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Post-Test Reflections & #SaveTFAJax

160 minutes – that’s what 3 years’ worth of science education culminates to.

This past Tuesday, my students took the statewide science assessment. Since August, I along with my school administrators and other teachers have drilled into my students’ minds the importance of this test. Passing this test means getting Biology in 9th grade. Getting Biology in 9th grade means you’re on grade level. It means you’re on the college-readiness track. It means you’re one step closer to a college education. It means you’re one step closer to freedom, to self-fulfillment, to achieving your dreams.

At this point in the year, they could recite these reasons verbatim.

When it was time to read the directions, I took one last look at my students, doe-eyed and brimming with hope, anxiety, curiosity, and determination all at once, and I stopped myself. I see students whom I butted heads with in the beginning of the year, but now we are on the best of terms. I see students who grew beyond the capacities of their own imagination—but not mine. I see inquisitive students who told me how they are interested in careers in science because of this class. I see 100% of students who have shown growth from the beginning of the year to this moment. In a few seconds, they were to be assessed on everything that they knew in science from 6-8th grade, and none of these things would matter on paper.

On paper, it was all about “mastery.” Did the student who have aspirations to work for NASA scored a 70% or above on the test? Did the student whom I butted heads with remember the difference between mass and weight? Did the student who grew 20% from the midyear to the April diagnostic remember the correct phases of the Moon?

So I spontaneously told my students that I loved them and am proud of them. I told them to remember that I was with them all year, and I am so proud of how much they have grown. Despite the importance of the test (because it’s still important) who they are as people is not quantifiable. Their test score doesn’t define their character.

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When I think about my students, I cannot help but think about Teach For America Jacksonville, and when I think about TFA Jax, I cannot help but think about my students. When I heard the news tonight that the Duval County School Board is about to cut funding for Teach For America, I was heartbroken.

If it weren’t for TFA Jax, we would have vacancies in all tested subjects—that includes ELA, Reading, Math, Science, and Civics. Our school has one of the largest populations of TFA teachers. We have strong relationships with our administrators and our community. We are coaches, we do after-school activities, we work Saturday school, we continually go above and beyond, and we always stand alongside our veteran and non-TFA teachers. We support each other and we look to each other for support, TFA or not. That’s what makes my school great, that’s what makes DCPS great, and it’s what inspires me to continue my work in education beyond my TFA commitment.

If it weren’t for TFA Jax, 100% of 8th graders at Jefferson Davis Middle School would not have had a science teacher.

If it weren’t for TFA Jax, Duval County Public Schools—a county with 200 teacher vacancies annually—would have been short 600 more teachers since 2008.

If it weren’t for TFA Jax, I would never have met my 121 Naturally Selected Scientists who have taught me more than I could ever teach them.

If it weren’t for TFA Jax, classrooms in Jacksonville will continue to be missing teachers who otherwise would have had a transformational impact on its students.

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Although the implications of the budget cuts would not affect me and my corps as much, it would impact the future of TFA Jax, the incoming 2017 Corps Members, and most importantly our kids. Currently, the School Board proposes to solve the classroom vacancies with marketing strategies to recruit teachers and retain new teachers—without Teach For America. Knowing the incredible staff at TFA Jax, the caliber of teachers that TFA Jax has recruited, as well as the people and community whom TFA Jax has built relationships with, students in DCPS—especially in Title I schools because that’s where 100% of us work—are at an extreme disadvantage.

At the end of 2016, I made a commitment to be uncomfortable, to be proactive, and to always keep going in the face of adversity. I never thought that it would hit so close to home, but the fight has begun.

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#SaveTFAJAx. For my Naturally Selected Scientists. For One Day, All Children.


Please help me spread the word to Duval County School Board members by sharing this post. If you live in the Jacksonville, FL, area or have family, friends, and/or connections in the area, you can help us #SaveTFAJax by contacting a school board member:

District 1: The Honorable Cheryl Grymes 904-390-2371
District 2: The Honorable Scott Shine 904-390-2386
District 3: The Honorable Ashley Smith Juarez 904-390-2239
District 4: The Honorable Paula D. Wright 904-390-2374
District 5: The Honorable Warren A. Jones 904-390-2372 (my school district)
District 6: The Honorable Becki Couch 904-390-2373
District 7: The Honorable Lori Hershey 904-390-2375

My kids, school, and Teach For America – Jacksonville thank you in advance.

