This is a continuation of the story of me, being a Latina stranded in a Caucasian body. To read the previous tidbit, check here. I went to small Catholic schools growing up, and the one I attended from the 2nd to 6th grade ended at grade six, so in 7th grade I switched to another small Catholic school. As I entered the 7th grade, the teacher who had taught my brother 2 years before was no longer working there and a brand new teacher was also starting her first year as the 7th and 8th grade teacher. I’m sure you’ve heard people say before that teachers have changed their lives – Ms. Nice is one of those teachers.
One of the parts that I most admired about Ms. Nice is that not only was she one of those teachers, and not only did she know she was one of those teachers – she also told us she was one of those teachers. I don’t remember if I admitted it then (you know how teenagers are!), but she was an awesome teacher and I loved it. She taught me to take the box and throw it away – not just think outside of it. Looking back on those years, I remember myself as a socially awkward, emotionally troubled, homely child with no self-confidence and even less self-esteem. And this teacher walked in with bright white hair and bright red lipstick and told us all she was an awesome teacher, the kind whose students never forget her, and my heart started to be chiseled open.
One of the activities she so proudly told us her former students still talked about was when she had us all write down one single solitary positive sentence about every single person in our class. She collected all the papers and consolidated every positive thought about each person onto a single sheet for that person to keep. Then she distributed them. She also told us about how some of her former students came up to her and showed her the paper they had kept after who knows how many years, tattered but still whole in their wallets. She said it was a life-changer for some of them, they read it when they felt down or they read it when they needed encouragement.
I was, and still am, a very socially awkward person. It burns me, but I think my husband – who was captain of his high school football team – takes the brunt of it. He simply cannot understand how someone can be so awkward and, let’s face it, geeky. It wasn’t too difficult for me to think of positive things to say about other people. But what was difficult was looking at my classmates, my peers, bent over their desks and wondering what they might possibly be writing about me. My heart is hammering even now just remembering it.
I don’t remember anything about the actual distribution of the papers, but I still have mine. I don’t keep them in my wallet, but there’s a tattered yellow page full of my teacher’s beautiful handwriting (I so wish I could write like that) in a special box I have of tokens and bits of paper that mean something to me. I guard it with my life, because I’m sure my husband would not understand the significance and throw it away if he happened upon it. At any rate, when I looked at the sentences I was a little… stunned.
I’ve always been a geek, a nerd, a dork, what-have-you. Apparently other people think I’m smart. I, however, know the truth – I’m not smart, but I’m a good faker. And a lucky guesser. That combination apparently translates into smart. Anyone who went to school with me at the residential public high school for gifted and talented kiddos can probably attest to the fact that I wasn’t smart enough to be there. I never thought I was, and I’m just glad creativity and being weird can keep you in! I’m telling you this because it compeltely explains half of the most common sentence on my sheet – most people said that I was smart. Some people even said that I was nice. But the second largest majority – including some of the people who said I was smart – said that I was great at speaking Spanish.
This completely floored me. Mostly because I was wondering what kind of delusional Fruit Loops these kids had eaten for breakfast. I didn’t speak Spanish then, in fact I couldn’t even read Spanish then. But I am a good faker. Apparently using a couple of words here and there – every semester or two counted as speaking Spanish. Now, I’m sorry to report, I still can’t speak Spanish. But I can at least read Spanish. I get all panicky about correct verb conjugation that my mind goes entirely blank before I even open my mouth. Yet back then, even though I looked exactly like the rest of the class (I’m pale with dark brown hair and brown eyes, can you say boring?!), the one distinguishing feater about me was that I was, and am, a Latina.
I have never been ashamed of my heritage. I’ve never tried to deny it or belittle it. I’m proud that I have a special extra spice in my life, but I had no idea that even those kids tucked away in the tiny school in the Midwest could see my pride. Heck, I didn’t even know they could see me. I had thought I was about as remarkable as a fly on the wall. But that’s when I started to see – because I was different, because I had pride in my roots, I was special.
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