My mother watered me, tended me as a flowering plant in a garden, but I also felt like a weed, not good enough, different. I was the one blonde child on a bus-full of black kids going up the hill, sitting stiff on the tall dark green seat with the straight back, my hair in two ponytails, one behind each ear. My transparent bag with a colorful flower pattern showed everything I had inside.
She taught me to read and write before I went to school. She was a children’s librarian, experienced at reading to a room full of children. She was my teacher, and I have followed her footsteps, not in becoming a children’s librarian like her, but first becoming a children’s bookseller, and then becoming a teacher at a junior college.
My path through higher education wasn’t a straight line. Partly, it was due to motivation. I was always a B student in high school, by my own choice. I would rather do homework in front of the TV, or sit in the blue chair in the living room with my feet up listening to Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto or Beethoven’s Pastorale symphony.
Only later, when I went back to complete college after years in the working world, did I strive for As, putting my GPA on track. Only then could I see myself as worthwhile, a bright flower, talkative rather than silent. One doesn’t have to suffer language discrimination to internalize pain in the classroom.
Home life shaped who I became in public. I was mostly invisible as a child. I had to be, because my brother was a hyperactive, demanding, yelling, hitting boy. So when I went to school I demonstrated the same behavior I adhered to at home. Be good, be nice.
My parents expected me to go to college. They were both the first in their New York Jewish families to attend. My mother wanted to be a doctor, but only one cousin in her large family was supported to do so, and he was male. So she studied biology before attending Columbia library school in a special summer program. My father went to college gratis of the service after WWII ended.
I dropped out after a couple of years, directionless. Twenty years later, and after my father’s death, I returned.
I teach the power of language to my students in the writings of Frederick Douglass, Malcom X, Gloria Anzaldua, Jonathan Kozol, and Aleen Pace Nilsen, as well as Richard Rodriguez. We examine language and how it is used to exert power over people or influence them, how it is gender-related, and how a person can change with mastery of language.
But I know only one language—empowerment through knowledge, through knowing who you are, where you come from.