Resolved: A New Year

The other day, I was driving to the mall with my family in the car. There were two left-turning lanes and I was in the rightmost lane. When I made the turn, I noticed that the car to my left was swerving towards me. At the same time, the driver on the opposite side of the road was also swerving towards me. I was staying perfectly in my own lane when my extra-cautious, backseat-driving mother exclaimed, “Watch out!” as she pointed at the drivers to my right and left. I flinched from the loud noise but didn’t swerve or change what I was doing. I stayed in my lane, let out an exasperated sigh, and muttered some expletives under my breath.

No one was hurt and my car wasn’t scratched, but it was quite an experience. If you follow me on Snapchat, you’re probably familiar with my many rants about the crazy drivers in my city. Now, I’m not saying that I’m an excellent driver (I’ve had a couple of fender-benders and I didn’t pass my driving test on my first try… or second…), but personally speaking, I am a big fan of using turn signals, not getting speeding tickets, and staying in one’s own lane.

Driving is the most Kantian thing ever. When you drive, you do certain things out of duty for some universal good. You know, like, not getting in a wreck? That, I would argue, is a universal good. In non-philosophical terms: I’m a big fan of turn signals, not getting speeding tickets, and staying in my lane not because I particularly enjoy doing it or because it pleases me as a driver, but because they’re common courtesy—you do these things and it will be beneficial for you, the people in your car, if any, and others on the road. So even when I’m not going out of my way to be an all-star driver (if there’s even such a thing), I’m doing my part—fulfilling my duty—for this universal good.

…Right?

Not according to my extra-cautious, backseat-driving mother.

I held that was staying perfectly in my own lane, and other people were not; therefore, other people put us in danger. If I had done anything differently, I would have overcorrected and gotten us into an accident. At that point, the fault would have been on me for hitting the other cars.

But my mother argued that I should be more aware and cautious of other drivers. It’s not enough to simply do my part as a driver to be safe on the road; I must be proactive and watch out for others, even before making any decisions, because I have family members in my car whose lives I must protect. While I can’t necessarily control what others are doing on the road, and while I don’t have the ability to see the future and predict what others would do, I can do small things that can make a big difference. Like waiting a few seconds after the light turns green to scope out the road, not letting people who run over stop signs frustrate me to death, or simply being more patient. It’s uncomfortable, annoying, and frustrating, but maybe it’s worth it.

The conflict that stemmed from this incident puzzled me for a couple of days—and not just the driving part. I realized that it served as a perfect vehicle (ba-dum-tss) to illustrate my post-elections sentiments.

I deleted my Twitter and Facebook apps because I couldn’t stomach the thought of a) whom we’ve elected as President and the state of our world, and b) others who called those of us who couldn’t stomach the thought of our President-elect “special snowflakes” who boohooed because the elections “didn’t go our way.” For two months now, I have refused to watch any news channels. I turned off notifications from AP for a solid two weeks following November 8th. I decided that I was going to immerse myself in my work and my work only (I wrote a blog post about it). And despite spending four whole years studying political science and philosophy, I thought that maybe I should give being apolitical a try.

I was staying in my own lane. It was an act of self-preservation more than anything. Sure, I wasn’t “hurting” anybody by doing it, but I was being selfish. I was staying in my lane primarily so that I don’t have to risk making myself feel uncomfortable. What I truly desired was comfort born out of fear. But I didn’t want to admit it.

Meanwhile, I noticed people close to me overcorrecting in response to the elections. A couple of family members became paranoid, never forgetting to warn me of any single thing that could potentially pose a threat to my existence. A couple of my close friends started leaning more extreme to the left or right. Socialism. Communism. Perpetual anger. Peaceful protests. Not-so-peaceful protests via social media. Ad hominem attacks. An endless stream of articles for audiences that only cater to our own ideology. And for what? “Discourse”?

I won’t make blanket statements about how “we” can’t engage in conversations anymore, but I know that I’ve become terrible at it. I can feel myself getting defensive when I hear things I don’t agree with. I still get visceral reactions when I hear the President-elect’s name, and I feel emotional every time someone mentions January 20th. This is the state that I have been in for a while, and I feel pretty pathetic for it.

But I realized that I can’t keep hiding like this anymore—in fact, I don’t have a choice because I am a Person of Color (PoC). As a PoC, to be apathetic and apolitical isn’t really an option that I have. My very existence is necessarily, and inevitably, political. To “stay in my lane” is to comply with the system that is built not by people like me, and for people who are not like me. To “stay in my lane” is to be silent. To “stay in my lane” is to be complacent.

And I was not built to be compliant, silent, or complacent.

