A Long (and Overdue) FU Letter to the Education System

May 24, 2018
11:41 am

This letter was written after an incredibly difficult year of teaching. I am a high school teacher located at a charter school in Los Angeles. I was born and raised in Los Angeles pero soy más mexicana que la chingada. Like my dad always said, “Eres americana por papeles, pero mexicana de corazón.” It is the sacrifices and struggles of my parents that have allowed me to be exactly where I am at today, and I will never be able to express how thankful I am. I wrote this letter out of anger and frustration, but it is entirely my truth, and probably the truth of many. If you find yourself offended by cuss words, you probably shouldn’t read this. (April 2018)

Dear Educational System,

Liberation and incarceration perfectly intertwined into an emotionally violent cycle of oppression. That’s the only way I know how to describe you. You preach hope while leading us straight into a path of crushed dreams. This letter is long overdue. I have been meaning to write this for a long time, but something in me finally snapped. So here it goes.

How do you sleep at night knowing how many students you screw over? How does it feel being the biggest hypocrite in the entire universe? How can a system that is absolutely foundational to the growth of every single human being be so flawed? How are we still dealing with this type of oppression in 2018? Oh right, I forgot you never stopped being racist. So the only institution that every single person in this country goes through just so happens to be the most corrupt and oppressive. That doesn’t seem like a coincidence.

You kill dreams. Dreams of students who desire to conquer you, to make all the sacrifices their parents made everyday worth it. The dreams of a tiny brown girl, who dreamed of working for NASA. She was in love with mathematics and science and an A+ student since her first day in a classroom, On paper, she was the golden student: always in advanced courses, involved in all the extracurriculars, involved in sports year-round, and servicing her community by helping out at her local church since she was 9. On paper, she had the ideal transcripts. On paper, she would ace all her exams and assignments. On paper, she understood all the concepts of math and physics perfectly. On paper, she got 4’s and 5’s on those Advanced Placement exams. On paper, she received college credits during high school. On paper, she was the ideal college candidate. On paper, she was ready for UCLA. But that was only on paper.

The reality was, once she was at UCLA, she was a nobody and everybody at the same time. Nobody because it was there that she discovered her “strong” academic identity was actually weak as fuck, and everybody because she was the epitome of every other brown student in higher education. On paper, she was now an F student, a failure all around. She was the one and only brown face in her physics courses and one of the few in her math courses. She was the one brown face that realized she had an accent for the first time ever. She was the one brown face that became self-conscious as soon as she entered any lecture hall. She was the one brown face that never went to a professor’s office hours because she was completely intimidated. She was the one brown face that stopped speaking up in class in fear of saying the wrong thing. She was the one brown face that, only 4 weeks into her first year, started wondering if she had only been accepted to be the “diversity” of the physics program?

She was the one brown face that never joined the study groups because she felt too stupid and knew she had nothing to contribute. She was the one brown face that felt that skipping class was the same as attending because she stopped understanding the concepts after her first 2 weeks. She was the one brown face that started to purposefully look for others with brown skin like hers because they became rare to find. She was the one brown face that was a first-generation college student. She was the one brown face that thought she was the ONLY brown face going through all this, when in fact, her two roommates, who are her closest friends and had grown up with, were going through the exact same thing at the exact same time.

The entire time, they were the brown faces that never once talked about this with each other because in the Latino culture, we don’t talk about depression and anxiety because in the Latino culture seeing a therapist is only for crazy people. How can the valedictorian, the girl with the 4th highest GPA and the other with the 6th highest GPA from their graduating class of 1,500 be struggling this much?

She was the one brown face that went from having a 4.33 GPA in high school to having a 0.56 GPA after her first quarter in college. She was the one brown face that went straight into “subject to dismissal” because of her terrible grades. She was the one brown face that was placed on an academic contract because she couldn’t get her grades up. She was the one brown face content with a C in any class. She was the one brown face that didn’t meet the GPA requirement the first quarter of her 2nd year and was “academically dismissed.” She was the one brown face who had now become the statistic student of color that falls through the cracks once they step into any institution of higher education.

