Calm Down, No One Thinks Class is More Important than Race 

Writing

I’ve been in the community organizing and activism game for a long time. I was an activist in junior high, which is when I got a teacher fired for being both incompetent and bigoted by circulating and organizing a petition. I’ve been doing that work ever since. In high school, myself and other community leaders ended the racial violence that permeated our poor, but diverse campus. I helped bring the first Black History Month rally to our campus. I also intervened to get access to advanced classes for my friends, among many other fun stories I’ll save for another time.

When I got to college, I wanted to study and not be involved. But unfortunately, as one of only 12 percent of the Stanford campus that was poor and one of the 3 percent that was both poor and white, I sort of realized quickly that I didn’t have a whole lot of choice in the matter. Among my many acts on campus, I was instrumental in creating the first group for poor and first generation college students at an elite institution. I also forced Stanford to adopt class as part of their Acts  of Intolerance protocol and participated in creating and advocating for training for staff members who were dealing with poor and traumatized students. One of my last acts was to speak at a rally against Arizona’s “show me your papers law” as a working class person who implored others to fight alongside my immigrant neighbors and to fight racial injustice. As a teacher, my curriculum included the teaching of every single movement in the 60s and my signature unit was on the Black Freedom Struggle where I featured the Black Panthers. I also closed the achievement gap between my nonwhite and white students and poor and rich students in my first semester of classroom teaching. So now that I’ve stated my credentials, I hope you can hear what I am about to say to you. Race is a profoundly salient and destructive construct, whose systematic oppression has brought hell on earth for far too many. I will fight it, always. I would happily die for the cause of fighting it.

But if you think that my talking about class or my talking about being poor and white is somehow taking away from that fight or demonstrates that I think class is more important, you are being an unhelpful dick and I have to question your motives.

Do you know how many universities in this country even have researchers studying class as a category of analysis? I do. And it’s very fucking few. There is very little research that has been done and this is partially why I am not in a doctoral program. I was rejected from several schools because I studied class, even though my work also involves the study of race.

Here’s how little we understand about class in this country: several of you require that I regularly provide evidence that I grew up poor. All the time. Everyday. Every fucking day for ten years, I have had to prove that poverty was a problem for me to self proclaimed socialists and Marxists.

Only one editor on the entire Stanford campus would accept my writing on class and I’m married to him. When I got to Stanford they wouldn’t even use the word “low income” because of the “stigma” involved. It took four years just to get them to do that. I hate interacting with most of the people who claim to be my ally because say things like, “those people are poor because they don’t work hard enough.” I spent four years just fighting to be able to say the truth, and most of my opposition came from people who claim to be helping the oppressed.

And I get this. There are limited resources and people of color have suffered a lot and it feels like and has historically been the case that we’ve pitted these two against each other. I understand why that concerns people. I understand why  people assumed things and silenced me. That fear is real.

But… I also think we are ALL adults who can do things differently and talk about both at the same time. And I also think that dividing us up, such that we don’t work together is exactly what the oppressors want. We can support each other at the same time. I can ride hard for people of color and also get justice for the poor. I can even do it with my white passing skin.

How do I know?

I’ve been doing it my whole life.

Why?

Because I’ve never lived anywhere where I was in the racial majority and my family is mixed and I’m also mixed. And this is true for literally every poor white person I know, including the bikers. And we don’t let people we love be oppressed without at least trying to do something about it. We see it as a communal struggle, regardless of how we personally identify.

I am not asking to take anything anyway from anyone. I am simply asking, rather nicely, for a fucking seat at the table. Need me to do something to fight racial injustice? I will happily show up anytime. So if you could stop misrepresenting my position that would be great.

I’ll never forget the last night of the monologue show I put together my senior year while three of my relatives died due to substandard healthcare. We called it Wealth of Words and it was a  series of monologues where people simply spoke about what it was like to be poor at Stanford. During the Q&A, a very prominent activist for the Asian American community asked me if we “were engaging in class warfare?”

It’s funny how they only call it class warfare when it’s the poor fighting the rich, isn’t it?

You want to tell people to check their privilege? Then check yours first. Y’all have been talking a big game about socialist uprisings, now is the time to see if you mean it. Because here’s what I know, the people that will be paying for the left’s failures to stop Trump are mine. The college kids at Yale are protected and sheltered. It’s my people who will pay the cost of this in their blood. I have played nice up until now, but if it’s the difference between hurting your feelings or having all of you hate me and preventing the deaths of my own folks, you might as well start hating me now. This is the last time I’ll be asking.

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Coal Miner’s Refrain

Writing

Let’s play a fun game. I’m going to post two images and you try to guess which members of the political spectrum posted them.

Some context, I was on Facebook yesterday and both of these images appeared in my feed at roughly the same time. Both people in question are life-long educators. Both of them represent one side of the political spectrum on a very consistent basis.