So in the next few days before this darn awful year ends and in the coming year, I resolve to be an over-cautious driver. I want to fulfill more than just my duties, no matter how uncomfortable it should make me. I resolve to be proactive and always watch out for Others because the stakes are—and always have been—high.

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I resolve to be uncomfortable, annoyed, and frustrated, and not fight against these feelings. It’s part of my daily existence as a PoC. It’s not something that I can choose not to be or feel if I want to exist at all in this country, where I am neither a part of the dominant culture nor majority population. It will take patience—a whole lot of sweet, sweet patience—to keep going in the face of adversity and discomfort. And also probably listening to my overly-cautious, backseat-driving mother.

Cheers, and may 2017 bring you health, happiness, and prosperity.

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For when you are in need of affirmation

A Love Letter to Myself

Dear Oryza,

They say that comparison is the thief of joy. As a person, you’ve learned that comparison is the name of the game.

As a child, you grew up understanding that good behavior is modeled. You listened to the plethora of stories about your cousins, your parents’ friends’ children, even strangers whom you’ve never laid eyes on, who modeled what it means to be a good child. You learned that not only will you never be that person—that it’s impossible to escape your own being—but that you’ll spend most of your life trying to be someone that you’re not in an attempt to make your parents proud.

As a female, you grew up with no sisters and were told by society that your worth is defined by the attention given by the opposite sex. You will soon learn that sisterhood, in all its forms, is genuine and real, as are patriarchal and heteronormative power structures. Nevertheless, you still get stuck in the inescapable trap of comparison every now and then. How do I fare against women who are far more beautiful, more intelligent, more accomplished, stronger than I?

As a 22-year-old, you hear playful banter in every corner of school about how other teachers continue to mistake you for another student. You then observe the way students treat other teachers with respect, the way other teachers laugh at you for missing yet another Back to the Future reference, and the way your students yell at, laugh at, and manipulate you because you look like you could be one of them.

As a first-year teacher in a high accountability position, you feel infinite pressure and insurmountable expectations. You are responsible for your students’ successes as well as their failures; you are responsible for what you know and also what you don’t know. You feel more and more like a means to an end and less and less like a human being. You understand now the frustration that your teachers must have felt. Yet you feel bad for even complaining about your situation because at least for you, this is temporary; for others, it’s their career and livelihood. You reek of privilege and now you, too, can understand what the critics say about Teach For America.

I’m here to tell you that it’s okay to feel this way.

I’m here to tell you that the frustrations that you feel are valid.

I’m here to tell you that it sucks to be constantly compared to others—when other people aren’t doing it for you, you’re doing it to yourself because you’ve been conditioned to do it.

But I’m also here to tell you that you are a fucking warrior. You do this work because you genuinely believe in change and you believe in people. Your kids need you. Your work needs you. Your community needs you. The only thing that’s tougher than your work is you.

Your student J. L. tells you every day that you are greatness. You laugh because you know that he says the same thing to all his teachers. Start believing him.

Carl Sagan said that we are made of starstuff, the interiors of a collapsing star—the nitrogen in our DNA, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth. Some stars collapse after running out of fuel, but massive supergiant stars explode and this phenomenon is called a supernova. It outshines the galaxy and radiates more energy than the Sun would in its lifetime.

You, too, have star-stuff within you, if not literally (Ms. A-star-i). Know that the Universe is on your side, that you were never born to be an ordinary star. You have a supergiant heart and the potential to radiate positive energy in the community.

So, keep your chin up, kid. Keep listening to Aerosmith and dream on. You’re a child of the Universe, no less than the trees than the stars. You have a right to be here. No doubt the Universe is unfolding as it should.

Now go out with a (big) bang.

Yours,
Oryza, 2 days later

If at first you do not succeed… maybe you were not meant to.

I don’t know about you, but this past week didn’t feel like a short week at all! Even though I got an extra day off on Labor Day weekend because of Hurricane Hermine last Friday, I still feel restless and exhausted.

I just wrapped up my first month of teaching and I’m halfway through the first nine weeks of school. Honestly, though, it feels like I’ve been doing this for a lot longer. I’ve experienced a lot of growth in the short four weeks that I’ve been in the classroom on my own, and most of that growth happened this week in particular.

Some background: I teach 8th grade science, which is considered a “high accountability” position, as my students have to take a state end-of-course exam. The exam covers materials from 6th-8th grade, so after I finish teaching 8th grade material in the fall (Earth & Space Science, my favorite!), I spend most of the spring semester reviewing 6th and 7th grade standards and preparing my students for the test. The exam is scored similar to an AP exam – a score of 3-5 (out of 5) means passing. A passing score guarantees my students to be on the college-readiness track in high school because they will be eligible to take all the lab sciences needed for college admissions. A not passing score jeopardizes this chance.

