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Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 26 2012

This is me, thanking you.

“You’ll thank me someday.”

My mom and dad would say those words to me every day while I was toiling away at some extra-curricular activity that I hated. Those moments in my home were filled with anger and hostility, heavy with the feeling of oppressive dictators, my parents, coming down on the little, innocent citizen, me (insert picture of Tiananmen Square here). As I sat there playing the piano for the third hour, doing the 10th math worksheet, or writing Chinese characters (which I still have no idea what I was writing) that day, I was certain I would NEVER thank my parents. In my opinion, they were just crazy and ruining my life (words that I’m pretty sure gave them more joy than anything else).

So, of course my dad laughed when I called him from Louisiana during my 2nd week of teaching.

“See? Those piano lessons were good for you.”

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I seek the approval of two different entities: my parents and God. My need for their approval has driven many of my actions growing up. I am a first generation Chinese American and my parents worked extremely hard everyday to make sure that my opportunities were better than their’s, that their story of struggle would never be mine. My parents taught me that hard work and high expectations open and expand pathways of opportunity. Everything I did from the time I learned to breathe was a product of the “choices” they made for me. My parents demanded that I be the best and when I wasn’t, they never had a problem ensuring that I understood my shortcomings.

Today, I am a proud graduate of UCLA but I owe that to Dad. When I got rejected from the top schools in California my senior year, my dad refused to send me to a school I did get admitted to, claiming that he would not pay for me to receive a second rate education. Instead, he put me in the car and brought me to our community college where I enrolled in classes. He gave me one year to “Get myself together” and get into a college that he would be proud to have a daughter graduate from. A year later, I transferred to UCLA as a junior and two years later, I was blessed to graduate debt free with an education that my parents don’t mind mentioning at dinner parties.

My parents wanted me to be a lawyer. I wanted to be a lawyer. Then I took one law class at UCLA, called up my mom and said, “Nope, not doing it.”

“Yes, you are.”

Truthfully, I decided to apply to Teach For America with very little background knowledge on the organization and what it stood for. One of my closest friends applied the year before and went to South Louisiana to teach in New Roads, LA. Through her stories of struggle and my lack of vision for my own future, I began to look into an organization that would allow me to do God’s work post college. I told no one when I applied (except, I suppose, the recruiter that seemed to have my number on speed dial). It was my first real moment of rebellion and it felt so foreign and uncomfortable.

When the email came at 2pm offering me a spot in South Louisiana’s Corps, I was elated. I had spent months in prayer and felt that this was what I was supposed to do for the next two years. I called up my mom to tell her the news.

“Mom, I got admitted to TFA South Louisiana! I wanted you to be the first to know.”

“I’m sorry, did I give you permission to apply?”

Hold. The. Phone. Actually, hang up the phone. I could not believe what just happened. I just told my mom that I was gainfully employed doing something worthwhile and she reached through the phone and slapped me across the face.

Later I would learn that my mom’s reaction came from a place of love and concern; she was worried about my safety, my happiness and my future. My mom has always been the worrier of the family and I just called her up and essentially stolen her hope that I would move back to the community I grew up in and work in a firm, that I would continue to come home for our Sunday night dinners.

After conferring with my parents and speaking to my government teacher and spiritual mentor, I confirmed and for the first time ever, went explicitly against my parents’ wishes and expectations. That moment, though, defined who I was to become in Louisiana and my relationship with my parents.

For the first time, I stood steadfast in what I believed was right and in that moment, my parents started seeing me less as their teenage child and more as an adult. We reached a tipping point in our relationship and, while today, my mom still calls to check if I have learned to cook, she also asks me about what I want for my future.

When I left for Institute in June, my parents had accepted that I was doing this. True to my parents’ personalities, my dad accepted that I would likely do it with or without their permission so at least he was going to drive me there; my mom thought that I could be doing something else (law school) but still packed us food and clean clothes for the trip.

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The day that I learned that my parents were proud of me was the day that I truly believed that what I was doing in the most southern state in America was exactly where I needed to be.

It was a few wretched weeks into teaching and not only did I feel like a terrible math teacher, my school had just socially promoted 4 students from 5th grade to 6th grade because they were “just too old.” I was livid, they were going nuts in my class, and every day, when I went home, I just wanted to die. So, I called my dad and told him everything. My students weren’t listening. I HATE math. THEY MAKE ME DO SILENT LUNCH, like it’s even possible. I’m failing. I still remember this conversation because my dad left his cubicle at work and stood in the windy parking lot to tell me this:

“Kimmy, I knew you were going to go to Louisiana when you got accepted. It’s because you’re me; you like challenges and adventure. This is just another one. You can do it because I raised you to work hard and think. You’re not going to quit because I know you, you’re me.”