Here’s image 1

bitchyclassism

Image 1: Fuck those dumb coal miners

 

Here’s Image 2

trumpersclassism

Image 2- A generally positive statement about the poor

Let’s deconstruct the images a bit before we make any guesses. That’ll make the game easier. The first one is saying that coal miners, in their insistence on having jobs, are dumb because coal is outdated and no longer relevant and these stupid idiots want to keep their jobs. Of course, none of that considers a few things

  1. We still use coal
  2. No one is a coal miner because it is fun
  3. These people d0n’t have alternative jobs or the education to get new jobs.

Now, my guess is that the person who posted this is a perfectly nice person. I’ve known them to be a good person, and my guess is that they didn’t know these statements or didn’t think about the implications of what they were saying. Also, they must never have met any coal miners. But I’m here to let you in on a secret, people with power and privilege don’t decide to be coal miners. And the people who are still living in West Virginia in coal mining areas, didn’t move there for the summers. They moved there because mining has always been one of those shit jobs we pretend no one has to do. It’s dangerous, brutal and poorly paid. The people still living in these areas don’t have access to education or anywhere to go. It’s damn hard and costs a lot of money to just move, especially when there is no guarantee of a job when you move.

I could go on and on about how hard this life is, but I’ll let you experience it through music. When you are done crying, you can move on

Coal Miner’s Refrain

Anyway, the point is that the people who post this meme clearly know very little about coal miners, about the life they are living and about their struggle.

Now let’s talk about image 2. Image two suggests that there are morals and values that come from poverty. Image 2 puts the elites to task for their immoral behavior. It assigns agency to the poor and is a subversive critique of the rich.

Wanna guess which person posted 1 and which one posted 2?

 

 

 

Did you guess it was my Trump supporter, white male, old former teacher who posted the pro-poor message? Did you guess that it was a Hispanic educator with a PhD in education and a female who posted the first image about what IDIOTS the coal miners are?

Ok, because that’s what actually happened. Yes, that’s right folks, I woke up to classism yesterday from the left and support from the right.

Still confused as to why people don’t vote for the left? I’m gonna give you some time to get there yourself.

But what I will say is that is wasn’t always like this. There’s a reason the old rust belt was blue until recently. I’m a lifelong Democrat from a family of lifelong Democrats. We used to offer solutions to these people. We used to say, “hey, we are going to help you find better jobs than coal mining” or “we are going to give education and training to find a new job.” We used to honor their struggle and their work. We used to talk about how we were going to help them and how noble that struggle was, and its the same struggle that makes it possible for us to post memes to Facebook. This country still runs on coal.

This country is still built on the backs of poor coal miners, and poor fieldworkers, and poor service workers. The poor is so fucking racially diverse and we all have histories of exploitation. WITHIN LIVING MEMORY, my family was a group of sharecroppers. My great grandmother was repeatedly raped by her boss, had her children taken from her by the state, one was sold, and two of her sisters sterilized. My great grandmother isn’t some distant relation, I knew her in my childhood. My great grandfather was a poor half-Indian sharecropper who stole passage on trains at the age of 15, lied about his age so he could join the army and serve in three foreign wars. He did it because he was starving. And I knew this man, he had a big influence on me. He was alive until my senior year of college.

This is the problem with the kind of identity politics we’ve been playing. It let’s people off the hook for what they believe. It allows us to say, “oh, hey, my background says I’m not responsible for this, because I’m so woke and I’ve experienced oppression.” So let, let you in on a secret we need to get in on now. WE ARE ALL FUCKING RESPONSIBLE FOR OPPRESSION.

Good. Are we done whining now about how it’s not our fault? Glad we could all be adults about that.

If you think you are woke because you read Angela Davis and because your people have historically been oppressed, then maybe you are. But let me tell you something, if you think its ok to mock the poor for their lot in life, then you aren’t as woke as you thought.

So now, can we stop with the self-righteous diatribes about how superior we are to the Trump supporters? We need to start doing the real work of analyzing our own bullshit and changing our tactics and attitude.

And everyday we waste not doing that, is another day that someone else is going to be oppressed.

You want to stop Trump? Give these people a viable alternative.

 

 

 

 

The Whole Truth and the Ugliness I Lied About

Uncategorized

I recently had to make a decision that has both been a long time coming and absolutely gut-wrenching. I’m not speaking to my family at the moment and I was raised in a culture where this is a decision of absolute last resort. Blood, we are told, is thicker than water. La familia is everything, and I mean that both in the cultural working class and also because I was raised in a family that was exposed to organized crime. I’ve been hanging on for a very long time, through every time someone said, “dude, maybe it’s time for you to cut off contact.” I helped raise my siblings, so I feel a deep, mothering closeness and responsibility. I went hungry to feed them. I took blows so they wouldn’t have to take them. I was prepared to sacrifice my entire body, soul and heart to protect them and I did, in very real ways. But my family has an very all or nothing attitude so there wasn’t an option to be part of the lives of some and not others.

