpful. By the end of the workshop, a sisterhood spanning across the nation and the world had sprung.
After all these years, Mr. M’s imprint remains intact. Wherever I go, I will continuously empower minorities to find the light within themselves. It doesn’t matter if I am the mentor or the student; I will never cease to share my knowledge and learn.
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