I fell easily in the trap in which many privileged educators and healers often fall; I assumed that encouraging youths to go to school was the fool-proof plan for their success. Even though I made sure to remain mindful of the differences between their culture and mine, I overlooked the bias that my road to success was also their road. The issue is not whether school is the appropriate road for these youths living in poorer communities. The dilemma is how to not devalue their gifts gained from learning intelligent precise survival skills, while attempting to expand their awareness to include the possibility of applying those skills to new environments–academic, artistic or vocational. By presenting information regarding the pathways through academia without specifically providing examples of the many ways their survival skills could be applied along these pathways or alternate pathways of success, I unknowingly was discouraging these incredibly talented humans. I will tell you how I learned this lesson…
A beautiful tall 17-yr old African-American woman, Tyana, and I walk into her orientation at an alternative school where she is hoping to receive tutoring and pass her GED exam. On our way, I begin speaking about all of the possibilities that lie ahead for her: passing her GED, going to a nearby junior college, applying for a scholarship and then heading to a four-year college where she can be well on her way to her dream of being the owner of her own clothing company. She smiles at this possibility and while her words tell me how excited she is imagining herself going to college, her body language and emotional energy communicates a distance in our interaction. I tell myself that my intuition must be wrong, as we are definitely having a positive moment.
I don’t start to question my amazing helping skills until I find her sitting in the chair of the instructor, whom she was supposed to be impressing. This was the person who would be approving her enrollment in the program. I begin to wave my hands and silently scream “get your *&^ out of that chair, what the #%&$ are you doing?” She smiles back at me as if to say, “I don’t give a *#@!” The instructor motions to me to get her out of the chair and her raised hands and piercing eyes question the integrity of the words we shared the day before when I had worked hard to convince her that Tyana was not like other youths who had been involved in the justice system–that Tyana was ready for her class.
I jumped from the bench as if saving a toddler from running into NY traffic, attempting to keep Tyana’s legs from successfully making their destination to the top of the instructor’s desk. This would be the end: the end of me, the end of her and the end of this program. My exaggerated reaction jolts my awareness to include the possibility that I had made a huge mistake by failing to make her proud of the skills she already possesses and instead encouraging her to follow a path based on my perception of success. I realized that I had failed to recognize her strong, intelligent and precise survival skills, and that her feet on the instructor’s desk were begging me to guide her on a path that allowed her to use her strengths and not mine.
When we walked home, she looked at me and said, “Are you disappointed?” I looked her straight in the eye and said, “only in myself.” She threw her head back and laughed loud, “why Ms. A? You are not the one who messed up another opportunity.” I explained to her that I was proud of her social bravery. I was proud that she could defy all social norms as a way to communicate that she did not feel comfortable in that setting. I was proud that she could stand-up for her beliefs and not let my need to feel successful as a helper get in the way of what she really wanted. She looked at me with her head sideways and said, “you crazy Ms. A! I just didn’t like the way that instructor was treating me, she looked at me like I was dumb from the moment I walked in that door.” I knew Tyana was right, that instructor would not see her gifts.
From that day forward, Tyana and I practiced the many ways she could utilize her intuition and social bravery to take the steps she was ready to take. At the next GED tutoring program, she let the instructor know in an assertive way at the start that she did not want to be treated like she was dumb and she wanted to be able to express when she felt that this was the case. The instructor responded well and Tyana continued classes there. She may get to college one day, but I had to realize that because she did not grow-up imagining herself in college and because her family actually perceived higher education to be a way of betraying her family’s culture, Tyana needed to use the strengths her family had instilled in her and take it one step at a time.
There are many women like Tyana, wanting more for themselves but feeling their gifts do not have a place on their paths to success. This makes for a daunting journey, especially when this journey towards their dreams may be perceived as a betrayal to their family. The Create A Path program will not only promote the utilization of these intelligent precise survival skills, but will help these girls avoid compromising their culture as they reach their goals. Celebrating differences involves finding ways to adapt a plethora of skills to a variety of environments.