And by now you are wondering what the others have done, because while I’ve been very vocal about the extreme abuse I endured at the hands of someone who is in jail, I’ve been very careful to cling to protecting the other people who abused me in my family. Like my grandmother who told me she hated me for being born but who at least made sure we had food to eat sometimes. Or my older sister whose tortured and tormented soul played out on the blows, both verbal and physical, on my body. And perhaps the most hidden of all, the extreme neglect and emotional abuse of my mother.

I had a hard time grappling with my mother and my relationship. On the surface, I was the child who seemed most hers. I was her companion and best friend first and foremost and my siblings resented the association even when I was punished by my grandparents for it. And then there was the fact that I was probably the only person in my mother’s life who understood her intelligence and suffering fully and until later in life, she was the only person who understood me. For multiple years, she was the only person I spoke to, because I was scared from an early age to open my mouth and be found out for the weirdo I was. My sister and I are so close in age that we were treated like twins and my intelligence overshadowed her in a way that was destructive and I spent my life feeling guilty about it. Because while I was getting all of this attention from my mother she was also asking me to sacrifice for my siblings and for her. She raised me to be utterly selfless, she raised me to offer to eat less so they could eat more, she raised me to do my older sister’s homework for her, to take my sister’s blows and his blows, he who must not be named, so that no one else had to. She raised me to view my body as a vehicle through which I could make everyone’s life better. And this is how I’ve reached the point where I only value my life in terms of what I can do for others.

But this wasn’t all, my mom also gave me fewer of her very limited resources because I “needed” them less. So when she needed a baby sitter, she pulled me out of school because it would be less of an impact on my education than my sister’s. She pushed me harder, much harder, than my siblings. I wasn’t supposed to need help. So when my mom came home and found me lying on the floor, passed out, she screamed at me to get up without investigating what had happened. I almost died several times because she simply wouldn’t take me to the doctor, even though she was incredibly tenacious when it came to my sister. I wasn’t allowed to need self esteem, so she engaged in a concerted effort to convince me that my life wasn’t valuable and that I wasn’t gifted. When I needed a ride home from school because I was sick, I called my friend’s mom. When I needed her help enrolling in school, I forged her signature (a skill she herself had taught me so she didn’t have to keep track of my siblings’ school documents) on a document giving my older sister’s illiterate boyfriend the right to enroll me in school and he and I rode the bus two hours in the rain with all the documents in a neat row. This was my life, it was a martyrdom I was groomed for, it has affected me in a million visible and invisible ways. It is the cause of the injuries I’m recuperating from, the arthritis that is now in my spine, the headaches, the crippling insomnia. And for a long time I believed it was responsible for all of my success, because she had groomed me to believe that. If the answer wasn’t that I was intellectually gifted (I was disabused of that notion the minute I noticed I was different from the other kids) then the answer had to have been that I was unusually hardworking and sacrificing. But I could have gotten to Stanford without the hunger, without the pain, without being trained to endure unimaginable suffering. My grit and intelligence are inate and would have been enhanced by simply being working class. But it’s taken a long time and a lot of very difficult work from my friends, mentors, therapists and my own introspection to understand that.

And then I had to take the year off. You have to understand that the idea terrified me, because I knew, from past experience, that my mom would view it as self indulgent and weak. And weakness is a sin in the house I grew up in. So as the realization and the doctors’ orders slowly came, and as I realized that I was going to need more time than I initially thought, my privileged friends laughed it off.

“What’s the big deal. I took a year off and my mom did my laundry while I got high and surfed.”

Even my fiancé, who grew up with me, was confused about my terror because his family was fine with it. But I knew what was waiting for me if I had to go back to mom’s house. I lasted six weeks. In the course of that time I passed out at least 10 times from lack of food and stress, I sustained my third concussion, and I had a complete emotional and physical breakdown. I was healing in the Bay Area, I had to start over completely once I got out of my childhood home. But the fatal blow came when I finally got up the nerve to ask for more food after my concussion.

“I’m going to get money from you one way or another.”

Is the sentence that will forever haunt me in a two hour tirade that my mom and little sister went into accusing me of being a lazy, pretentious, opiate addict. My mom tried to blame my medications for the fact that I had told her that I was initially concerned about returning to her home. In other words, she found my self confidence and awareness to be so jarring for her that she accused me of a serious drug addiction, which is a pretty big statement from someone who likes to tell stories about her three children crying the night she gave up meth. She then tried to convince my fiancé that I shouldn’t take my medication and I realized that it was dangerous for me to be there. I thought that my step-dad was going to temper the abuse a bit but he just joined in because he needed someone to take his issues out on. And this is discounting the fact that I was having very bad flashbacks and nightmares just from being back in the place where I was tortured everyday. In the midst of all of this, I was applying to PhD programs.