Because I’m in a high accountability position, my administrators and coaches always keep a watchful eye. There isn’t a week that goes by without at least two administrators (both from my school and the district) popping into my classes, and for a good reason. They’re there to support me and make me a better teacher. I also have to attend a number of training sessions a month and Professional Development classes I’m required to go to both for the district and for TFA.

Long story short – I’m under a lot of pressure in my first year of teaching. I’d be the first to acknowledge that there have been days when I’ve gone into my classroom thinking, “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing!!!” and I don’t hide this from my administrators and coaches. I have a growth mindset that is feedback-driven. So I tell them areas where I would need their support, and these areas are always connected to the faces of students whom I need to support.

But sometimes I crack under the pressure. I also realized that there is a way to receive feedback that I respond to best. But sometimes life doesn’t give you what you want or what works best for you; in fact, most times, life gives you what it can give you.

This past week, my district specialist came into my classroom on what I thought was a stellar day. It was the first day of a new lesson on Earth’s tides. We debriefed during my planning period in the middle of the day, and I soon learned that I did most things wrong. I understood that the district specialist was on a strict schedule and probably had somewhere else to go after her visit. But I ended up feeling emotional, incredibly overwhelmed, and wanting to fix everything all at once. I projected my insecurities and frustrated my students in the process, and in the end, I scrapped my entire plans for the day and just let them get on the computers and do their make-up work… when my principal and assistant principal walked into my classroom. It was a Category 5 disaster.

At the end of the day, I called 3 people in my life who put me back on my feet. When you’re going through a rough day, make sure to have these 3 people on your speed dial:

  • Call someone who will humble you. This person was my dad. He told me that this is how life works. Life is tough, and as difficult as it may be right now, believe me, there are others who are going through tougher times. No, it doesn’t invalidate your struggles. But it does put it into perspective. Life is tough, but you’re tougher. You will grow from this and become a better person for it.
  • Call someone who will remind you. This person was my TFA coach. He, too, served in the classroom in the same capacity as I did. He told me that while he wishes he could say that these difficult things could go away, they won’t. But that’s why TFA chose me – and why I chose to teach for America. More than emotional support, he also gave me practical ways to move forward. He made me talk about my 2 “wins” on my otherwise bad day to keep myself positive, and 2 things that I will focus on changing by the end of the week. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but in one day, I could make at least one change. And so I did.
  • Call someone who will commiserate with you, and that could mean anything. After crying my eyes out to my dad and my coach, it was time for me to let out my frustration and annoyance. I called a fellow 2016 Corps Member who’s in the same boat as me and have become my best friend in this journey. I complained, wallowed in pessimism, angrily sighed, and basically let out all of my negative energy to him until I realized how ludicrous I sounded. We made a pact to make it to Friday, and that was enough.

I didn’t have any emotions left after those phone calls, so I was able to be productive. I took the feedback from the district specialist and made changes to my lesson plans for the next day. I determined that I was going to have a good day no matter what, so if it means “playing the part” until I make it to Friday, then so be it.

Surprisingly, things started to turn around. I played the part of the teacher I’ve always wanted to be. I channeled my inner, no-nonsense badass (for me, it’s Viola Davis playing Amanda Waller on Suicide Squad) while adding gifs and silly jokes to my PowerPoint for the lesson. None of my students laughed… but at least, for the first time in my classroom, I felt comfortable in my own skin while simultaneously playing the part. And it worked.

I had a student visit me for my first “Lunch & Learn.” Our first test is next week, and my students are looking for ways to bring up their grades and get extra help. I told them that I’m available after school and before school, but knowing that most of them ride the bus to and from school, I came up with the idea of having tutoring sessions during lunch.

My students loved the idea, and after one came, the others started coming. They came to do make-up work, fix their Exit Tickets, catch up on notes, and to help their classmates during the tutoring session. It really warmed my heart. The best part of it is that I get to spend extra time with them in smaller groups. I don’t have to deal with behavior issues because they aren’t trying to impress anyone in class – they’re there for them.

I’ve still got miles ahead before I could consider myself a good teacher, and that’s okay. I learned this week that sometimes you need to convince yourself that you are good at teaching to help build yourself up to eventually become a good teacher. The most important lesson I’ve learned is that just because I didn’t succeed the first time doesn’t mean I failed. It’s my first year teaching, so I’m bound to make mistakes. In fact, I’m supposed to make mistakes. But it’s what you do with those mistakes that count.

