In light of the recent events in our nation concerning racism and social justice, the work I was able to do as a Seton Teaching Fellow has meant that much more to me. In many ways my life differs from that of my students. I grew up in a beautiful home with a loving family in a sweet southern city. But in other ways, I grew up pretty similarly. Each of my grandparents lived five minutes away and I was raised by an incredible village of people who have poured into me.
However, I was not unaware of the racism that was interwoven through my childhood and is still prevalent in my own life today. I will never forget the day I heard, “you talk white” from one of the black students in my fourth grade class. I will never forget being pulled outside of a classroom by a substitute and being told I had to act better than my fellow students who were white. I will never forget the million comments on how, “Alyssa, I’m so much darker than you and I’m white.” These micro and macro aggressions had left a pain in my own heart at a very young age.
I am so grateful for the fact that I had a conversion to the Catholic Faith at a young age because it made the struggles in my life more reconcilable. I was able to understand suffering in light of the Passion of Jesus, I was able to practice forgiveness to those who hurt me and I was met with unbounding love by a God who created me, saw me, knew me and loved me. In the eyes of the world I was seen as a black girl, in the eyes of the Father I was seen as beloved in every aspect of myself.
While I had incredible teachers in my life, only four of them looked like me. I knew that I wanted to be that teacher and mentor who looked like their students and poured into them like I was poured into. Similarly, throughout my journey in the Faith, the only substantial examples I’ve had of a black or brown person is my mom, my grandma and my cousin. I know that there are so many young black or brown people looking for the truth and it usually starts at a young age to make meaning of the messages coming from the world. The fellowship has given me a unique opportunity to love students who look like me, talk like me and will (hopefully) be me one day.
Something happened when I got to Mott Haven. I thought I was going to be the big teacher with all the wisdom. But, surprise! My fourth and sixth graders ended up teaching me more than I thought possible! Their insight on life and the world was refreshing. Yes, they have a hard life but they enjoyed the little things, like snack time or game time. They enjoyed conversations and jokes. They enjoyed having ‘prayer circle’ and praying for each other. My students connected faith and life better when Ms. Miles was sitting on their level while they looked off of my computer screen. They asked good questions and made bold claims rooted in fundamental truths that brought tears to my eyes. They reiterated to me that the gospel is simple. All Jesus asks of me is to be present and to love those around me. All I needed to do was to meet my disciples where they were and love them. My mentors and teachers did the same for me and I was incredibly surprised, blessed, and humbled that this lesson on love came from a group of students who were between the ages of 8-12 and looked a lot like me.