And as all of this went down I thought about all those times that people tried to lecture me on what a privilege it was to have my mom and to be white. I remembered the names and faces of every surrogate mom, the black, Hispanic and white working class women I grew up with, my teachers, my mentors and the look of horror in their faces for every time they realized that I had nothing to eat and that I didn’t have transportation to get home. I remembered all those people at Stanford, the other working class kids I tried so desperately to fit in with, whose stories of heroic moms I “borrowed” as I tried to not let it come out how many Hells Angels and drug dealers I knew.

We want to explain away people like me, and there is a very convenient narrative. But the real story is so much darker than I ever let you know. And for that, for the kids who can relate to this, I’m sorry. I love you. You are beautiful and whole and you are not alone.

The Beautiful People that We’ve Ruined

Writing

It has taken months for me to figure out how to write this post. At first I ran away from it, avoiding it, burying it, rejecting it. Then I spent a long time trying to find a way to wrap it in a pretty bow and make it nice. It was always there in the background haunting everything I did. Eventually I couldn’t hide anymore and I decided that I just had to be honest and raw. That’s something I’ve lost in the last few years as I have adjusted to this new environment. I used to scare people like a monster with my mouth and the things that came out of it. So I learned to codeswitch and say it with a smile. But it wasn’t enough, my edgy-ness, my having-lived-life-ness was unprofessional and it was no longer socially acceptable for me to say what I thought. I began to see myself as something that I had to hide and when I couldn’t hide it, I hid from everyone.

So here it is. As honest as I can say it.

When I was a child I would walk through my house and get hit and ask why and the sociopath I pretended to be my father would tell me it was just for gp, general purpose. I got accustomed to it, it was actually one of the less terrible pieces of my existence. Being hit, I could deal with that. I could deal with the insults causally said to me in the house, slut, fat, bitch, whore. The best part of my years were my trips to my grandmother’s house where at least we’d have enough to eat, and instead of the beatings I just got called fat. These were the easiest parts of my existence, so when people ask me why I was successful in school, I don’t know how to tell them that school, with all its ridiculousness, with the lack of books and the food and the never fitting in, was the thing I fantasized about, because at school, I was undeniable.

My mom used to hide my test scores from my siblings to spare them the comparisons. I was the family scapegoat. When I asked her why she was so hard on me in particular she said it was because I could handle it and because she didn’t want me making the same mistakes. This is why my mother never felt the compulsion to tell me that there was anything I did well, she was afraid that if I knew my power that I would be an uncontrollable nightmare. When the sociopath went to jail I was 14, the beatings and the names didn’t stop, though the attempted rapes did and for that I felt blessed. I took the blows and the words from my sister and my grandmother because I knew that it was the only way for them to express their anguish. I’ve had people tell me that they were cruel to me because I was only one who could take it, a lot. That’s why by the time college rolled around, I could survive any critique. And I could also survive that treatment from the people who called me their girlfriend. I survived it by making myself numb, so numb, in fact, that I don’t really remember my childhood and now don’t even know when I dislocate my jaw or hip.

I was weird for a Stanford student in many ways, but the one that seemed to interest people the most was that I was not an outcast in high school. I wasn’t universally loved, either. When I was 14 a group of girls decided that they were frustrated with my popularity and confidence and they shouted whore at me in the hallways and wrote me letters in which they told me how terrible I was. They threatened to beat me up shortly after I had finally escaped someone that had been beating me for the fun of it. I wish I could tell you that the adults intervened but in my neighborhood the only real adults were the more competent kids. So as my now former friends attempted to dethrone me, the black girls at my high school came to my defense and said “if you touch her, then you deal with us.” I was surprised to say the least. I was used to using that line to defend people, just 2 weeks before the mean girl shenanigans started I had a guy beat up for sexually assaulting one of the girls that now threatened me. For six months, this torment continued but it ended up just back-firing and making me more powerful, mostly because they were never able to get me to admit that they had hurt me. Instead I sent their letters back written with comments in impeccable satire. By sophomore year, I was undisputedly running things, and I was doing it from my home because my health forced me into independent study.

People at Stanford didn’t seem to have an explanation for my experience in high school. I never had the heart to explain everything to them and I don’t think they would have heard it if I did. My first boyfriend in college spent one night calling me a whore and telling me it was because I was the kind of girl who dated the kind of guys who beat him up. But I was not that girl, I had more power than any of the men at my school did. I had no way of translating that to anyone and it made people uncomfortable and so, once again, the people around me tore me down to make themselves feel better, and I let them because I was used to being the sacrifice. By the time I reached Stanford, I had no self-esteem. Unlike my peers, I had never had a point in my childhood where I was simply safe and loved. When I was an infant, my mother’s husband held a gun to my head and threatened to kill us all if my mom left him. No one was even at my birth except my teenaged mother and there are almost no pictures of me from my childhood because my grandmother was angry with me for being born. I never developed a basis of worth or a belief in myself. To this day, I only think of myself as having the right to exist if I am doing something for someone else, which is why it has been so hard for me to be ill. My fiancé has faced the uphill battle of teaching a stubborn, brilliant, and profoundly wounded creature to believe that she is a human.