For me, those mistakes helped me to find the three people in my life who both keep me grounded and lift me up.

For me, those mistakes helped me to “play the part” of the teacher I’ve always wanted to be.

For me, those mistakes will help me succeed next time.

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One Week in Florida, Five Weeks in Tulsa

A lot has happened in my life since my last blog post. I currently have 3 drafts on queue that were all unfinished and written at different times in the past six weeks. When it comes to blogging, I’m not gonna lie, I treat it like a college paper sometimes. Grammar has to be as on point as possible (not perfect because let’s be honest English is my second language and I struggle with prepositions), and I’ve got to have a nice intro and ending. If I could find a nice metaphor or imagery throughout it, even better! With blogging, I don’t have a deadline, and I sometimes don’t have to turn it in. So if I start to forget the purpose or “end message” of my post in the middle of writing, I usually quit.

If I had learned anything from the past few weeks, it’s that I can’t write or live my life like that anymore.

The word that comes to my mind that perfectly describes the past six weeks is humbling. Truly humbling. But before I explain, let me give you a (very) brief snapshot of life up until this point.

orlandoI was in Orlando when the massacre at Pulse nightclub occurred. I was completely shocked when I heard the news, because of how awful it was and because my family had had dinner in downtown Orlando earlier that night.

I couldn’t process what happened. Even now, I still don’t think I’m able to fully comprehend it. I vividly remembered the day after the shooting, an Orlando radio station played a special version of Macklemore’s “Same Love” with different recordings of the Pulse shooting victims’ families, survivors, and also President Obama’s speech addressing the tragedy played over the chorus. It played twice while I was on the road, and I shed a few tears. In the couple of weeks that followed, I was able to have heart-to-hearts with my fellow TFA Corps Members who belong to the LGBTQ+ community about the shooting and how it personally affected me as a Muslim. I know that I couldn’t take their pain or struggle away on my own, but it meant a lot to me for them to hear that I am, and always will be, their ally, advocate, and friend.

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Here, I am pictured with my Community Onboarding Advisor (COA) Group! Our COA is our coach who will help us transition into Jacksonville community. Our group is one of our “families” throughout this process.

I was in Jacksonville for three days for Induction. Induction is basically an introduction to the Jacksonville community – not just the area but also the staff members and other Corps Members from past years. We went to a Hiring Fair or a Hiring Expo where people who have yet to be hired get the chance to meet with principals or record their interviews to be sent to principals for hiring. It ended with a charge dinner, which was incredibly powerful. The whole week was packed with activities and meaningful conversations, and I couldn’t be more excited to work with this group of people and make an impact in the Jacksonville community.

I skipped a 22-hour bus ride with the Corps to Tulsa, Oklahoma, for Institute. This is the intense “Teacher Boot Camp” that you may have heard of. We spent the first week learning how to teach – keeping in mind that we’ve been notified of our placement months before and have had plenty of time to either take or prepare to take the test for certification in that particular subject. Most people were placed based on their undergrad career or previous experience; I was not one of those people, but I did pass the subject exam!

Back to Institute… After spending a crazy first week learning all about our content, pedagogy, our city/area/community/school for the summer, and each other (there were about 450 of us from all around the country in Tulsa), we teach summer school for the next four weeks. We teach from 8:30am to 12:45pm – some of us divided this time with another person, some of us had a team of 4 teachers. After teaching, we go to the Training Hub to learn even more things about how to be an effective teacher. It’s safe to say that learning occurs every day, not just for students but for all teachers, as well!

IMG_9887Now, this is the part where it gets mushy because I get emotional when I talk about my co-teachers and my students. I’ll first talk about my co-teachers, or “collab” as we call it at Institute. They are phenomenal human beings that I’m so lucky to have worked with. The two ladies are part of the Miami Corps, so I’m happy that we’re in the same state so visiting is not a possibility, but a must! The only male in our collab became one of my closest friends in Jacksonville. He was formerly a philosophy professor, so we obviously get along quite well. (Fun fact: one time I had a terrible, no good, very bad day, and what did he do to try to cheer me up? Text me a quote by Aristotle. Classic.)

