“Your first two words,” I announced, “are I want.”
I started the timer and watched as the room full of seventh graders scribbled into their notebooks. It was five minutes for them to free write, but also time for me to get my bearings. I had no idea how any of this would go over.
This gig — teaching a ten-day creative writing course at a suburban middle school — was easy to accept back in November. My soul-sucking office temp job, mounting student debt, and dwindling prospects of finding writing work after getting my MFA made it desperate for the money; but as the first day approached I began to worry. Would I be able to relate to these kids? Would anything I planned work out?
As a memoirist I’d committed myself to putting my mistakes out there for the whole world to see, learning in public as a way to stay honest. So when I drove through the tree-lined streets of that suburb on my first morning I told myself that, worst case scenario, this would be another one of those moments. I might even learn something, myself.
Walking between the rows of desks as the students wrote, I tried to take them in. They were typical twelve-to-thirteen-year-olds: braces and awkward hairstyles, ill-fitting clothes and untied laces. They ranged in size from gnomish to gangly, all of them still figuring out how to carry their changing bodies. Still, bits of personality came through. The ones in the back leaned towards the windows and stared out, disaffected. The ones in the front, mostly girls, sat up straight, their pencils and pens in neat rows.
My timer went off. “Okay,” I said, “Let’s hear what you came up with.”
I pointed to a girl in the front, who proceeded to read off a list. “I want to be on the beach. I want a new swimsuit. I want a new iPhone and a new sparkle case…”
“Ok,” I nodded. “Good.” Finding little there to work with I moved on to another student, who riffed on something similar about a new pair of Yeezy’s, a copy of the newest Grand Theft Auto, and a bigger television. I tried to remain gracious, but this wasn’t relieving my discomfort at all. I wasn’t expecting them to pour their hearts out, but I’d hoped they’d come up with something I could dig into, something to help me ease into this whole thing. My anxiety was bubbling up.
“How about you?” I pointed to one more kid towards the back of the room. He looked at me, his eyes wide as though caught off guard. He pushed back his wavy brown hair, exposing big ears sticking out of a face that was all chin, and picked up his notebook.
“I want to go skiing. I want to be on the mountain…”
I felt my stomach drop. Jesus, this is going to be impossible, I thought, my anxiety now boiling over. Of course this white boy goes skiing. Of course that’s all he cares about. Sneakers? Boats? Big TVs? These kids are living lives I wouldn’t even dream of. My parents came here from the Dominican Republic with next to nothing and worked themselves to the bone for decades to get my siblings and me into a house in the suburbs. To us, that house was the end, not the beginning. To us, vacations were rare. Skiing and going to the Bahamas weren’t things I would even conceive of growing up, but these kids rattled them off as though they were making grocery lists. How could I incite poetry from them? What connection to reality, what feelings about the world could they possibly have? What did I really expect from a bunch of —
I caught myself then. The boy was still reading, gripping his notebook with both hands and making an effort to project, but I had stopped paying attention. A deep pang of shame rose inside of me, quickly turning into anger at myself for what I had just done to this boy — to the entire class. I began to rack my brain about why — and how easily — I had gone there in the first place, but deep down, I knew exactly what had just happened.
Since grade school, I’ve thought about racism the way I did the belief that the Earth is flat, or that Elvis is still alive. Like everyone else, I’d learned about the Holocaust and American slavery. I had read and listened to Martin Luther King, whose message rang loud and clear — so simple as to seem trite, but true nonetheless: never judge a book by its cover.
It would have been impossible for me to hold any view to the contrary, even if I’d wanted to. My school was a mix of kids from all over, many of them children of immigrants, who spoke different languages at home and brought different kinds of food in for lunch every day. Korean kids, Russian kids, Indian kids, Hispanic kids, Italian kids. We were different, but in similar ways. And at the end of the day, when we ran around playing tag on the school’s field or handball on its brick back wall, all I saw were kids, more or less like me.
As a result of this perspective, I grew more focused on what people thought rather than how they looked or where they were from. Ideas became all that mattered to me — the only way to really get to know and understand anyone or anything. I’d internalized this perspective so deeply that I had developed a habit of quoting things without remembering who had said them. For me, the author of an idea was often of little consequence except as a potential source for more ideas.