Yet, she was the brown face that fought back because she didn’t want to let go of her dream of graduating from UCLA. And now, on paper, this brown face had to justify why she deserved a second chance. She had to set aside her dreams of working for NASA and majoring in physics because she wasn’t good enough. She had to settle for Chicana/o Studies because she had gotten decent grades in the two Chicana/o courses she had taken during the year. And so she settled without realizing this decision, that she actually had no choice in making, would be her salvation. **SHOUT-OUT TO THE CHICANA/O STUDIES DEPARTMENT AT UCLA!!** And now she was the one brown face that got a second chance at her dream school. Now as a Chicana/o Studies major, she wasn’t the only brown face anymore. Suddenly, every single one of her courses had people that looked exactly like her.

Suddenly, she didn’t stand out as much. Suddenly, she understood every single word that came out of every professor’s mouth because it was about HER. Suddenly, she LOVED history because it was about HER people. Suddenly, her courses explained the exact reason why she felt worthless and stupid in all her math and physics courses. Suddenly, she would speak up in class because her own life experience applied perfectly to every big concept and theory she learned about. Suddenly, she realized these Chicana/o Studies classes were designed especially FOR HER and for everyone that looked exactly like her. Suddenly, she heard her home life and experience at school used as academic research that helped prove these theories. Suddenly, the reason why she failed out of the physics major a few quarters ago was completely validated. Suddenly, she realized it was never her fault, but rather the fault of the educational system that was built to fuck her over. Suddenly she felt angry at the entire educational system.

Suddenly, she had a voice.

She was validated.

She mattered.

She was seen.

Oh and by the way, her GPA went up to a 3.3 the minute she switched to Chicano Studies. She was invested in what she was studying because for the first time, she saw herself in every lecture, she read about herself in every text, and she heard her story coming out of the mouth of every professor. Education was about HER. So how fucken dare you tell me that representation in education doesn’t matter? How fucken dare you tell me that Ethnic Studies at all levels of education isn’t important? How fucken dare you tell me that a student’s social identity is not as equally important as their academic identity? How fucken dare you tell me that a culturally relevant curriculum doesn’t matter? Culturally relevant and socially just material, especially to students of color, creates a space in education that is validating and empowering, and allows them to truly become invested in their education and thrive. But that scares your right? It scares you to raise a generation of empowered and educated students of color that you know are stronger than you when they unite.

Now this story comes full circle. It isn’t fair for a student of color to have to wait until they are in their 20’s to experience an educational environment that reflects them and their culture completely. And that’s IF they get to an institution of higher education. A white student grows up surrounded by their own history and curriculums designed for them their entire lives, don’t they? So what happens to those students of color that don’t make it to college? Do they live their entire lives believing whatever label they were given in elementary, middle and high school? Do they ever get to know how you purposely made them feel stupid and inferior so they wouldn’t want to go to college? Do they get the chance to truly learn about themselves and have their own experiences validated? Do they get the chance to feel seen?

That’s why I’m here and that’s why I’m writing this. In case you hadn’t noticed, that brown girl is me. For the first time ever, I realized I had a responsibility to every other student of color to bring awareness of all of this to them BEFORE they entered college. My love for education and math never ceased to exist. A year after receiving my bachelors from UCLA, I realized all my failures and every validating moment had lead me straight back to the classroom, but now as a Master’s student of UCLA in pursuits of becoming a math teacher. **SHOUT-OUT TO THE UCLA TEP PROGRAM!** That one content area that is most disconnected from our kids is the one I wanted to adjust and embed with socially-just curriculum so our kids would see themselves reflected in the work and begin to invest and make connections.

And now I find myself in my own classroom, fighting the same issues I learned about in college and feeling like the most inadequate teacher to ever exist. I went back to feeling small all over again. But small in a different way. Now I no longer feel small because I feel invisible, I feel small because I can see how MASSIVE the issues in the educational system truly are and my attempt at fighting them seem too small to make any significant impact. Now as a teacher, I’m experiencing the other side of the coin, equally as unjust and oppressive, but now a million times more painful because I am fully aware of it.

