My mother used to slap us if we spoke slang. And while she never sat down to help us with our homework, as far as I can remember, she would slap us, too, if we didn’t get it done. Acting ghetto and talking ghetto alike were a big no-no in our household. My mother thought the ghetto was toxic, a poison she feared would trap her kids if we started acting like the kids we saw at all hours of the night on street corners.
While dealing with abuse at home and being bullied by classmates in school, there was one thing that couldn’t be taken away from me. I was smart. I loved books. And the more I read, the better I did in school and the more my classmates picked on me. Intermittently, my mother, who expected us all to get good grades and go to college, would pull me out of school to take care of my siblings claiming that my grades were good enough that missing one or two days wasn’t going to affect my grade point average.
When I became a teacher, I told people I was following in the footsteps of my fathers. My teacher fathers. I would not have survived without these men. Most of them were young. They didn’t have kids of their own. I don’t think they completely understood that they were acting as substitute fathers or maybe they did and they understood that this was an unsaid part of being a New York City public school teacher. These men nurtured my writing, helped me with my homework, my college essays, my scholarship applications, helped me find jobs, gave me money so I had enough to eat. And for moments at a time, they made me feel safe, even in a world where I knew I wasn’t.