***As a side note, my dad also mentioned that I couldn’t quit because he told one of his co-workers that I lived near New Orleans and they wanted to visit. Thanks, Dad.

I call my dad every time I have a bad day because he gives me the same pep talk, the highest compliment of all… I’m him and I don’t quit.

Later, when I called him about Kierra, he responded with that same statement but then asked me what I would do about it.

I learned that my mom was proud of me from my best friend. Our moms are also great friends (it’s really a vomit inducing cute story) so when I call my friend, without fail, I also get an update on her family.

“Your mom called my mom today. When my mom got off the phone, my mom turned to me and said, ‘Kimmy is doing good things. Why aren’t you more like her?’”

Amy is going to med school. She is going to save lives. Literally. She is, in my opinion, the perfect daughter: driven, disciplined and going to make a ton of money by following the path that her parents had ingrained in her. Hearing this from her was perhaps the most empowering moment of my teaching experience. My mother, by bragging to others, had announced to me that she was proud of me. I would hear multiple times through the grapevine that she was proud of my choices, and eventually hear it from her mouth.

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My short two years teaching was defined by a single moment at the end of my first year of teaching. It’s a moment that I replay in my nightmares and in my waking day. When people ask me why I “Teach For America,” I remember Kierra.

Kierra was perhaps the angriest student I taught. In my 6th grade class, she read on a 2nd grade level and struggled to regroup in addition and subtraction, when she participated at all. But mostly, she just sat there defiantly, seemingly looking for any way to get under my skin. It worked and while it shames me to admit it, I longed for the days when she was absent, when I could finally put down my fists. She had the right to be angry- her dad died when less than a year before; her mom had terminal breast cancer; her older sister was struggling with her sexuality in a community that hadn’t grappled with social issues; and her younger sister was severely special ed. She was constantly fighting an uphill battle and it took me months to realize it. By the time I took the time to realize all the odds she was beating, it was the end of the year and she had grown very little. So there I was, the last day of school, standing before a committee made up of my principal, AP, and reading and math coaches, begging them for another year with her- just one more year to do it right.

“Ms. Tang,” one of them said, “how can you guarantee that next year would be better?”

I could not, but I had the summer to figure it out.

“Ms. Tang, the best thing we can do for her is to move her on. A girl like that isn’t going to college. She probably isn’t going to graduate from high school. The best we can hope for is that she learns a trade.”

And that was it. In 6th grade, 5 people in one room closed the book on Kierra and I had utterly failed her.

I spoke to my mom and dad that night. I cried as I realized that Kierra’s future was my own doing. My mom, God bless her, comforted me and listened, just loving me in the way that I needed at that moment. What she didn’t realize was that in the process, she reminded me more of everything I should have been to Kierra. My mom is my biggest advocate but I was not Kierra’s. My dad, after listening to my woes, told me the same thing that he always did when I called: I don’t give up and I’ll figure it out. Then he posed the question that explains why I do what I do today:

“What are you going to do about it?”

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I try to do something about it every waking moment of every day by advocating for, in my opinion, the forgotten children. The low-income students in the South are the students that often get lost in the cracks of America; while students in LAUSD and DC get media attention, our children, who have hopes and dreams too, are forgotten and pushed aside. As a result, while parts of our great nation are joining the 21st century, our students exist in a world that is stuck in what used to be.

Today, I support and work with teachers to activate students and communities. I believe that what our communities and schools need are advocates: people who are willing to take a stand for a child or a  child that is willing to take a stand for him/herself. To be honest, my own upbringing has taught me that a child cannot be his/her own island; picking yourself up by your bootstraps is just not realistic for me. My parents are the reason that I was afforded the opportunities that put me in the Delta today. For that reason, I believe that closing the achievement gap will only happen if we can activate communities and give students the support they need to make real change in those communities.

I am who I am because my parents gave me opportunity. I do what I do because students like Kierra should feel that too.

2 Responses

  1. Bella

    This was amazing. Thank you for sharing your story…

  2. Christian

    Beautiful and heart wrenching. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I wholeheartedly appreciate it to keep going.

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About this Blog

Growing up is hard.

Region
South Louisiana
Grade
Middle School
Subject
Math

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