I sit here, in my classroom, infuriated by all the politics that administration focuses on, rather than focusing on our kids. I am angry. I am pissed. Worst of all, I am disappointed that a school that claims to help create students who are agents of social change doesn’t even know how to define social justice. This is the same school that disagreed with me when I said a students academic identity is equally as important as their social identity and we should be fostering both. It claimed it wasn’t their responsibility to teach or foster a social identity for our students. I’m sorry, what? So you expect them to become agents of social change without ever taking the time to explore and solidify their social identities? Please explain to me how the fuck that makes sense.

Also, who the fuck do you think you are questioning my goals? You tell me I have two options. Option 1, you have this pre-scripted curriculum that is given to you but you’re really unsure of, and option 2, you have this goal for what you want math to look like in your classroom but you’re also not really sure of, so how about you focus on the pre-scripted curriculum? What the actual fuck? Who the fuck are you to tell me to set my goal aside? My goal is perfectly aligned with your mission statement, and you’re asking me to steer away from it?

By the way, did you ever teach math? Have you attended any of the trainings for this pre-scripted curriculum? You stepped into my classroom once for 30 minutes and that was enough information for you to make this decision for me? Who the fuck are you to completely invalidate my entire educational experience by making me choose this pre-scripted curriculum and “wait” until I feel really good in my practice to start embedding social justice? All I care about is bringing a socially just curriculum to my students and you have a problem with that? Why the fuck is that even in your mission statement then?

And on top of all of this, you tell me that I probably don’t understand because I’m a “fairly new” teacher so I “lack” experience. Uhu…. please tell me how your 3 years of experience in an elementary school classroom are SOOOOOOOO much more valid than MY 3 years in a high school classroom. You and your 3 years in an classroom before going into administration gives you the right to undermine MY 3 years? I AM the experience, bitch! My entire life I have lived in this brown skin. I grew up in classrooms, lecture halls, tutoring rooms, and study lounges in this brown skin. I grew up with parents that gave me this brown skin. Parents who rerouted their entire lives to come to this country to give their kids more opportunities. I was a star student my entire life and then failed miserably in college BECAUSE of this brown skin. And it’s the same brown skin that my kids live in every day. So yes, I can say with complete confidence that I am entirely qualified and experienced enough to determine what’s best for MY kids.

I want it to be very clear, in case I haven’t made it clear by now, that I do all of this for my kids. My kids are going to run this world one day, they’ll experience institutions that are fueled by racist and oppressive systems, and I only wish to give them the tools they need to navigate those space. By the looks of it, you are working solely to keep those numbers nice and high so that on paper, we look like a spectacular school, and of course, to keep our stakeholders happy. You push 4-year college on our students and never explain how EXTREMELY CONVENIENT, BENEFICIAL, AND HELPFUL and community college can be, only because you want to keep those 4-year college acceptance rates nice and high. Because on paper that makes you look like you are working miracles at our school, right? And then, we have professional developments showing us data of the INCREDIBLY high rates of our students who don’t actually graduate out of these 4-year colleges and you have no idea why. Here’s a hint, re-read this fucken letter for an explanation.

Does hearing all of this offend you? That’s nice. I’ve been offended, in one way or another, my entire life. But by the looks of it, that doesn’t matter right? Personal experience isn’t valid. It’s the same reason why this letter will never be read in higher education. It’ll never reach the hands of college students, be cited on anyone’s midterm, or fill a space in a library archive simply because it’s not written in “academic” language. It’ll never be considered more than a rant. And there it is again: the hypocrisy. You need to reach ridiculous levels of higher education before you can be published and taken seriously, but how many of us people of color actually get there? And why does academic text need to sound so proper?

It’s all fucked up. But as fucked up as this all is, it makes perfect sense. You are the definition of what is wrong with the educational system in this country. You are the reason people of color are STILL struggling every day in every moment of their lives. You are an integral part of those oppressive chains that keep people of color tied down. But you are not strong enough. Because all over the country, there is a wave of newly inspired and empowered-as-fuck educators, who swim against the current every single day, fighting to give their incredible kids the awareness and tools they need to navigate this society. And you will never be aware of how resiliente we become when we live our entire lives in this brown skin. Sooner or later this will all bite you in the ass, and I hope it hurts.

So one last time just for fun. Fuck you, mother-fucken, oppresive-as-fuck educational system. You can kiss my resiliente and empowered brown ass. =)

Sincerely,
Me.<3
Nancy Pino

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