I was born December 1974 in Washington Heights, New York City, back when the Children’s hospital of Columbia Presbyterian was known as Sloane Hospital for Women.
And a year after that my mother passed away, leaving her mother to raise me.
My grandmother never finished elementary school in her country and never returned to school. Although she never received a formal education and spent most of her time as the ‘maid’ in her own rural home, her manners were not those of an ignorant country girl. She is soft spoken, courteous, considerate, and well-mannered with a profound respect and appreciation for knowledge and education.
Growing up, she moved the entire family to her country and at that time I entered the fifth grade. Not only were all the classes in Spanish, there were subjects I didn’t know existed. The Spanish wasn’t a problem because my grandmother never allowed us to speak English at home. ‘Cuando entren por esa puerta, hablen español, y solamente español. Aquí somos Hispanos y aquí se habla español!’. She was very definite in all her demands and never wavered and even if at the time we hated to have to just watch Spanish channels or translate everything for her, I don’t think she is aware of the huge ‘favor’ she did us, or maybe she does.
School in Dominican Republic was extremely challenging. It was unlike school at P.S.192 in Harlem; I still remember that fourth grade year before we departed. The first half of the year I was placed in an advanced class, a very diverse set of faces, white, black and Hispanic children but when January came around and my grandmother decided we were leaving, she went to the school to have me changed to an ESL class. She believed it would be better for me to be in a class with other ESL kids before our departure. I hated it, the lessons seemed to drag on and everything became so boring; the little fire I had within was slowly dwindling.
When we arrived, it’s as if I had entered another time on another planet. The hot climate, the pebbled roads, the barefoot half-dressed kids in the streets begging for water or armed with wooden boxes offering to shine your shoes for a quarter, it was all surreal and initially didn’t make sense just as the ‘Morales y Civica’ classes and ‘Caligrafia’. In my former school, morals and civics were never discussed and they surely didn’t care for calligraphy. So after a while when I noticed that classes such as algebra and physics were part of the daily routine, that became the norm, and the little fire began to blaze again.
As middle school came to an end, the matriarch decided it was time to go back to the States because according to her, an American high school diploma would be more considered than one from the islands when applying for college. She covered all her bases, sending us to an English institute on weekends to make sure we wouldn’t forget English and sending us to an Art school after school when she noticed we had talent, because despite her limited schooling she knew that given talents cannot grow if not given the means to flourish.
I was shipped to my father in Astoria, whom by that time had a family of his own. He had remarried and was on his fourth son when I started ninth grade in Long Island City High School. My father at the time was also going to night school to further his career as a Chef in a restaurant where he started out as a dishwasher in the late 70’s. We rarely saw him but were constantly reassured that this sacrifice was for the greater good.
High school came and went and many thanks are given to the teachers that made it bearable. Ms. Rifkin, the guidance counselor at LIC High School, whom informed me, after viewing my amateurish portfolio of dressed models, that there was a High School in Manhattan that catered to future ‘designers’ such as me. Mr. Cohn, the Occ. Ed. Teacher that said ‘Choose a career that you LOVE and you will always Love to go to work’ will always remain fresh in my mind as well as Ms. Carter, my first fashion design teacher that always kept me busy, because she noticed my restlessness and even allowed me to repair the sewing machines when they jammed. And I will never forget Dorothy Strauss, former English teacher, because she said I should be a teacher. The mere words made me laugh and I excused my laughter, because I thought them a bad joke, but she saw something I didn’t and she was right.
I obtained a spot in the SVA program, sponsored by the NYC Dept. of Ed., for CTE students that aspire to become high school teachers within their subject. The year I started, only five students were accepted into the program, out of over ninety applicants. I was the only young woman as well. After five years, you are guaranteed a spot as a teacher in your trade, but I was told that unlike other fields of study, in order to teach my field I need a college degree. Then there was FIT.
In the FIT years, I substituted in order to pay the rent and every other expense that came my way. Two years was the initial plan but an Associates could never be enough for someone like me and then came the Bachelors. Magna Cum Laude was more like it and the last year spent studying abroad in Italy finished that period in my life and commenced the next. I was taught to always follow through on all plans and never deviate from the plan therefore after graduation, the plan was to return and start teaching; that was not what happened. One year in Italy turned into five and that’s where I truly learned that ‘life is what happens when you’re busy making plans’.
Aside from all of the art and design lessons and jobs as designers I had in Italy, my experiences in this new culture have taught me the following: work to live and not the other way around, make time to enjoy what is truly important, and yes, for better or worse, family is truly essential. Get to know them and you’ll get to know yourself. If there isn’t time to do it now, relax, there is always tomorrow, the world will not end if it doesn’t get done right away. Appreciate your health and body by eating right and exercising, if you don’t have your health, you have nothing. Spend time amongst your friends or people that can add to your talents and skills and never, ever waste a day. I really believe that it all summed up to make me a better teacher for my future students.
I returned June 2009 and while I awaited a teaching job, accepted a temp designer job in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I knew I wouldn’t stay but the more I could learn about anything design, I accepted. I never cared for the money I earned, as long as it was enough to live on and cover my student loans, I was actually happy because I saw its actual value, building my knowledge for my students. And so it happened, I began as a fashion design teacher in September 2010 at Fashion Industries High School, eighteen years after I graduated from that same school.
I’m on my third year and can see myself being carried out in a body bag. I am one very happy, satisfied, exhausted, restless, dedicated, and devoted teacher that knows she made the right decisions in the short path she has lead thus far. I am also aware that there are many more hurdles and the fact that I welcome them proves I am insane. I can add this Masters as one, and I am confident I will achieve this one as well. My experiences are not over. I make it a point to learn something new every day, the more I know is the more I can teach my students. My travels do not define me, they just add to who I am becoming. It is my belief that a true teacher should never give up in their quest, to believe and accept that you can never stop learning is the true path to greatness (along with humility, something else I picked up in Italy) To believe you are done when it comes to your field is when you are actually done. ‘The day you stop learning is the day you die’ – Ms. Wright, Speech and Communication teacher at City College.
So far, it has been exciting to live the life of a young woman born from Hispanic immigrants. I have been the example of all that is preached in this country, ‘work hard and there is nothing you cannot achieve’, ‘the opportunities are out there, you just have to want and go after it and it will happen’, a true product of the American dream. Besides everything that my grandmother has done for us and the example my father has given, I have also realized that it was all possible because I wanted it. This is the ultimate lesson I want to teach my students.
This was written as an assignment in 2013
while earning a
Masters in Instructional Technology at NYIT