The Cambridge Dictionary defines the verb to belong as “feeling happy or comfortable in a situation.” In my own life, the notion of belonging has always held mystery and longing. I have viscerally experienced the impact of belonging — either because I have felt it, or because I have not. At times, and certainly throughout my own education, I had to bargain for a sense of belonging by hiding parts of myself in the multiple spheres to which I belong, some of which have such fierce boundaries. This has led me to understand that community and belonging are imperative elements in school and life.
Bargaining for Belonging
I am a first-generation daughter of Indian immigrants, born and raised in Flushing, Queens by a loving and connected family. My father moved to Fargo, North Dakota, from Mumbai, India, in 1966 to do his graduate work in Civil Engineering. After earning his degree, he eventually made his way to New York, and found work. In 1970, he returned to India briefly for his arranged marriage to my mother after being introduced to her a week earlier. I was born shortly after.
I grew up in a diverse, solidly middle-class neighborhood, where I wandered freely with my friends in the afternoons and summers. My parents placed a very high value on education — because it was their own education that enabled them to build a life here. Making good grades and trying hard were constant topics of conversation at our dinner table. My parents always encouraged me to do my best and supported my learning.
When I was in elementary school, I brought my own lunch every day because my mother would have it no other way, and because I had very few choices at school to choose from. I was an Indian-food-eating vegetarian in the 1970s before Indian food was cool or understood in America. We ate homemade Indian food almost exclusively, with our hands. I didn’t really like using utensils. I love Indian food and I always have, but it was not easy to have lunch with my peers as a young school girl. Most of my peers turned up their noses at the smell of spices that emanated from my lunch box. They had no awareness that their salami was revolting to me, too.
As I grew older, I often found myself alone at lunchtime. It was easier to eat by myself than to answer questions or be teased about what I was eating. Sometimes, it was easier to not eat at all. In junior high, my friends were four other misfit girls who also preferred to sit in the corner like me. They knew the ways I was teased and I knew the same things about them. That meant that even without talking about it, we knew how to keep it safe between us, even if that safety stole the chance to open up to one another. I didn’t know what it felt like to be understood for many years of my school experience, but I did know how to get by.
I was motivated to work hard at school; however, my cultural differences were always on full display in school, and these differences often caused mockery and isolation. For as long as I can remember, I always knew when a new teacher was about to recite my name on the attendance list because of the predictable pause that occurred as a result of trying to understand the sound of letters they had never seen put together before. What usually followed was an overly careful enunciation that didn’t help with the ensuing mispronunciation.
When I got a little older and wiser, I found the courage to interject my voice and say my own name, the right way. But for the first eight years of my schooling, I endured a lot of name calling. I did a lot of explaining and repeating at the expense of being laughed at and excluded. I held so much silence.
Building Belonging in My Classroom
When I made the decision to become a teacher, I dreamed that my classroom would be a place where all voices were heard and honored, where students felt safe to be themselves and to learn in a supportive environment. I hoped, in an idealistic way, that I could be the teacher I wished for when I was in school.
In my first teaching job in Alphabet City, many of my students would be the first generation of children in their families to attend college. Their stories were varied and often full of struggle. As much as I believed that helping students to feel safe and taken care of were essential ingredients in their learning, and in mine as an educator, this wasn’t easy to achieve. Trust was hard to earn. Even though the class was my first, to them, I was just another teacher in a system that had never truly met their needs — academically or socially. My lessons rarely went the way I anticipated. The colloquialisms of my students were foreign to me, and they were constantly testing me to learn who I was, too.
We held a tradition in the school’s early years of creating a Thanksgiving meal with our advisories. We created a table that represented the diverse backgrounds of our students as a means for celebration and to know one another better. My class had about 25 students: They were Latinx, Black, and Bangladeshi. None of them were white. That first year, I made an Indian curry to share a part of my own background, but when I set the dish on the table, I could see my students were suspicious of something they did not recognize. It took courage on their part to try something new, and it took courage on my part to remain open in the face of their skepticism. The initially awkward moment of turning noses made way for dialogue and sharing that ultimately helped heal my own sense of displacement and the challenges I had always felt navigating multiple worlds.
Over time, we learned from one another. I was taught how to salsa, and I learned to ask questions that gave my students the space to shine as themselves. I tried to make my own experiences as a New Yorker a window for students and normalized their questions. The judgments faded as the mutual respect that accumulates only through shared experiences grew.
Leading Cultures of Belonging
We know from countless studies that a strong sense of self positively impacts learning. Students need to know that we see them for who they are and that we care about their development. The world is a hard place for young people today. Their future feels understandably bleak and challenging in so many ways — they are inheriting a world where inequality is more and more pronounced, where technology is vastly more relevant, where global health is under siege. When we model vulnerability and share our own stories as teachers and leaders, we make way for faculty and students to do the same. And, by engaging in conversations about our differences and the inequities that sometimes underlie them, we build collective understanding and resilience within a community. Whether we are actively making space for children to share and celebrate their own cultural heritage or talking about systemic racism and its impact on human life, these opportunities are everywhere and important to address.
My father has told me the stories of his first years here in the United States many times over the course of my life. While I will admit that in my teenage years, I used to tell him I didn’t want to hear them, when I think about it now, I am so deeply moved by father’s accomplishments and astonished by his evolution, in establishing himself in a world he didn’t understand or that understood him, and in leaving one life behind to make a better life for his family. I’m not sure he or anyone could have imagined the life and legacy he has built. My own life experiences, which stand upon his, have built my resilience and capacity for listening and doing this good and essential work.
In sharing and remembering my own stories, I have come to appreciate that true belonging is a work in progress, one that takes my own engagement and courage. As Brené Brown so wisely says, “Our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self acceptance.” In doing the work, we not only find ourselves but also bring this light to the communities to which we belong, create, and join.