My junior and senior year of college I dated a very confident and happy young man who was the picture of California’s finest. Behind closed doors, he hated it when I upstaged him. When we took classes together, I would spend the evenings afterwards trying to make him feel better about the fact that I was the stronger academic. In the logic class, I solved all of the proofs and he stole my solutions and was happy when a slight mistake in transcription of sentences, not the proofs-mistakes that I was making because my headaches were so severe-would cause him to get a higher grade. I met him after returning from China, an experience that had been painful for me. The people on the trip with me often made me feel excluded, the girls fed on my bodily insecurities and the most banal statements about my childhood disturbed them. I was drinking, heavily, 4 nights out of the week and waking up with tears streaming down my face. I was hurt by the first boy who understood where I came from and called me beautiful even as he fucked other girls to prove to me he could. When I got back from China, my little brother got his girlfriend pregnant while still a senior, and my 13 year old sister was raped. I hid these facts from everyone and so I found a boy who would take joy in my doing so and who hated me when I was most myself. My life only continued to spiral out of control as time went on, and by the time I returned from my first summer in Germany, where I acted as my boyfriend’s house wife, my one positive female role model was dying and I knew that was not going to be able to finish my honors thesis. Instead of understanding that this happened because I was human, I took on all of the culture, exacerbated by all of the abuse, that said that if you didn’t do something it was because you didn’t work hard enough. “No excuses”, I learned, only applied to poor children. For me there is no safety-net, there is no gap year, no rehab and no help getting jobs. It made me constantly aware that despite all I had done, I was always one bad day away from hunger. My failure to write this thesis conveniently made my very insecure and very privileged boyfriend feel much better and he continued to feed the fuel by calling me lazy and picking on my weight with his friends the summer after I graduated in Germany. Of course, he got a lot of help from me when it came time for him to write his honor’s thesis.

Do you see the pattern yet? Do you see how I’ve been torn down by so many people who hated my fire? So many people and so many times, that people made sure I had no idea what I was capable of so that they could feel better about what they weren’t. But this isn’t just a personal story, because I am a woman in a world that does that. When men are sold something it is in order to make them feel and be great, and when women are sold something it is to cover up their inadequacies. Advertising is fundamentally an abusive boyfriend no matter what your background is. I feel the sting of irony as an exceptionally talented historian, who pointed out that Disneyland was bullshit at 4, succumbing to this. On the outside, I was the snarky bitch who smoked cigars while wearing a trench coat and short skirt and told people exactly who they were. On the inside, I was a profoundly damaged little girl who had no self worth. And I wish I could tell you that the turning point happened after breaking up with that boyfriend, and in some ways it did, and in the more surprising ways it didn’t.

When I broke up with him, I promised myself that I would never let anyone do that again and for a while the only way I knew how to prevent that was to become cold and untouchable, so I started letting the image of me as a sassy cat lady build. I put into place what I needed to be in the right relationship, but I hadn’t yet found the way to build a life that would allow me to be my best self. I entered Stanford’s Teacher Education Program (STEP) and suddenly found myself in a program that had a fundamentally core belief that required them to make me feel like shit about myself, because you see in education ideology, people who have an easy time performing do so because they are more confident and take away from the learning of others. It is why as a little girl, I had trained myself to count to ten before answering questions. It was why as a little girl, teachers would relish in my failure, and wouldn’t accommodate me when I was sick. It was why as a little girl, I would get perfect scores and be told it wasn’t enough. Very few teachers were supportive and kind to me in school, which is why my behavior was often atrocious.

STEP got on me early. They would refuse to call on me. Take me aside and tell me that I was hurting the other students. Call me domineering when my adult classmates handed over group assignments to me to finish for everyone. Refuse to give me any credit for any group assignments. Relish and then refuse to help me when I struggled. Pick on me and tell me I would never be good enough. My classmates would come to hate me and tell our supervisors that I was making it hard for them to do their best. They would report when I was sick and take pleasure in tearing my assignments apart. The few who stood up for me would find themselves shut-down. I became a complete nervous shadow of myself, and at precisely the same moment, my body hit its limit. STEP was merciless. It was everything that I was promised would stop when I entered Stanford and when I was an undergrad, Stanford lived up to that. Most professors seemed to love having me in the classroom and encouraged me to be successful. And I wish now, that I had been more open about my childhood and that I had had more support because if I had, I might not be as ill as I am now. Unlike my friends, I had no direction and no networks to figure out what to do with my Stanford degree. I have always been able in the classroom to hide my insecurity with my intelligence, so I never let on that I was confused. I could be ignored because I was white and helping me wouldn’t result in the same kind of public relations coup. I went into STEP because even though I desperately wanted to write and do research, I was dealing with too much and didn’t know that I was good enough to get a PhD. I thought that my failure to write my honors thesis meant that I was incapable because I unable to get past the 3 deaths that happened in the fall of my senior year, while also being forced to run the first-generation low income community group, First Gen Low Income Partnership. But I had no support, no community, no help because I was poor white trash. The only people I ever knew that had college degrees were teachers and everyone kept telling me that I needed to continue my activism for poor students. My boyfriend at the time encouraged me to teach because he was the “better” fit for PhDs. So I went into education.

