I vividly remember my first teacher of color as a young 6th grader. Ms. K, a proud Ethiopian, dedicated time to share her culture with us. In fact, I remember taking the Metro to D.C. just so our class could eat at an Ethiopian restaurant together. We sat on floor poufs with a low table and endless colorful food. At the time, I didn’t realize how powerful it was to have a teacher who, like me, wasn’t white. I didn’t realize it because I was too busy wanting to be white myself.
When Ms. K assigned us to write our own original short stories, which we then illustrated and published, I felt ecstatic. I already knew I wanted to be an English teacher when I was older, but what I really wanted was to become a published author. The story spilled out of me effortlessly as I wrote the tale of a brown girl wishing to be white. Borrowing from Cinderella, this girl also had a fairy godmother who granted her wishes. Becoming white solved everything and the story had a happy ending.
I remember my parents reading the story and being concerned. What made you write this? Is that how you really feel? You should be proud of your Indian heritage. “It’s just a story,” I remember replying. “I’m fine.” And that was that. My parents dropped the conversation probably out of fear, and Ms. K never pulled me aside to talk about it. The teacher in me now knows that was a tremendous missed opportunity. What I needed then more than ever was to feel seen and to feel like I belonged among a sea of white.
Ultimately, there wasn’t a single teacher who helped me through this; rather, a plethora of adults in my life combined. It was seeing an Indian teacher at my high school who taught English. It was watching movies like The Namesake with my family, a movie that validated the struggle of holding onto one’s heritage while also trying to blend into American culture. It was the realization that the teachers in my life weren’t the only adults who had wisdom to share. Without knowing it, teachers existed all around me.
The most important teacher in my life was my grandfather. Hearing his story of hardwork and sacrifice helped me better understand my roots and the events which led to the life I have today. He survived the brutal India-Pakistan partition, although he lost his childhood home. After resettling to a new home in New Delhi, he left his entire extended family behind in order to move his family to America. He started over time and time again, and did everything possible so that my mom and her brother could have a bright future here in America. I owed it to him to understand where he came from, and through his storytelling, I realized I am a proud Indian. I love our culture’s emphasis on creating tight-knit families filled with laughter and endless support. I love the way we have parties filled with colorful outfits and coordinated dances. I love the way our food brings us all together.
Ms. K had the right idea when she opened up to us about her Ethiopian heritage. However, I wish she also helped her students grapple with their own identities. This could further instill a sense of individual pride by exposing her classes to different cultures through literature. As an English teacher now, I strive to do this every day. My students deserve to hear my story and my struggle so that they know whatever they may be battling internally can be overcome. I don’t want my students to wait until they are older to be seen. I want them to feel seen now.
If I could go back in time and rewrite my sixth grade short story, perhaps I’d write about my grandfather looking me in the eye and repeating his famous saying. “While robbers can steal your possessions, there’s one thing no one can take away from you – your education.” Although I always agreed with this and often told my grandfather that these words were a big reason why I became a teacher, I wish I could talk to him one more time to tell him what I never had the chance to say.
“You’re right, grandpa. No one can take away our education. But there’s something else in life that no one can steal from us – our pride in our heritage and upbringing. You taught me that and for that, I am forever grateful.”