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Why I Teach (With Four Backpacks On)

By César A. Cruz
 | Oct 14, 2015

ThinkstockPhotos-178989139x300I’ve carried four backpacks.

My first, la mochila azul, was given to me in elementary school. I had little-to-no homework in it, but it carried words that weighed me down like bricks. Bastard—my father walked out when I was 2. Abandoned—my mother left me in México when I was 5 to cross that border to, one day, make a home for all of us in the United States.

Years later, I reunited with mom and met a new father, a man I desperately wanted to hate because he was not my papá. This new father used his sense of humor to ease the pain, of heart and belly combined. I remember enjoying dumpster diving amid trash and feces to look for cans and cardboard because he made it a game that we could play. “Pobrefication,” he’d said in broken English, diagnosing our economic situation. We escaped to a world of “Ricolandia” where we dined at imaginary restaurants passing the “greipoopon,” even if we were really in a Compton alleyway digging amid trash for cans. We’d raise just enough, by selling cans and well-stacked cardboard, so that we could taste a little bit of meat once a month at the local taquería. The other days we wined and dined on gourmet meals that mom cooked up making “a dollar out of 15 cents.”

Home—in the United States—meant never getting to keep a friend, constantly moving to dodge immigration and high rent. On three occasions, mom was deported. Each time, I’d cry myself to sleep thinking mommy would never return. This second backpack no longer carried just words, now it helped me “handle it.” It carried rubber cement glue and a plastic bag. That glue’s chemicals danced in a plastic bag that I’d place over my head to numb me to sleep and knock out from feeling as if my heart would rip out of my body.

Escape—there were many of those. “Handling it” wasn’t all bad, though. At times, I cried myself into a stupor remembering the pueblito where I was uprooted from, but could still exist with the power of a pen:

there's a place on an unpaved road called memory
where having "nothing" becomes a blessing,
and in that place callous hands salt tortillas
and Holy Ghost believers crawl
adorned with crowns full of thorns.

These words would tear (llorar) onto a napkin, practically writing themselves, and later a teacher would call them poetry. I’d write under the riverbed for months, years. Who knew writing could provide a release, an escape, a potential path towards healing?

Hitting helped. I’d hit the daylights out of baseballs and became a great batter. But it certainly didn’t start out that way. This hidden talent came from ticking off my little league coach as he’d say, “Just bunt the ball will you?!” After three quarters of a season on the bench I had enough. I took a shot. I swung, ever so awkwardly, and pounded the ball to deep right field. I hit it so hard that I fell to the floor. All I could hear was screams of, “run, run, run.” So I ran, to batting cages, to poetry events, to anywhere that would help me find my hidden talents so I, too, could exist with purpose.

It was there in that third backpack that I found not just a pen or a bat, but also Grandma Socorro’s picture. Torn edges, a black-and-white staged photo from the 1940s, of a stoic woman, failing to capture her vibrantly colorful spirit, serving as a reminder of lessons unlearned. I can still hear her whistling “La Prieta Negra,” as she boils water for “te de yerba buena” to help me relax. She’d stretch out her droopy arms, God manifest, and I knew that once again there was refuge in her loving embrace. It was there I found peace.

When she passed, the woman who helped raise me became a megaphone in my ear. “Por algo sobreviviste, por algo estas aquí. ¿Que aprendiste?” (You survived and are still here for a reason, what have you learned?) Although she was the one with cataracts, it was I who couldn’t see. Her death was like laser surgery to my vision. I found a metaphorical box labeled “hidden gifts.” With new eyes, I could see:

My father leaving, a blessing, he stopped hurting us.

My mother’s deportations, a blessing, I learned that nothing can stop us.

Digging through the photos of my mom I found a warrior who fought like hell to dodge immigration, a grandmother who survived revolutions in México, and it is they who gifted me the will to deal.

My life’s calling, that fourth backpack, made me a street pusher, dumpster diver, sniffer of pain, and hidden gift finder, in a school setting with a formal title of “teacher”:

There’s no branding or lining kids up
there’s no Mr. Cruz, just césar
no memorizing the 38th president
merely asking kids to observe 38th avenue

i ask questions
make students feel comfortably
uncomfortable

i start with me
where am i from
opening my own wounds
most with little to no prodding

if i want them to open up
i take that first step

I ask youth
to consider that the ‘downest’
homegirl on the block
may be grandma

then I deal

I slang hope
harder than corner(ed) drug pushers deal dope.

I teach.

With everything I have, by observing what kids carry, what they show and what they hide.

I pay attention to their first backpack.

I notice when they act disposable, disengage to numb the pain, how they graduate into coping.

With time, exploration of self, and an “I’ll-take-a-bullet-for-you” love, I help them see what’s already inside of them, their gifts, talents, and resiliency.

If I can help a young person explore his or her life’s calling, my job is done. That doesn’t make me exemplary or revolutionary, but merely blessed to carry a lot, and privileged to pass it on.

cesar cruz headshotCésar A. Cruz has dedicated his life to fighting for justice, from marching 76 straight miles to hunger striking for 26 days. He was born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, México and migrated to the United States at a young age with a single mother and grandmother and grew up in South Central Los Angeles. César graduated from UC Berkeley with a B.A. in history and has been an educator for 20 years, most recently serving as Dean of Students at Arise High School in Oakland, CA. He cofounded the independent school, “Making Changes,” out of his home, and has sought to create autonomous education spaces. He has overseen the Homies Empowerment Program serving trauma impacted/gang involved youth in Oakland. He is the author of two books, Revenge of theIllegal Alien and Bang for Freedom. Currently, he has completed the second year of a doctoral program in Educational Leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Last summer, he served as the Assistant Dean of Harvard University’s Secondary Schools Program. During the third year of his doctoral program, César joined the staff of Homeboy Industries and will conduct a 10-month residency at Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles. At Harvard, he is part of a great teaching team that has officially brought Ethnic Studies course to HGSE. Amid all, he is proudest to be a husband, and father of three children: Olin, Amaru, and Quetzali.

 

2 comments

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  1. <a href="http://freeimvucreditshacker.com">imvu free credits</a> | Apr 23, 2017
    It is really good point and thanks for sharing why i teach
  2. iris strong | Oct 17, 2015
    thank you for sharing. It only takes one to reach one and that one reach one, so on and so forth. Thank you for reaching many.

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