Education is a female dominated field, and I thought because it was going to be a bunch of people who cared about children that we were all going to be super nice to each other. Which made the shock of reality even more difficult for me. This time it wasn’t one professor, it was a program. It wasn’t one group of girls, it was nearly everyone except those that had to work closest to me. I was ignored, ridiculed and then made to sit in meetings where I was told to apologize for the honor because I was making people feel bad with my presence and words. They took a very badly wounded soul and pushed me into the ground. I guess that’s how I ended up in work environments that replicated the pattern. That’s why I had to leave the classroom prematurely.

My body paid the price for this. It took the damage, quite literally. It took the damage when I was beaten and when I fought as a little girl. It took the damage as I struggled through Stanford, fighting the whole damn way for everything I got. It took the damage when I taught four classes, vomiting in between each one and then sat in class vomiting in secret every half an hour, because I was too afraid to let anyone know that I was sick. It took the damage when a very scared little boy injured me. It took the damage all year, as I struggled to climb up the stairs and into my classroom. It took the damage when I pulled a 14 hour day to prove that I was teaching the kids because some of the women on staff felt the need to tell my supervisor that I was bad at my job because I showed them up. It has taken the damage, being the only consistent protection I’ve ever had.

It has taken it everyday that I’ve hated it for not being thin enough. It has taken it everyday that I joked about how grateful I was to be smart because I was not beautiful. It took it when a boy told me to lose weight because I “could” look better. It took it when a boy told me his friends thought I wasn’t thin enough. It took it when I didn’t stand up for myself when a boy fucked another girl because I thought it was what I deserved. It took it every night I drank so that I could endure the social interactions with my peers who thought appropriate party chatter included bigotry. It took it when I rushed to class after my weekly toradol injection so that I didn’t have to deal with any emails from my supervisors at STEP about how I couldn’t possibly be sick because I could come to class and perform. It took it when I went to work limping only to have to spend vital work time responding to constant emails demanding to know why I wasn’t failing the students like everyone else on campus. It took it every single fucking time.

And what bothers me most, is that my story is not isolated. It is trapped in context. My story is the story of a gifted woman being torn down so as to not offend men. My story is the story of a kind, gentle soul being made rough by women who were scared to find out what her existence meant for them. My story is the story of a passionate, caring individual being isolated because the color of her skin didn’t fit into the narrative. My story is the story of a beautiful, womanly young girl hiding her body because she wanted to be taken seriously.

And I wonder how many gifted, kind, passionate, beautiful people we’ve ruined because we were scared of their power.

You Can Lecture on Grit Only if You’ve been Gritty As Fuck

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Did you, in your childhood and against your will, ever go to school hungry for extended periods of time? If no, then you lack the qualifications to comment on whether or not it is possible to do that and you lack the qualifications to “teach” anyone how to do so. However for the sake of shutting this nonsense down I’m going to explain why this grit conversation is not a good use of time and resources.

I am a remarkably, unusually, insanely resilient individual. I grew up crazy (not Fox News poor) poor, I had a mother with a substance abuse problem, I was severely physically, emotionally and sexually abused for the first 13 years of my life, I helped raise my siblings, I grew up in poor, dangerous communities that lacked access to basic services, I have a very serious disability and I went to Stanford. There are very few people in the entire world that have a similar profile. There is no one in the world who would love it more than I would if it were possible to teach people to do that, but it is not. It is incredibly insulting and offensive for me to have people who grew up with privilege trying to argue with me about whether or not that is true. Would you go up to Harriet Tubman and argue that she proves that slaves should have just freed themselves? So then why would you tell me that anyone can overcome poverty like I did? Most privileged people can’t into schools like Stanford and getting into a school like Stanford is one of the very few, limited ways to escape poverty.

That would be fine with me if it served a larger purpose but the grit narrative is just more of the “poor people need to work harder” in cuter language. It is possible on an individual level to use my narrative to encourage individual students to do well, I do it very successfully all the time and I’m exceptionally good at it. That is fine, but that is very different from acting like it is acceptable education policy to promote that. It is not a policy position, it is something you use as triage to do your best to help as many kids as you can.

Some people are making this argument because they work with privileged children and have noticed that they don’t deal with challenges well. This is a problem for privileged children but that is a specific population and it’s an incredibly intellectually foolish thing to use that and apply it to the poor, which is why it is so important for us to talk about class explicitly in education.