But in the last few years, as social media tightened its stranglehold on our discourse, I’d found myself reflexively considering other things instead. Was the author white? A woman? Left- or right-wing? The answers to these questions began to influence my opinion on arguments before I’d heard them. I found it harder to disagree or criticize the work if the writer was a woman simply because I wasn’t one; or a “person of color” simply because I was. I was self-censoring based on how my response might sound, what it might imply, and how “people like me” might interpret it. It was a behavior I had recognized and derided in others but had unwittingly started emulating myself, with an effectiveness and automaticity that frightened me.
This habit ran rampant through my graduate school experience. As my MFA program went on, I started having trouble focusing on a writer’s prose, their lyrical ability, the sharpness of their craft — the things I’d enrolled to learn about — and more on what the mere fact that we were reading it said politically. I worried about what it meant that we were reading this book in class rather than another. I found myself counting how many female authors we read versus male, how many white authors versus “writers of color.” Once, after the first class of a new semester, I commented to some classmates that I thought the reading list on our syllabus seemed “pretty diverse.” The look of disgusted, bewildered disagreement on their faces made me realize how differently I was using that word. For me, it meant that the authors were people with different styles, different voices, different perspectives. To them, it meant something else entirely.
To be sure, questions about inclusion and representation are worth asking. We still suffer a great many ills born of the categories into which people divide and place one another. Wherever those ills manifest, whether they’re on syllabi or hiring practices or standards of policing, they demand our attention and intervention. But something else had begun to happen — an overcorrection. Suddenly certain ideas — indeed, certain facts — were considered wrong or right based on the identity of the person who voiced them, or the implications those ideas might have on a certain group. This went against all of my intellectual and moral instincts, and flew in the face of the ethics I had developed as a boy: not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. Making less logical sense, being even more sensitive to perceived slights, and further dividing one another into ethical and intellectual silos never felt to me like the way to solve the real problems of the world, but that was exactly what was happening.
Despite my aversion to this new normal, it was pervasive and difficult for me to avoid. I felt this creating subtle divides between my classmates and me, between me and everyone I encountered, regardless of the context, regardless of how much else we had in common. I felt professors walking on eggshells for fear of offending someone’s sensibilities with completely innocuous comments about the texts we read. I felt the classroom factionalizing, our communication faltering. A poison had seeped in while everyone was busy navigating the minefield of labels and divisions, and it had gotten to me, too.
It all came to a head one night after class, when a classmate was relating their experience in New Orleans to me and another classmate. After gushing about the music and the food, my classmate added, “And there were more poor white people than black people!”
I watched as my two classmates shared an enthusiastic high-five over this comment, to which the other responded with, “Yes! Justice!” Their mirth jolted me awake, and I reflexively blurted “Don’t high-five over that!” But my incredulity weakened my delivery, and my voice was drowned out by their laughter. I fell silent, the moment passed, and I never stopped feeling horrible about it.
I felt a similar shame then as I did in that seventh grade classroom, when out of my own discomfort and anxiety I went on a mental rampage against this young boy I had just met. I hadn’t even learned his name, but I’d reduced him to a caricature — some straw man of a white person that was easy for me to rail against.
I stared at the boy as he finished reading. He didn’t do anything wrong, I thought. We should all be so lucky, to live lives where skiing and sailing are commonplace. Simply being white doesn’t guarantee him to be any particular kind of person any more than simply being Dominican guarantees me to be. We are total strangers — but we don’t have to be. They’re all just kids, with lives and perspectives I can only empathize with if I open myself to them, the way writing and art are meant to do.
A few days later I came to class with my guitar, thinking I could show the kids how inspiration for one medium can often come from another. I’m often asked about the difference between my process in writing music versus poetry or prose, and I always tell them art is art. The medium changes, the details change, but at bottom the process is the same. They’re different, but in similar ways.
I began our session by asking my students what sorts of music they liked. I pointed to that same, big-eared and wide-eyed kid who sat near the back of the class.
“How about you?” I asked, catching him off guard again.
He perked up and said, “Oh, I listen to a lot of Spanish music.”
“Really?” I said, taken aback. “Spanish music?”
“Yeah,” he replied, brushing back a lock of his wavy brown hair. “My mom’s Dominican and my dad’s Peruvian, so I listen to a lot of merengue and salsa and stuff.”
“Wow,” I said, smiling. “I’m Dominican too.”
An earlier version of this essay was published in the Spring 2020 issue of Label Me Latino.