Teachable Moments: April 6

For reasons I cannot fathom at present, I once told a job interviewer that I could “make the students into baby feminists.” Needless to say, I was not hired.

But today I got to witness a baby feminist in my midst reading the text I came to love last year. Today, like the best of days, I felt like the Grinch.

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Before I can talk about what I’m doing as a teacher, I need to fill you in on what I went through as a student.

Until I walked into a seminar called “Introduction to Latin@ Literatures and Cultures” in my first semester at Wesleyan, I did not know that there was an entire body of work written by people who had gone through what I had gone through. I didn’t know that Latinx* Studies existed. I didn’t know that ethnic studies existed. For the first homework assignment, I watched West Side Story with four of my classmates on a sunny September afternoon. We all huddled under a blanket knit by my aunt, too green to know that we didn’t really have to do homework on a Friday afternoon, or that we could get away with not watching the whole film for class. Maybe, like I was, they were intoxicated with the giddy delight of being in close proximity to others who found this stuff really interesting.

*Help, Pauli! What are these crazy words you’re using?
Thanks for asking, dear reader. There are many different ways to describe people who claim Latin American, Caribbean or South American heritage. I’m using the word Latinx because it is not a gendered word. The word Latino/a or Latin@ acknowledges the specificity of men and women’s experiences, but not gender-nonconforming folks. Earlier, I used Latin@ because that was the title of the course. I also will never call myself Hispanic because that’s a word made up by white people. Seriously. Read about it. 

This class led me to a second class in Latinx studies called “Latina Feminisms,” where I first read This Bridge Called My Back. It was love at first sight.

In my diary at the time, I wrote, “Reading This Bridge Called My Back has been a life-changing experience. I don’t know how I will ever recover, or if I want to.”

This book, in case you haven’t had the pleasure of hearing me blab about it for nine months last year, is one of the first anthologies written as a joint project by women of color. First published in 1981, this book is a collection of essays, poems, life writings, interviews, and art. It asserts a strong belief in intersectionality, working together despite differences, and living your authentic self.

I was originally drawn to This Bridge due to an essay called “La Güera” by Cherríe Moraga, where she described the challenges of living as a white Latina. I also fell in love with the idea of “being a bridge to my own true self,” as articulated in “The Bridge Poem” by Kate Rushin. As I pored through the pages, I could visualize how to live a life that honored all of the parts of myself, and how I could find connection with others who had similar, yet not identical experiences.

This book that drove me to scribble in my diary my sophomore year eventually became the focus of my senior thesis. I couldn’t understand why a book that meant so much to me and so many other people was out of print, which it was at the time. That nagging question started a nine-month long inquiry filled with drafts, tears, and endless bridge puns. At this point in April last year, This Bridge was my fifth limb. I lived and breathed the pages of the book. Most fortunately, I shared it with dear friends who fell in love with it as I did. I created a small but loving community of people who wanted to learn more about the coffee-stained red-and-yellow book that I had been clutching. As I left Wesleyan, I had a pretty good inkling that I wanted to spend my life introducing others to the texts that had made such a big difference in my life.

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TFW you finish writing 120 pages about one book

Ok that’s nice and all but enough about me.

I have an independent study with a senior student at school in African-American Studies. I’m so glad that she was game to hang out with me for forty-minutes each week to engage in some difficult historical and critical work. My goal in working together is not that she’ll emerge an expert, but that she’ll have more words and theories to describe her personal experiences and hopes for the future. Today, we took on Bridge.

“I really like it,” she assured me when she came into class. Last week, she shared it with her mother. This week, she shared it with her sister. This book is so heterogeneous that you never know what people will connect with. For example, last week my student loved a Cherríe Moraga poem called “For the Color of My Mother,” and we got to work through it together.

Today, we took a stab at some Audre Lorde and unpacked the statement “the personal is political.” At first, she was uncertain if the personal details of our lives could have political importance. But then, I asked her to think about something that happens in our daily lives that is determined by the government. She came up with school lunch – the government gives money for free or reduced lunch. From there, we came up with funding for public schools and charter schools. As we continued to extrapolate, she eventually decided that everyday things could be nationally significant.

As she worked out this statement, I marveled at how far I had come since I was her age. Of course, when I think “the personal is political” as a 23-year old, I immediately think of birth control pills: the things I take daily to clear my skin and stop babies makes old white male politicians get their panties in a pinch. Of course, at 18, I never would have given that as an example because it was completely outside my ken. Yet, though I still came across the idea of “the personal as political” at 19, it still resonates with me at 23. After reading This Bridge and then reading it repeatedly for a year, I still cherish the lessons I learned in it and what it still has to teach me. I’m so so glad to pass this treasure off to the next generation of baby feminists.

I’m beyond happy. As we packed up today, she asked, “Can I keep this book until the end of the year? I promise I’ll give it back to you when school ends.” She looked at me searchingly for a trace of approval. Of course, I let her keep it. I know what a comfort it is to have that book near you. I recognize how you don’t even know what you needed until you’re holding it in your hands.

As one of my own professors once surprised me with my first copy of This Bridge, I’m going to get her a copy of her own. Thankfully, it’s in print so I can do that. I can’t wait to see where she goes, what she studies, and what parts resonate with her as she learns and grows.

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