“You did it, so they can.” Perhaps the thing that bothers me most is that the argument is basically: because an extraordinary individual was able to get past all our intentional barriers we are off the hook for removing barriers. It is basically, gee, sorry you had to suffer so much as a child but you know, I like shinies and it wasn’t so bad so I’m not going to do anything about it. I find it especially aggravating when people who work on social justice issues promote this and then say: well we can’t eliminate these problems so I guess we better teach some kids how to comply with their oppression. Calling that lazy would be generous. That is not good enough. So on an individual level, use my story if it helps the kids but “buck up and learn to comply” is not a policy. Policies would be things like raising taxes on top earners, increasing the minimum wage, helping workers organize, increasing funding to education or providing child care. I see very few people spending their time, energy and resources arguing and fighting for those things. There is no excuse for that anymore. You can give motivational speeches to my kids when you are using your platform to fight for policies that eliminate barriers. Until then, have a seat because, as my mom would say, grown folks is talking.

Should be Obvious: But Here Are the Reasons the Poor are Struggling in Schools

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There has been a lot of confusion about this issue, so I am going to be using my personal experience to illustrate my point. The following is the list of reasons why school was difficult for me, my family and my friends.

1) When you don’t have enough to eat it is hard to learn.

a. This is difficult for people from privilege to understand. The idea that being hungry all the time might impact your learning as a child seems beyond most people. People also read this and don’t understand that I am saying that this is a constant, daily, all encompassing issue. When I got to Stanford, I didn’t know how to respond to the dining hall because I had never had consistent access to that much food. Even my friends who did always have access to food didn’t have access to healthy food. If you do any work with children, then you know that diet matters. I know this because I have sat in coffee shops in Palo Alto and listened to those moms make decisions about their child’s food, so I am not sure why you think the body chemistry of other children is somehow different from your children. If you are still confused about that you can read my post on racism.

b. Some people also read this and do not understand how that might impact one’s learning. Food is a basic human need. When a basic human need is not met, it slows everything down. Think about how grouchy you get on trips where you have to wait to eat. Well that is how I felt all day long as a kid. Your central focus is getting enough to eat. I still plan my days around food. It is hard to remember things, it is hard to perform executive functions, and it is hard to be in a cheery mood when you are hungry. Imagine doing that every day of your life, as a child.

2) Sleep is important and we never get enough

a. I love sleep. I love sleep like a fiend. I will bail on outings to sleep. I will ignore phone calls to sleep. I will spend all of my weekends napping and not feel the slightest bit bad. This is because when I was a kid I never got enough sleep. There were several reasons for this. One is that my entire childhood home was smaller than some of my friend’s dorms at Stanford, and I was one of four kids in the house. Also factor in the drug and alcohol use, the dangerousness of the neighborhood, the PTSD and the untreated physical pain and it makes it difficult to sleep. I had a friend in high school whose mom would pick me up to take me to her house to get sleep. I’ve slept at the playground near my mom’s house. Having a quiet, safe place to sleep is something that my privileged friends take for granted.

b. It was never quiet in my neighborhood or home, and we had no space, I’d have to wait until everyone was asleep to do my homework. This meant that, in high school, I was staying up until three in the morning every night to get my work done, only to go to school and be yelled at by teachers who could not understand why we were all in such terrible moods and/or sleeping through class, not to mention that it slows down processing time (I just want to take a moment to point out that my processing time, in light of these obstacles, is actually slower than it would naturally be, so for those of you who know me personally, you know that I was robbed and I am sure you can imagine how frustrating that was for me).

c. When you do not get enough sleep, nothing works properly. You cannot think clearly. You are in a bad mood. You can’t perform in the way that you are supposed to. I would think this would be obvious to a group of people that brags about their all-nighters. Imagine doing that every day.

3) In order to succeed you have to have a stable, comfortable, safe home

a. We moved all the time when I was a kid. We also lived out of a car for at least two years. There was a point in my childhood where we were living in the projects of Suisun, which had a murder per capita rate that was the highest in the nation. The house I spent the most time in didn’t have air conditioning or heat, Sacramento hits 110 several days of the summer. It was freezing in the winter. My siblings and I would sleep in the living room next to the wood burning stove to keep warm. Our house has been broken into so many times that we have bars on the windows. I have so many examples of how bad our housing situation was that I could literally write a book. These issues made it hard for me to focus on school.

4) It is hard to learn when you are in physical pain

a. I have a chronic condition that would make my life more difficult no matter my class background, but my class background has made it difficult on a scale that is hard to imagine. Between what stress does to your body and the fact that I did not have access to healthcare, my health is a mess. Have you ever tried to go to school with a migraine? I do not mean a headache, I mean a migraine. I did it every day of my school career. Rarely was there an off day. Have you ever gone to school with pneumonia? Asthma? Bronchitis? Have you ever had whopping cough? Untreated autoimmune problems? Have you ever gone to work or school with nearly every muscle in your body strained or pulled? This was every day for me. Have you done it without food or sleep? In addition to not getting enough sleep, I also only get half the healing REM sleep I am supposed to get because of my PTSD (I will get into that below) and the pain I am in, which means my body cannot heal as quickly. Still want to call me lazy when I am tired in class? Still want to call me lazy when I sleep all day on the weekends? Still want to tell me I was poor because I was not working hard enough? If your answer is yes, then go call a doctor, because I am pretty sure that you are a sociopath.