When I tried to explain to someone else how our collab became so close and work so well with each other, I simply said that it was like magic. We all came from different backgrounds and had varying experiences with teaching. We also had different personalities. We didn’t know each other at all prior to being assigned to a co-teaching group, and to be honest, I had anxieties about that at first. But somehow, we all made it a priority to meet every day from the very first day. Later on, we found out that all of us had quality time as our #1 love language. Needless to say, all those nights (some longer than others) that we spent together paid off. Through our strong bonds with each other, we were able to foster strong relationships with our students, and for that I am thankful.

Now, on to my students. Oh, my students! I taught summer school biology to an incredible group of high schoolers. If I had told you that I was teaching summer school, you’d probably laugh at my face and sarcastically say, “Good luck with that.” I realize that teaching summer school isn’t the ideal start to a teaching career, but looking back, why wouldn’t these young people deserve the best possible education that they can get at any point in the year?

To put the responsibility solely on the students would simply be unfair. I’ve listened to the nuanced stories of a well-lived and colorful life of a tenth-grader. I watched a student struggle to write because he did not know how to spell. I had a student who realized that she “played around too much” her freshman year, and goes to school summer after summer to gain those credits she did not earn the first time around, so that she can go to college. I had student after student who were bored in class because they were not pushed to their utmost potential. I saw a student who started the summer with a D fight for an A at the end of the summer, thanking each of us, when really, he did that by himself.

In the beginning, I would leave the classroom every day wondering, “How?” thinking that if I could pinpoint a problem or someone or something to place the blame on, I could then eradicate it right away and make it all go away. But I soon learned that that is far from how things are. I didn’t learn to stop asking questions, but I learned better questions to ask. Most of these questions, however, started to sound more like an invitation, and the answers started to look more like stories, or little nuggets of knowledge packed in bite-size anecdotes. These questions are not “How?” or “Why?” or even “What?” but they are hospitable, humble, “Tell me more,” or simply humane, “How are you feeling?”

Tell me more about your life.
Tell me your story.

How are you doing?
How was your weekend?
How does this make you feel?

Despite these labels – teacher, student, Faculty Advisor, School Director, Coach, Mentor, etc. – and their alphabet soup of acronyms and plentiful connotations, I learned to saw people simply as human. We cried a lot. We got angry a lot. We rebelled. We marched. We triumphed. We failed. We laughed. We hugged. We danced. We drank. We sometimes drank too much. We sometimes missed breakfast. We occasionally missed the bus. We did not sleep.

It was one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do in my life.* I still can’t say that I was an effective, or even a good teacher. I can’t even say that I’m a good friend or just good to my own self (I’m actually terrible at this last one). But I grew so much – I feel like I’m ten feet tall. I feel truly humbled to have been able to learn so much from my students, my peers, my mentors, and generally everyone who surrounded me throughout this experience. Yet, I feel like I still have a lot more to learn.

“When you stop learning, you stop living.”

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*My Induction/Institute experience is individual to me. I want to acknowledge that there are Corps Members (whom I may be friends with and/or follow on social media) who did not have the same experience as I did at their Induction and/or Institute. I hope that whoever reads this post will take it simply as a story, a memoir that is mine and my own, and that it is in no way an indication of how everyone felt throughout this incredibly tough, and at times taxing, experience.
Additionally, I want to name that there are plenty of events that occurred at Institute that had a profound effect on me personally that I did not mention on this post, but are nonetheless important, including, but are not limited to, the Social Justice & Equity Seminars and “the talk” at the Training Hub re: Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. I may choose to discuss these at length later, but that decision is solely mine.
I have chosen to acknowledge the above because I would like to recognize that although this space is mine, it is for public view/consumption, and therefore I want to move to be inclusive of those who may visit this space.
Thanks for reading!

Cheers to You (and Your Teachers), Greenville

For almost half of my life, I’ve been fortunate enough to call Greenville home. My family moved to this charming small town from the bustling metropolitan of Jakarta in December 2004, six days after my eleventh birthday. Since then, we have moved three times, I was educated here from fifth grade to four years of undergrad, and we never stopped commuting. One of my favorite stories is discovering that my fifth-grade teacher’s son attended Furman at the same time as I did, though he was a year older. It’s the little things like these that remind me of Greenville’s endless small-city perks that have made such a large impact in my life, one that admittedly I neglected to realize until just a few days ago.

Today, I’m preparing to embark on the next phase of my journey. For those who don’t know, I have accepted a position with Teach For America in Jacksonville. I passed the Florida Teaching Certification Exam yesterday and I’ll be teaching Middle School General Science. While I know that I wasn’t an education major in college, and I certainly wasn’t educated in the hard sciences, I’ve chosen to do this work partly because I believe in TFA’s mission that all children deserve equal access to education, and partly as a tribute to the incredible teachers that I was blessed to have had in all my years of school.

