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'How Many of You Have Never Had a Teacher of Color?'

On the first day of kindergarten, a North Seattle mother reflects on representation

Published on: September 18, 2018

Happy girl on playground

My husband and I shuffled nervously onto the playground. With quick glances we scanned the crowd looking for friendly faces and clues about what to do, where to go. 

It was the first day of kindergarten. Our daughter Penny dropped her bag in the neat line of backpacks, running to go play before the first bell. She knew what to do, thanks to her time with Jump Start, Seattle Public Schools’ orientation week for incoming kindergartners. But for us, those tentative steps onto the playground were steps into a whole new world.

The previous week we had sat down with Penny’s new teacher, who had spent time with her during Jump Start. “She’s a confident kid,” the teacher told us, to my surprise. 

My daughter is reserved and shy. She’s not the kind of child who radiates personality when you first meet her. She avoids being the center of attention. She can give adults a mute stare when they ask her questions.

But I saw her confidence as she marched off with her class that first day. She didn’t look back. I realize now why I was surprised to hear her teacher’s assessment: I was projecting my lack of confidence, my memories of my school days, on to Penny.

As a baby, I was adopted from South Korea by a loving family, and I had a happy childhood. I always felt like my origin story created a special bond with my parents. After all, they had to work very hard to add me to their family. 

They never made me feel any less loved, any less a part of the family. They also didn’t make me feel any different than my sister, who was from my mom’s first marriage.

I want my daughter to be a strong woman who is proud of every part of herself, including her race and her heritage.

That lack of difference extended to my race. I felt disconnected from my identity as an Asian kid. A large majority of the kids at my school were white. I had next to no Asian peers at school or anywhere in my life. When my parents sent me to Korean culture camp, I didn’t want to go. Later, I fantasized about being a famous academic with the name M.M. Shock, my gender as well as my race invisible to others.

Yet part of me did want those things that were different about me to be recognized. As a child, I would happily tell my friends how I was abandoned at a police station in Korea (true story!).

Later, I met a group of friends, whom I love dearly to this day, who would make jokes about me being Asian. I went along with it and even made jokes at my own expense. It felt good to be seen as an Asian, even if it was in a way that involved mockery. But ultimately, it contributed to shame and discomfort about that part of who I was. 

A couple of years ago, I went to a mandatory work training led by lecturer and writer Robin DiAngelo. “How many of you have never had a teacher of color?” she asked.

Most of the crowd raised their hand, and my hand shot into the air too. I had never thought about it, but all my teachers — my first non-family authority figures and heroes — did not look anything like me, even in college.

As Penny gets older, I want her to be a strong woman who is proud of every part of herself, including her race and her heritage. But how can I teach her that when I’m still trying to figure out how to be that way myself? Parenting tests every aspect of your identity and self-image. You see it reflected back at you, as your insecurities play out in how you perceive and raise your child.

As we toured her neighborhood school earlier this year, I was happy to see kids of color running the halls. I live in North Seattle — not the most diverse part of the city — and the school isn’t even the most diverse school in the area.

But I can see already, just as I see when we go to my local playground, that she’ll have a different experience than I had growing up. Hopefully, she won’t want to hide who she is behind a pen name or make self-deprecation the way she presents herself to the world. 

When I picked Penny up after her first day of school, she was all smiles. She had chosen “pass” when they did the name game at school — she really doesn’t like to be the center of attention — but it had been a good day. She’s ready to leap into this new world, dragging me along with her.

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