Mrs. Carter: By any means necessary

photo I took in L.A. sometime in 2009

 

Mrs. Carter, “What is a minority?”

12 year-old-me: “Someone who’s isn’t as good as other people.”
___________________________

I grew up in many parts of L.A. because my mother did whatever she could to keep us comfortable and put food on the table. Often, immigrants have to live with roommates they’ve never met and hope for the best, or settle for living in a converted garage, duplexes where they have no privacy and almost no right to silence, and in neighborhoods that have a bad reputation.

Some places I remember living in: Lynwood, Compton, South Gate, and mostly Huntington Park. I attended Gage Middle School and had a teacher named Ms. Carter. Many students disliked her. Some days she was angry, other days she was sweet.

One day around Martin Luther King Jr. day she stood in class and asked people a few questions. I don’t remember why or how she got to the topic, but she said she was a fan of Malcolm X.

Instead of teaching us science that day she talked a lot about him and explained that we’re not taught about him on purpose because he was more militant. Then she explained to us that we’re minorities. So she asked us, “What is a minority?” when no one answered I raised my hand and she pointed me.

My answer: “Someone who isn’t as good as other people.”

Then she looked at me and said, “No, a minority is a person who isn’t white. They’re someone who isn’t the majority in a population. Never let anyone make you feel like you’re less than they are because of your race.” Then she talked about the Census and how people are counted and continued with her point.

I suppose other students thought she was crazy, but we paid attention because we were afraid of her. She talked to us about the shows we watched after-school and told us that it was true. In some junior high schools, children have computer labs, pep rallies, cheerleaders, after-school sports, and healthier food.

It was the first time someone explained this to me. Maybe not everyone got the message, but even though I don’t remember much about science from this class, I remember when Ms. Carter asked us to do reports on scientists and only chose African-American ones. There were almost no African-American kids at my school, but we listened to hip-hop and rap every day. It only made sense that we learn about the African-American scientists that made an impact on our lives.

Years later I would understand the power of symbols and power structures a bit better, and I remember Ms. Carter’s voice, telling me that I should never allow anyone to make me feel that I “less than” because of my race.

Mrs. Carter: I’m pretty sure you’re in heaven right now. I’m sorry I was too young to understand what you were trying to teach us. I’m sorry I never stopped my other classmates from saying racial slurs in Spanish (which I knew you understood), even though I knew it was wrong. You could’ve blamed us all for being impossible students who didn’t always respect your dignity but fought for us every day instead. We didn’t understand that you weren’t angry at us, but for us. You were angry that we didn’t have the tools we needed to reach our potential. I think a lot of us remember you and understand what you were trying to do in hindsight.

Thank you for using stories to try to teach us about eugenics even though school administrators thought we weren’t smart enough to understand. I now understand that you were trying to make us think beyond our lack of resources so we could be better people. I remember one thing from your class:

By any means necessary.

Thank you, Ms. Carter, for helping me tell stories and for being a part of mine. I hope in some small way, I can do something with what you taught all of us.

#education#Gage Middle School#gate#los angeles#malcolm x#stand up#systemic racism#take it down#teachers

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