Teachers Are the Backbone of Our Community
When I was little, I thought pockmarked skin was beautiful — a sought after trait that made someone especially handsome.
It is hard to let go of the cultural norms we ingest when we are young, especially those we learn from our environment, as opposed to the ones we are taught. For example, letting go of the teaching that clothing, colors, jewelry or makeup are gendered was an easy task. However, it has been much harder to let go of the idea that appearance is indicative of worth. As a young woman, society is constantly reminding me in various nefarious ways that the more attractive you appear, the more worth you have — the more people will listen, the more people will pay attention, the more value you have.
I know this to be false. Appearance is no marker of a person’s worth or character. But, it is difficult to fully let go of. No matter how often I remind myself otherwise, I still find myself giving into the prejudices of outward appearance.
I say all this to reinforce the fact that it was difficult, or at least an interesting task for me to relearn the societal preference for clear, soft, supple skin over that of pockmarked, weathered skin.
Before I was born, before I gathered a sense of self, my mother, Loretta, was a teacher. From the moment I found myself within my own brain and began connecting the dots, I knew her as a teacher. But, I also knew that she was different from other teachers.
At the elementary school I attended she was relegated to corner spaces in classrooms shared with other teachers. Teachers who taught remedial or after-school programs. She regularly spoke to her students in a different language. During our sacred summers off, there were countless days when we would drive to different houses around the county to drop off paperwork or take a student to summer school.
Loretta teaches English as a Second Language. In addition to everything it takes to help students unfamiliar with the English language progress through school, she also helps families settle in a place foreign, and oftentimes, unwelcoming.
Her students didn’t just need support in the classroom, entire families depended on her help, knowledge and patience in order to make life work in a new place.
Antonio and Arturo were the first of Loretta's students that I remember. They were twins, they were in high school, they had just moved here from Mexico and they were the coolest, most handsome people my 5 year-old eyes had ever seen.
Perhaps it was the novelty. Afterall, these two people were some of the few I had known that could speak that strange language my mother spoke from time to time. Perhaps it was the fact that they were twins, two different humans that looked almost the exact same. If I’m being honest though, I think it was their persistent good spirit that made them so beautiful.
Those two boys lived on their own through high school. The relatives they were supposed to come live with had dispersed or gone elsewhere. They shared a license and didn’t speak a lick of English. The government services usually available to young people in need can become less accessible when immigration status is in question. Needless to say, they needed a teacher like Loretta. And she was there.
Whenever I saw them, they were smiling. Deep, kind smiles of appreciation for this teacher, this gringa, ready to help in whatever way was needed at the drop of a hat. Getting a second license, finding a place to live, applying to community college — she was there.
Me and my siblings used to joke that mom loved her students more than she loved us. Somehow all of our board games, stuffed animals and toys ended up in her assorted classrooms for her students to enjoy. Deep down we knew it wasn’t true, and it was probably a hurtful joke for our mom to have to endure. But, in our defense, we knew plenty of moms that loved their children to the ends of the earth like our mom did. However, we never had a teacher that took us to get our license or helped us find a place to live — we were lucky enough to never need that kind of help from them.
Watching Loretta plan activities, learn the best ways to teach a new language or agonize over a student’s struggles helped me understand what goes on behind the scenes for our favorite educators. They are giving their whole selves to our growth and development.
I will never forget the day that Antonio, or Arturo, I couldn’t tell them apart, walked out of the DMV with a shit eating grin on his face. Mom was so happy for him and made him and his brother stand together there in the parking lot for a photo. Arms around each other, wide smiles, squinty eyes and weathered, pockmarked cheeks.
Those boys made a lasting impression on me. They were my first marker for what was "cool," what was handsome. But more than that, my mother made a lasting impression on me. Antonio and Arturo were just the first two I remember from a long line of students that received her complete dedication. Her worth is on full, magnificent display in her devotion to her students.
Teachers are the backbone of our community in more ways than one. That is a cultural norm I learn over and over again in life. One treasured by all of us who were lucky enough to have a teacher like Loretta.
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Your words capture not only the role model your mom has been for so many, but the deep bond that tethers you to a giving, caring woman who raised three incredible young adults. Your connection is deep and will guide your life forever.
Thank you for sharing another thoughtful vignette of a teacher and mom who never goes halfway, always does what's best for her students and children, and a mirror for those who read this to do more especially at this time of year.