My junior year of high school I read The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. It was a novella that read like poetry, with subtle heartbreak and the building promise of a young protagonist like a good coming-of-age story should have. Not too long ago I read a Chicago Reader article which described it as “a book to read to confirm that Chicago prepares people to become anyone they want to be.” In a series of vignettes we are introduced to Esperanza, growing up in an ambiguous Latino Chicago neighborhood, determined to make more of her life than what circumstances had provided her. While my teenage life in an upper middle class suburb in Northern Kentucky was quite different from Esperanza’s I felt a kinship with her in my own almost defiant determination to move away from home for college, as though it was my only chance at really making my life what I wanted it to be.
I was going to go to art school in Chicago to become a teacher, and at some point I was going to go to France. I remember outlining those points when my Junior prom date, Jordan, asked me about my plans for the future in the car on the way to meet my friends for dinner at Macaroni Grill. Jordan passed away unexpectedly last month due to complications of Type 1 Diabetes. I hadn’t talked to him in years, but as it goes in the time of Facebook, I had seen that he had started practicing law just as he had always said he would. And the closer I was to finishing grad school, the closer I felt to being who I wanted to be when I grew up. When I heard that Jordan passed away I was in the swamps of the CPS interview process and constantly anxious over the uncertainty. I felt like what I had said as a sixteen-year-old was a promise and something needed to open up so I could follow through.
The summer before my senior year of high school my mom got very sick and my grandfather, whom I was very close to, passed away. Getting through the school year was a whole lot of hell. The only thing that made it tolerable was knowing that I would, no matter what, make it to art school in Chicago. Teen angst when properly channeled only further fuels ambition. I couldn’t have gotten through that year without the stability of school and my teachers, whether or not they were aware of how rough of a time I was going through.
My graduation gift from my English teacher, Ruth, was a silver ring with “ESPERANZA” engraved on it–Esperanza from Mango Street, whose name meant hope; who had to go away so she could come back for “the one’s who cannot out.” I’ve worn this ring almost every day for nine years. Twisting it around, running my finger over the name, through just about every up and down that nine years have brought. I was wearing it when I started volunteering at 826CHI, a mile away from the house where Cisneros wrote Mango Street–where I started teaching and tutoring students who were a little bit of Mango Street. Like Catherine, who was seven and saw it on my hand and asked if I was married, then she asked me if I was sixteen. I showed it to Sandra Cisneros when I met her. It was on my hand through a Master’s degree at another Chicago art school, the degree that would finally make me a teacher. I showed it to an 8-year-old I met named named Esperanza. I told a date the story behind it at my favorite dive bar as he turned it around my finger while holding my hand. I held my own hand in the waiting room of second interviews for what would be my first full-time teaching job, and in my head said to myself “Esperanza means hope.”
The process of landing an art teacher job felt like adopting a baby. I would go for an interview and imagine my whole life with a school, not knowing if I would get it. And as much as I had started to fall in love with the idea of so many of these positions, Kelvyn Park felt different. And, that was that. I was hired on a Monday, two hours after a second interview, during which I demoed a lesson on the psychology of color for a handful of young people who are now my students. I am Kelvyn Park School’s new (and first) 7th and 8th grade Art Teacher. It’s the second year for the middle school program–the high school took on the the two extra grades when the neighborhood middle school was closed. KP is what is called a “failing school.” Test scores are too low, and the budget hits are getting worse every year with enrollment has dropping as charter schools fish away students. But, that is not the whole story, because a school is not just statistics. And in an old science room, there is now what is possibly the only art room in all of CPS that sees 7th and 8th graders five days a week.
I began my first day as a teacher with one of Mango’s vignettes, My Name. And as I started to learn my students’ names I told them about how they get to decide what they want their name to really mean, like Esperanza who had inherited her great-grandmother’s name but did not have to inherit her place by the window. And I walked around my classroom as they decorated name cards. For half of them, this is their first formal art class. Living in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood, many of them are a little bit of Mango Street, but also much more than that.
This is my overdue final blog post as a Grad Ambassador. Columbia’s Graduate Education programs have gone on hiatus, but to anyone who thinks they may want to be a teacher, what I can tell you is that you have to really want it. Being a teacher is one of the most complex and demanding careers there is. Five days into school and my feet ache and I want to be asleep by ten. But this is something I’ve wanted for so long that it would take a lot more than that to make me want it less. Education in our country is nowhere near where it needs to be. Every day I see about 150 students, and they need more than just hope. But as I said, they have art five days a week now, when some of them never had it before, and something about that seems like a small start to something big.
You can continue to follow work at KP here.