By Princess Reese, Matrix Contributor
At graduation in May, my mood about entering the real world reflected the season. The air was clean, the days bright, and everything was new.
I had spent four years exploring Tacoma as an undergraduate, desperately trying to connect theoretical knowledge to what I witnessed around me, to me, because of me.
Women and Gender Studies prepared me to learn in non-traditional spaces. Anthropology helped me understand influences of culture and worldviews.
The Diversity Center gave me as much theoretical understanding of oppression and identity as I could handle. I was ready.
So, this fall I started my job as College Bound Assistant Instructor in the Tacoma School District.
Looking at Tacoma high school graduation rates, I knew I could make a difference. I would inspire my students as a black kid who grew up in South Seattle and made it out with two majors! Wasn’t I just the inspiration they needed to know that they could do it, too?
The funny thing about praxis, though, is that you don’t have it until you’ve done it.
Boy, did I need practice.
Imagine how floored I was when I met my students and they barely cared about my stories. I was helping college-bound students, yet only half consistently turned in homework.
My high school experiences as a person of color, female and poor came rushing back. These students didn’t need me to inspire them. They needed me to understand them.
They needed me to remember being fifteen, stumbling into school with little sleep. They needed me to remember that the classroom was affected by a million factors before they came pushing and laughing through my doors.
They needed forgiveness and grace and stern expectations. I needed to know that their stories were unbelievably large and unbearably complex.
My college education must not invalidate everything they had to offer.
One student told me: “If a teacher assigns busy work, I will skip that class every day and only show up to turn the work in. My time is too valuable to waste inside a classroom where I’m not being taught.” And she was right! These students know themselves well.
Many have experienced trauma on levels I don’t comprehend, even though I grew up in a similar environment. They are navigating family and community ties, not quite knowing how to leave without leaving everything they know behind.
They are learning to discern when to exercise power and resistance. They are examining authority figures with careful eyes, scrutinizing abuses of privilege and knowledge.
They are forming chosen families, learning about alliances and loyalty.
They are battling to enjoy their youth while the time to move on quickly approaches. They are living rich lives full of astonishing triumphs and infuriating failures.
They are living for themselves, their communities, and the future spaces they hope to inhabit. They are teaching everyone they meet without knowing it.
They are shaping me.
My students are a constant reminder that work in a community is not about me. It is about improving oneself to serve the community the best way one can.
Ultimately, the choice to live and breathe Tacoma, the desire to “help” the inhabitants of this intricately woven city, must begin with one thing I have learned this year: shut the fuck up and let them speak.