5) It is hard to go to school when you are in emotional pain

a. The amount of trauma I have been through is on the extreme end of the spectrum by any standard in any country. But let’s talk about it for a minute. Most people at Stanford had at most one traumatic event that had a big impact, for better or worse, on their lives. I heard people explain other people’s alcoholism with their parent’s divorce. I have heard people say they went into medicine because they had a sick relative. These are serious and I am not trying to demean them. In fact, quite the converse. I just want to point out that when it is privileged people, we will empathize with this, but when it is the poor their trauma seems beyond comprehension. You have one traumatic day or experience. There is not a single day of my childhood that did not involve some form of trauma. Ever tried to study while having flashbacks? It’s nearly impossible.

b. You might want to say: “Oh Heather, you are extreme, though.” Well yes, I am, but as I take account of every single friend I have from my childhood, they either directly or vicariously experienced some form of serious trauma. I am talking about seeing violence, abuse, oppression, tragedy. Not even the best resourced friend of mine from my childhood can say they did not experience some trauma. If it was not your funeral, it was a friend’s or family member’s funeral, or a friend of a friend, or a family member of a friend’s funeral. One of my friends called me senior year sobbing because one of her cousins had been murdered. It was not the first time it happened. She ended the phone call in a few minutes with the words, “Whatever, I just have to be a soldier.” This was one of three friends I had whose parents had some education, had never done drugs, had supported her through school, and who were still together.

c. Do you have any idea how hard it is to study when you are under that amount of stress? Also, is it even remotely understandable to a people who blamed stress for the suicides of their high school students to understand that all of this might make us depressed and make it difficult to function? Please tell me that I am not that naïve and that the ability to have empathy is not that big of a problem.

6) Even if you manage to overcome all of this by being a ridiculous human being, you will still have to interface with a world stacked against you and designed to keep you down.

a. Oh yes, folks, this is not just a resource question. Y’all didn’t think you were getting off that easy, did you? So at 18, I went to Stanford, and I brought all of this with me. Before the age of 18, the only interactions I had with educated and privileged people were the authorities: doctors, police officers, and teachers. Do you know how many teachers have called me or basically implied that I was trash and not worth educating? No? Neither do I, because I can’t keep track. I’ve had some good teachers and they helped me a lot, but they were not the norm. My doctors told my mom that I was making up my muscle pain when I was seven years old. They called my mom trash and talked down to me as a kid. I have to wear a Stanford shirt when I see a doctor to get better medical care. Our schools also made it clear to us that we weren’t worth educating; it isn’t like we couldn’t watch TV and see what the rich kid schools looked like. My high school didn’t have enough textbooks. We barely had a functioning arts program, and only because of one extraordinarily dedicated teacher. I didn’t have access to AP, college classes, science fairs, AcaDeca, Model UN, on and on.

b. Can you possibly imagine what the culture shock was for me at Stanford? Do you have any idea how painful it is for your peers, for the people you live and work with to tell you that you deserved your suffering as a child? That you don’t exist? Or that you exist because your suffering benefits them and they aren’t willing to give that up? It is painful. It will nearly break you. It will add to your post-traumatic stress disorder. It will make it more difficult to sleep. It will add to you trying to prove yourself, so you push a badly broken body to the brink. It will add to social avoidance. It will add to your anger and defiance. All of these things will make it harder for you to succeed at school. When you fail to succeed at school someone will tell you it is because you are not working hard enough. Then when you are done with that you can live with your survivor’s guilt and spend all day having to act as the poster child for poverty so as to avoid contributing to making things worse for people you left behind.

The problem with poverty is that ALL of the problems exist. Things just got real in here, and I am not sorry. I wish I didn’t have to lay it out this way. That I managed to somehow make it through Stanford twice with 3.5 GPAs both times is nothing short of miraculous and is something that a very small group of people can lay claim to, and if you can’t you don’t get to tell me what my experience was. I have a voice, thanks. I always assumed that the question was that people didn’t know how to distribute resources, but being in education the last few years has shown me that we have an elite so disconnected from the people they are purportedly serving that they didn’t even know that there were resource questions. If you managed to overcome this, I applaud you. You are a straight baller, but if you are inclined to jump on the bandwagon and sell your own people out, let me ask you this: Even if I was able to overcome this, why should I have had to suffer that much? And are you willing to take a time machine and tell 8-year old me that she deserves what she is suffering from every day? If you didn’t go through this, and if you have never known this kind of life, you really need to sit down, shut up, and start listening. Your view on how to get out is invalid because you have never done it, and if you were serious about helping people you would stop making this about you and start listening to other people. Your privilege does not make up for your lack of knowledge or experience. It frustrates me that I had to say all of this. This isn’t rocket science, folks. If you didn’t know this, now you know. There is no longer an excuse for ignorance.