Ever since coming back home for law school, I’ve been reflecting on my formative years spent here, specifically those years in elementary and middle school. Those childhood and adolescent years are ones of innocence but also of great learning and experiences–and I count some of those experiences as the most influential of my life.
Most of those experiences involve people–my parents, my siblings, my first friends, and, notably, the educators in my life. Within a community like my own (mostly immigrant, mostly low socioeconomic status), great and influential educators can provide an extraordinary lift to the lives and dreams of children. Honestly, I wouldn’t be where I am today without the belief, the drive, and the energy my teachers poured into my learning and development.
When I first came home after I graduated college, I visited my elementary school for the first time since I was 10 years old to visit my old principal who announced she’d be retiring. And this past summer, I found myself thinking about my middle school years, and I wrote the following letter to my former Art teacher (names have been changed).
Dear Mr. Warner,
I hope this message finds you well. You may not remember who I am, as it has been many years since you last saw me, so please let me briefly re-introduce myself. My name is Anthony, and I was your student in Exploratory Art, Art I, and Art II when I attended Kilmer Middle School from 2002 to 2005. When I was a student in your art classes, I remember creating a few distinctive pieces that you may remember: a playing card “Swatch” wall clock, a large abstract mural on butcher paper that was inspired by Monet’s water lilies, and a ceramic lamp inspired by Chinese pottery. We had a field trip to speak with our neighborhood Macy’s creative director, and we had a unit with crayon wax paintings as well as another on Gustav Klimt.
The timing of this message may seem a bit strange; it has been ten years since I graduated from Kilmer and, to be honest, I haven’t had much contact with any of my former classmates or teachers since then. And like many young adults seeking to traverse and navigate a “real life” that is coming to fruition, I often find myself and my mind moving at breakneck speeds, always moving forward and never looking back. The other day, though, I took a moment to compose my thoughts, and I reflected on the person who I’ve become today and how this person would not have come into being without the influence of very significant experiences and people. In particular, those times in middle school, during my formative years of early adolescence, remain as some of my most memorable, troubling, and influential years of my life. And my experiences were in no small part shaped by Kilmer educators like yourself and my experiences at that school.
To illustrate more clearly who I was in middle school, I was a shy kid. Perceived as stereotypically nerdy, quiet, and extremely deferential to any and all authority figures. I was cowed into the pursuit of academic perfection by my demanding, but loving, parents. I always knew I was distinctly different from the rest of my classmates in certain ways. But I painfully wanted to fit in with the crowd.
That description could probably describe many children at that age. Middle school, as you probably know from your many years of experience, is an extreme clash of changing personalities, burgeoning expectations, puberty, and the development of social norms. The desire to conform to these social norms may be what I remember most about middle school dynamics among my classmates. In middle school, to be different was to be an outcast. You were either weird or cool, a loser or popular. For most of my time at Kilmer, I didn’t fit in. I was not “cool” in the ways other kids accepted as cool. To top it off, I came from a different cultural background (the color of my skin and the shape of my eyes were always points of discussion), and my personality was one of non-confrontation and passivity instead of male middle schooler machismo and bravado.
As such, I was labeled and bullied. “Chink.” “Fag.” The name-calling and words are no longer sharp thorns within my memory, but I remember the faces of my tormentors well. I had nothing else, so I turned to academics and focused my efforts there and, eventually, I gained respect for being “smart.” Academically gifted. The kid who got into Robinson High School. And I remember, for the very first time, feeling quite proud of who I am. But, as I would become more aware of later in life, I came to realize that I wanted to be known for more than just my test scores or my grades.
You may be wondering how you fit into this narrative. And the answer is that you played an even more important role than those classmates and teachers who recognized me for my diligence and academic commitment. You recognized me for who I was as an individual and you encouraged me to become my own person. It was really a collection of moments in and outside of your classes, but one memory frequently comes to mind. Now I cannot recall what the exact topic of conversation was, but I remember you telling me that I should do what makes me happy one day after school. Whether that was to go to Robinson, or to pursue a career in science, or to create art didn’t matter in the end; the important thing was to do something with my life that I truly wanted. That was a breakthrough moment for me, even if I was then too young or immature to realize it.
In your classes and as an educator, you created the first “safe space” I ever had. Art class was a time out of my day where I could express myself creatively in ways that would be distinctly me. That opportunity wasn’t afforded to me in other classes (unfortunately, that’s sometimes the side effect of test-driven education). Expectations were always tied to some other goal or metric. At home and in my other classes, expectations were undeniably academic in nature. In Art class, the expectation was integrity, honesty, and a commitment to improvement and to oneself. And, during middle school when one is bombarded by messages to conform socially, maybe the most important message for a child is to tell them to not forget their own powerfully unique individuality.
Today, I write this message to you as a mostly happy, young man who is entering his final year of law school. It’s a path I didn’t expect to take when I was younger, but it’s a path that is my own. I’ve come to accept and celebrate the various parts of my identity. I’ve become involved in Asian Pacific American advocacy and racial justice. I’m (somewhat) out to my friends and family, and I’m in a loving relationship with my boyfriend who is a fellow student in medical school.
We, as young adults, often forget the first mentors and adult role models in our lives – the ones who vouched for us, rooted for us even when no one else did. The ones who would stand up in the face of bigotry and close-mindedness by unapologetically being themselves and teaching even to those students who spouted hateful words against them. And as an educator who exhibited those noteworthy qualities when I attended Kilmer, I am forever grateful. Although this message is just one small acknowledgment of how you have continuously shaped the lives of our society’s future, I hope you know that you helped make a remarkable difference in mine.
I wish you all the best in the coming school year.
With sincerest regards,
Many thanks to @ro-mantik for sharing his story on a remarkable educator who went beyond the call of duty and counseled his young charges on individuality and their direction in life. For many Asian Americans, our childhood was defined by our academic achievements such that our grades, our exam scores became our identity. Traditional Asian parenting left little room for personal growth and when eventually, we crossed the stage to seek our own meaning, our own definition to life, it’s mentors like Mr. Warner whom we owe our gratitude for guiding us and supporting us as we navigate our own paths.