My middle school experience was particularly formative for me. In sixth grade, I went to an underfunded middle school in an area that is considered of low socioeconomic background, but had a great International Baccalaureate (IB) program. Despite all the stereotypes, I had one of the best years of my life there because of my exceptional teachers.

My math teacher noticed how hard I had worked in her class and that I managed to move up to the next level of math in one semester. She suggested that I take a test to see if I would qualify to skip another level of math in seventh grade. With her encouragement and blessing, I enrolled in Algebra I the next year. My science teacher was engaging, fun, and taught her subject with such care and attention to her students. My strings teacher helped me rekindle my love of the violin, an instrument I attempted to play when I was a little girl. (Later on, she suggested that I learn the viola when we had a shortage of violists in our orchestra. The viola is a beautiful, yet underrated instrument. I went on to play for the Philharmonic with the Greenville County Youth Orchestras throughout high school.)

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, my history teacher—she was the first teacher who tapped into my potential deep inside that I never knew existed. Despite my difficulties with language, my awkwardness in social situations, she continually pushed me to do my best, and eventually I delivered. My mother fondly remembers the memory of my teacher calling home, telling my mother how she loved to teach me. She tells me, “This never happens back home. Usually, they call the parents if the kid is in trouble!”

But the generosity of my teachers didn’t stop there. I was always raised to view my teachers as my second moms and dads. In high school, I started to see it solidify. I underwent many changes in my life and had to grow up very quickly. I confided in my high school teachers and grew close to them. They helped me in times of great emotional need and continually supported me in my many endeavors.

In college, some of my professors and staff members truly did fill the roles of my second moms and dads. They helped me find my passion, gave me the encouragement to pursue it, and opened so many doors for me that I didn’t know were there. They pushed me and made me feel uncomfortable in the best way possible because it allowed me to grow intellectually. They allowed for me a space to be vulnerable and simply listened. They believed in me and cherished my love of learning. Because of them, upon graduation, I felt—for the first time in my life—proud of the person that I had become.

How fortunate I was to be able to attend college in my own hometown and experience Greenville in a different way than I did before. In my freshman year, I had the pleasure of being some of my hall mates’ tour guide in Greenville. I could go to the same downtown Greenville and have a completely different experience than I did before. Most recently, my worlds have been colliding as some of my Furman friends became friends with my Greenville friends, or when I went to meet my former roommates for dinner and ran into my high school friends.

I wouldn’t trade these experiences for the world. Greenville, you have been exceptionally good to me and my family. I have made the most cherished friendships, from the people I grew up with to the people I had been blessed to meet at Furman. I have fallen in and out of love with you and your people. I have made great memories in every corner of your town, old and new.

It feels bittersweet, but I’m excited for the journey that lies ahead. I’ll carry with me the fond memories of this last summer in Greenville, as well as the years of education with my incredible teachers. I hope to make you proud.

While tonight I feel sad to no longer call Greenville the place where I live, I know it’ll always be home to me. And in the words of the Terminator… I’ll be back.

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I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar?

It is an unfortunate circumstance of the world that we live in that the number of books about women and/or written by women in our usual college curriculum are few and far in between. Unless you’ve taken up a specialized major like Women’s Studies or Gender Studies, or you’re taking a class on feminism, it’s rare that you read a book by a woman at all.

I began this semester a bit disappointed that my political theory professor took out Hannah Arendt from the syllabus, knowing that no one else teaches Arendt and the rare opportunity to read her work was a major influence on my interest in the class. Nevertheless, my bookcase from my four years of college is dominated by male (white, European, Christian—alas) authors. Given the rare circumstances that females have the opportunity to speak about our experiences, to finally give a dimension of reality that is oft neglected in an academic setting, we get passionate. This, I think, is a reasonable response.

But what I find especially striking is the side-chatter of my male peers, who get turned off by the “emotional responses” that ensue from my female peers’ and my taking advantage of this opportunity in a class setting. It seems as though our response was irrational. “We ought to look at the time period!” they say. If we are speaking in the time predating the first wave of feminism, of course people were sexist. Of course they will say that women ought to be confined to the home at the time. And of course we are looking at things with a 21st-century pair of eyes—a pair of eyes that understand that the phenomena of voting in the presidential primaries and having two X chromosomes are no longer incompatible with one another.

Of course.

