As a young woman in today’s diverse, fast-paced and fickle society, infused with instant gratification, I can proudly write that a constant challenging experience I have learned to overcome was my low self-esteem. It was an unidentifiable sickness that began in my childhood and lingered into my adolescence and lived with me way into my young adulthood. Today it is in remission, and with care and astute attention I make sure it doesn’t affect me in any way, the way it use to rule my every decision when I wasn’t aware I had it.
As a child born here in New York City from a Hispanic home, life was different for me and my sister and the other Hispanic kids in my neighborhood. Most of us were raised by old world grandmothers who probably never passed the fourth grade in their native countries. Harsh words and violent reprimands were the norm and never questioned. It went as far as greeting teachers on every first day of school with ‘if my girl misbehaves, I give you permission to hit her with a belt’ and living in fear of crossing that fine line. As a result I never did get into severe trouble but I always did live with the belief that I must not be good enough, if this is the way I am to be treated. I didn’t understand at the time that it was the ignorance, and fear of my grandmother that taught her how to raise us. She didn’t know any other way to keep us from following into the violent and drug-ridden streets of our neighborhood.
As a young girl growing up with this idea of myself, I made decisions that were unhealthy for a young girl and if had the chance to undo them, I would and wouldn’t. I did things to be loved and accepted but luckily never faced other decisions which I might really have regretted like many other young girls that have experienced the termination of a pregnancy. Despite my fruitful progression in my academic career, my picture of me was always off. I went as far as rationalizing that I was ‘lucky’ when it came to my outstanding grades. In my eyes I was never worthy.
As a young adult, I won a teaching scholarship that promised my certification and position in what I believe to be the only thing I will be doing for the rest of my days, teach fashion. I delved into my profession with fervor; doing anything and everything I could to become an exemplary and loved teacher, all the while abandoning my health to a ‘morbidly obese’ diagnosis. I convinced myself I was happy, that I was not the one with the problem but the world that had this unattainable image of beauty, though that may be true, that could never justify my being so overweight. It never occurred to me to see, the oxymoronic pinnacle of my life. There I was, knowing everything about fashion, from design to construction, teaching students to draw long lean lines to demonstrate the beauty of the perfect body for an industry that shuns imperfection and I, not setting the example.
Looking back, I always did keep a smile on my face, I believe that was my way of confronting and hiding from the real problem, that I did not love myself. Along the way, I was blessed with friends, teachers and mentors that echoed who beautiful I was, and even if they never tired of telling me, it didn’t really matter until I began to believe it. And believing it led to so many decisions, which opened the doors to other beautiful opportunities. This is the power self esteem can have. I thank all of them and the things I have learned that have convinced me today that I am worthy and that it really isn’t anyone’s fault but my own, what I do with what I know and believe.
Today as I look around the classrooms I often substitute in, I see young girls like I was, intelligent and cheerful but starved for love and acceptance in a society that values your youth only if you meet their standards. I have come in contact with young boys, who go along with what others say just to fit in, and disregard their lessons of right and wrong. I have not let the chance pass by to tell them that they mustn’t fear the sound of their own voice and that even if these years may seem endless and so very important, they are only a part of one stage of many others yet to come. That every decision they make now mustn’t be seen as futile and unimportant but as a brick that is used to build a monument that will be their life or as a brushstroke on the canvas of the masterpiece that will be their life or as a stitch in the royal garment that will be their life.
I plan to continue to make that a part of my daily agenda when I begin to teach fulltime, to not only remind each and everyone of my students how important it is to value yourself but to teach them to do so; by communicating in a positive manner and helping them become self-aware of their decisions and possible consequences.
A well valued life will come with its obstacles and lessons learned from those obstacles but if you lack the weapons to overcome them, it is useless. The sum of what you learn, regardless of your environment, along with the amount of love you have for your self can arm you to conquer any situation. I believe both to be equally important and necessary in the very beginning of any human beings life. One cannot exist without the other in order to achieve success. What good is the knowledge if you do not believe yourself worthy to possess it? Unlike any other hardship, struggle or conflict in life, low self-esteem can only lead to failure. Whether it is academically or professionally, to believe you can do it and that you are worthy of its rewards is a personal motto that should be followed, and included in every AIM.
Written June 2010 when I was a substitute teacher