Photo by J. Amezqua
It has been said of me, “Why is she hiding in there?”
Not within earshot, but in the lobby of the building where I give every inkling of my being to inspiring students to love words and share innovative lessons with colleagues from around the world.
And that, I suppose, is the problem.
Every waking moment during the school year is dedicated to planning and teaching and grading and pushing and nurturing and watching and then summer arrives and time is my own.
It is then when I take stock and get frustrated trying to locate the paintbrushes I packed away or realize I never sent in the logo I had started copyrighting last summer or that this is year three of writing the manuscript for my first novel. I chastise myself for giving no attention to my own passions and toss and turn each night until morning forces me to choose at least one place to begin piecing back the artistry that is my driving force.
And this is the dance I have done most of my life. The dance I am learning is just seen as hiding.
In actuality I am of two minds and it is that duality that apparently leaves people shaking their heads…
In the third grade, Ms. Green, who lived in my same Bronx projects, invited me skating. I had never been skating, much less with a teacher, and was so excited that I strapped on those insufferable metal, adjustable skates and practiced up and down the projects’ parks and paths a whole week before our outing just to make sure I wouldn’t spend the whole time on the skating rink floor.
In the seventh grade I remember leaning in as Mr. Turk bent down beside my desk in social studies class hoping to convince me that I was more brilliant than my silence suggested. That I needed to speak up more and show off my spark. I only nodded in response. He was confirming what I felt about myself, but was afraid to reveal. I didn’t say it then, but I was grateful for the acknowledgment.
And the old adage is not true because everyone cannot teach. And I don’t mean lecture, assign page numbers and load their car up before the last kid is even dismissed. I mean creating indelible moments that inspire young people to their calling.
I haven’t figured out how to do that between 7a.m. – 3p.m.: hence my problem with time management.
But the teacher who literally drove me to understand that I had a gift inspires my passion for teaching and my love of the arts — Mr. Barkan.
Tenth grade creative writing class was my breakthrough, my a-ha moment and Mr. Barkan went as far as driving me to poetry contests and stood in the back of rooms cupping his ears to remind me of what he had said before I got to the mic. “…the pockets of their ears, Miss Arauz.”
My tireless effort to introduce young people to their calling is a thank you to Mr. Barkan for scrawling in red ink across my first assignment: …to the next Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks…
But it would appear that I have not honored his prediction if my efforts have been reduced to my simply hiding.
I am the product of one of the most dynamic and talented families on the planet! Whether up in the Bronx; Tulian, Honduras or Far Rockaway, Queens, my family members spin tales, tell jokes, sing songs and break into impromptu dance numbers to an orchestra of ordinary living room furniture -– all at the drop of a hat. I am the daughter of artists who worked day jobs diligently with snatches of their genius charming co-workers and bosses alike, but you could only catch the full brilliance on weekends when they were truly free.
I have celebrated this legacy in my own way: my mother traditionally reads my sixth grade students a vignette from The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros in Spanish. She then makes her signature arroz con pollo and ends the visit with merengue and soca music driving her to the dance floor where my students laugh over spontaneous dance lessons and experience first-hand one of my greatest joys — growing up with a mom who loves to dance!
This past school year, I shared a note my father had written me with parents in order to demonstrate how important their own turn of phrase is in coloring how their children interact with words. My sister and I used to stare at my dad when he used big words in response to one of our six-year/three-year-old questions. We stood there blinking until he said, “Go look it up.” I hadn’t realized just how his love of words; his mastery of syntax influenced me as a writer and reader and was excited to share this revelation with the families I partner with to teach language as art. As part of the tenth year anniversary of 9/11 my dad even skyped with my students to share what he had experienced that day as he made his way from apocalyptic-Manhattan back home to Queens.
My cousin Freddy judged a “Cielito Lindo” singing contest for kids who had never studied Spanish, but were challenged to learn the Mexican folk song; my niece Delilah practiced presenting to students by sharing her aspirations to teach and this past spring my sister joined me on stage to open up the Writers’ Block Party I organized with renowned local poets and the team from VerbalEyze.
But the moment that garnered the most reaction was my farewell to my beloved Class of 2012 at this year’s graduation.
I was a nervous wreck knowing that this was my final moment to impart whatever wisdom; inspiration I could and I had to get this right. They were the class that reminded me most of myself. How I stood out for weird things like constantly —No, really. Constantly —writing in a mead composition notebook, hiding my drawings in blue graffitied binders and never singing above a whisper – all so I could be left alone. I didn’t know how else to protect my artist’s spirit from the scrutiny and deliberate cruelty of middle school.
My teachers had spoken to me, but if they had come across these words, this sentiment, it would have changed everything:
It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous,
talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We were born to make manifest the glory of
God that is within us.
The significance of these words by Marianne Williamson speaks to the survival tactic I adopted way back when, a tactic that impedes my progress as artist. I did hide: my talents, my dreams, my aspirations because laid bare they threatened the disillusioned and I could not afford to join them in the urban-cynicism that sometimes robs inner-city kids of dreaming. I didn’t have these words then, but marveled at how I needed to hear them now and if I needed them then they had to passed down. I gifted Class 2012 these words, then sang my heart out — a re-mix of Jill Scott’s, “So Blessed” because the final lesson to impart is one that I am learning myself: My peccadilloes and experiences are part of my artistry. I am blessed.
And after this tribute, people came up to me and marveled at the gifts that I displayed. People who know me have seen glimpses along the years and simply sat back and enjoyed, while others questioned, “What is she doing here?” Actually, those who know me just don’t say it out loud anymore, but have long had the same thought.
I think I have answered that: I am here to inspire young people as I was once inspired, but I get it. I have been called out. And we all know what excuses are… I have only done part of the job thus far. The other part of teaching is leading by example, so consider this an artist’s coming out.
An artist is coming to a page, a stage and a spotlight near you.