I don’t want to argue about context. Instead, I want to speak about the fine line that women walk every time a conversation about gender roles comes up. I want to talk about the responses that people have to women speaking publicly about their experiences, their desire to be seen as equal to men, to simply speak their minds without the inescapable scrutiny and criticism that follow.

These responses are akin to the “angry woman” stereotype or the “feminazi” epithet. They are belittling and reduce women to emotional beings that are lesser, irrational, and unable to speak for and about themselves without their passions. It’s as if we ought to have said and continue to say “of course,” and move on. Not to mention that these conversations are no less passionate than the conversations in class about political systems or morality. But I’ve never experienced such backlash when talking about these ideas—only when gender comes into play.

Are our passions necessarily unfounded?

What if I tell you that I couldn’t accept the past as such? What if it is incredibly difficult to read literature after literature that continually refers to human beings as “man” or “men,” and have to accept that that word meant woman and women, too? (For God’s sake, the academic spaces that I occupy—political science and philosophy—are overwhelmingly male-dominated, how many times do I have to reorient my psyche to think that I fit in the world in which I am not even acknowledged?) What if I couldn’t understand, even after all this time, the rationale behind the discrimination of women in the past? The same forces that were at work then are at work now to marginalize women in ways much more sophisticated than confining us to the home or silencing us politically.

I understand—it’s difficult to empathize with experiences that you are unfamiliar with. But empathy is not what I’m asking for. On the contrary, I ask for your voice. Rather than shutting yourself up in conversations about gender roles because you don’t identify as a female or with the female experiences, speak up. The stifled frustration that comes out in side-chatter is a product of the forces that silenced women in the past. The passions that I feel upon talking about my experiences as a female do not serve as a dis-invitation for anyone to the conversation. In fact, my wish is that they would serve as a hospitable welcome. Besides, Hegel does not think that our passions are bad. Our passions, after all, advance the Spirit of history. And the “Spirit,” according to Hegel, is freedom.

So, let me say this, once and for all. When I declare that I am a woman, like Helen Reddy does in her famous song “I Am Woman,” I am not roaring nor do I want you to hear me roar. Instead, I want you to hear me, as a woman, and I want to hear you, too. In the same song, she sings:

I am woman, watch me grow
See me standing toe to toe
As I spread my lovin’ arms across the land
But I’m still an embryo
With a long, long way to go
Until I make my brother understand

This isn’t an accident. If we were to truly have conversations about gender roles, philosophically or otherwise, we need much more than empathy for the other person. We need all voices to be heard, and truly heard, without a roar.

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Here’s to Starting Anew (Over)

Plot twist: Oryza creates a new blog.

But the word “creates” implies that this was totally intentional, that presumably I wanted to start something new. So, let me start over.

Oryza lost her blog.

First, let me share with you three lessons that I learned the hard way:

Every adult in existence who has ever told you to save and backup all your work was right all along.

Following their advice earlier, rather than having someone tell you on the other side of Customer Service that you should have done that, would hurt a lot less and probably save you from looking dumb when you’re in a public place, you’ve learned that you just lost your website, and the person on the other line just got hired at GoDaddy and has no idea how to fix your problem.

Nothing is free.

The word “free” is just a marketing tool to entice you. Somewhere in the annoying, boring, mega long Terms & Conditions (which you should all read from now on) says that you’re going to have to pay for the free services later on, probably when you’re already mega broke, all you wanted was a latte, but you couldn’t even buy the latte because you were charged $83.11 that morning when you didn’t check your bank account.

With time, and the grace of refund policies…

…every bad decision makes for funny stories to your younger sibling and friends.

Now that the embarrassing hard part’s over, I have exciting news to share!

The loss of my blog came at an opportune time as I’m about to embark on another adventure in my life. I started my previous blog the summer before I studied abroad in Brussels. I didn’t get to write as much as I’d hoped, and it ended up being less of a travel blog and more of a general website where I occasionally wrote some things related to my life. Now, I’ve chosen an apt theme that goes along with the mixture of things coming your way, at a time where connecting will be even more difficult because I will be moving from my hometown.

It is with joy that I share with you that I have accepted an offer as a Teach For America Corps Member in Jacksonville, Florida. I’m excited to spend the next two years in the classroom and in a robust, metropolitan area. I have a lot of life changes ahead of me, and knowing neither the area nor anyone who will be joining me, I know that the road ahead will not be short of challenges. But I hope that this new blog will be space for creativity, amusement, and reflection, if not to say a mere “hello, I’m still alive!” to my family and friends around the world.

So, here’s to starting anew and starting over, all at once. Cheers!

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