Just found my senior year high school yearbook. Out of the entire faculty, I only had three sign my yearbook:
- my Law and Ethics class teacher (I got honored with the law award during the graduation awards reception),
- my Librarian, and
- my Woman as Hero teacher (I was the only boy in the class).
Apparently, books and social justice have been deeply rooted in my being for a long time.
Though high school for me was very traumatic, I am forever grateful to have had the opportunity to have had at least these three faculty (and a couple more who didn’t sign my yearbook) who really inspired me, opened up the world for me, encouraged me, and who treated me as a dignified human being and not an “animal” (as one teacher called me once in front of all my classmates) or a “Spic” (as a football coach once called me while running with the team).
Flipping through the faculty section of the yearbook, only five of the 213 faculty were people of color. Three of the five taught languages. I never met any of them. This situation—and how so many of these teachers, staff, and coaches (and fellow students) treated so many of us BIPOC at Nashua High School in New Hampshire—was so toxic for me that it is very difficult to look through the yearbook with fond memories, sadly. I am finally unpacking all of the trauma through therapy and focusing on my healing and centering myself and my needs.
As I reflected more, I’ve also realized that ever since elementary school I also befriended not only the librarians, but also the nurses. This was even the case for me all through 13 years of university. It was comforting going to places with people whose job was to take care of your concerns and center your authentic curiosities and pain. Thinking back, the nurse’s office and the library were my safe spaces to run away from the racism and xenophobia I experienced while in school, and sports was a coping mechanism to channel the energy and deal with a lot of the pain and anger and mistreatment that at the time I did not fully grasp.
One of the nice things to learn from reading some of the comments others left in my yearbook was that I apparently changed some people’s lives or that they thought I was kind or was a positive influence in their lives. I’m happy to have read that even though I was going through some things then, that I was able to still center others who were also experiencing some things and was able to be there for them when others weren’t (like standing up to bullies for them or simply listening to them or giving them space to be themselves or mentoring them).
Though looking back through this yearbook has been traumatic, it has also been uplifting. I want to make that 17/18-year-old Julián proud, and I wish I had a time machine to go back and write several comments in my own yearbook to myself. I have so many things I want to say to young me, like that…
- it’s ok to center yourself
- your concerns and pain are valid
- you are and always have been more than some “animal” or “Spic” or “savage” who needs to be civilized
- the ones who need to be civilized are the ones who won’t or choose not to see your humanity
- you don’t need to break your bones to entertain or win medals to have your oppressors accept you—they are not worth your time, blood, sweat, and tears
- that you don’t need to hide behind a smile or mask or code switch around people who will actually accept you for who you are, and they won’t gaslight you, or tone-police you, or victim-blame you, or abuse you
- the more you bite your tongue and coddle and center the comfort of those who abuse you will perpetuate conditions and situations for the continuation of your abuse
- your silence won’t protect you
- and …
The last words written as a comment in my yearbook are from my Woman As Hero class teacher. She wrote:
“Julián, you are a fine young man—bright, considerate, and determined. All qualities that I highly respect in people. I’m really glad that you took Woman As Hero—your being there was important for the class and I’m sure everyone benefitted from you being there. Take care of yourself. You are special.”
After the roller coaster of emotions and triggers going through the yearbook, this was a beautiful gift to end the experience with such a sentiment from someone who cared for me, treated me with respect and dignity, encouraged me, supported me, who challenged me to be better, who made me realize that even though I may also be a survivor of oppression, that there are others who are also oppressed for different reasons and by different systems from which I benefit and that I too have power to support and fight for others.
Along with the Law and Ethics class, an anthropology class and the Woman As Hero class (and the teachers of these three classes themselves) disclosed worlds for me that helped me understand reality and my place in it, as well as helped me imagine different, better worlds that I may be able to influence, deconstruct, dismantle, redesign, and rebuild. I’ve been at it since.
The real treasure that I have with me from those years aren’t my academic and sports medals, but these life-changing moments that nourished the soil of who I was to become.
I would write many more comments in my own yearbook if I had a time machine and could write something to myself from the future, but I think my Woman As Hero teacher’s comment is what I would have wanted to and would have needed to hear, at the time:
“You being there is important. Everyone will benefit from you being there. Take care of yourself. You are special.”
Don’t give up. I’m here waiting for you. I’ve got you. Just stride.