I attended a work conference last week focused on helping community college students succeed as they make their way to the world of work. There were lots of theories and programs presented, most devised by talented, well-meaning practitioners. The best part of every session, though, was when students themselves talked. I’m not sure if conference organizers just decided that a standard format would work best, but almost all of the students who spoke used the same structure. Each began by saying, “I am from …” The rest of each of their sentences included everything from the city where they lived, to the conditions in which they were raised, to the culture with which they identified. Some were short lists and others were lyrical poems. Each was amazing.
After the first evening, I saw one of the students at a reception and told her how moved I was by what she had said. It made me see so much more about her and what she carried with her as she moved through the maze of college and beyond. She was both humble and proud, and said that writing her address in that format helped her, too, because it reminded her of how her life had unfolded to this moment. Her comments stayed with me and I’ve thought a lot about how remembering where we came from can help us develop both self-awareness and empathy—for ourselves and others. Reminding myself of my own places of origin has been grounding and enlightening.
I am from a place where empathy was hard to come by, but meant enough to me that I
nurtured it in myself.
I am from a life that was easy, on the outside. I am from middle class white privilege that provided us with bedrooms for everyone and nightly meals on little metal TV trays while we watched “Bonanza.” I am from parents who had already raised two kids and weren’t ready when they realized they were having an unplanned third. I am from a quiet, unemotional father and a mother who felt everything. I am from watching them navigate a dance that I can see now was never going to end on a high note. I am from a mother who saw me as a way to feel less lonely in her own life, a heavy load to hand to a kid raised mostly with adults.
I am from the 1950s and 60s, a swiftly moving landscape spanning the chasm between “Father Knows Best” and Vietnam War protests. I am from a world of teenagers that did not look like me—all straight girls and boys, happy to walk the halls of my high school holding hands and writing notes to each other. I am from a secret world—one lived in my own head, where I loved my best friend and imagined no future for myself.
I am from the 1970s, when the “second wave” of the women’s movement brought lots of lost girls like me together for solace and conversation and inspiration. I am from the day when I first kissed another girl and realized that we could both survive. I am from parents who would grieve that kiss but eventually embrace it and the other women I loved.
I am from such a narrow view of my own life that I could never even imagine what it might look like when I was an adult. I am from a high school where no teacher ever really saw me. I am from one college journalism class taken almost by accident where my professor told me I could write. I am from that world, the one where I began to grow some confidence in classrooms. I am from grad school professors and advisers who suggested I think about teaching. I am from the resonance I felt the first day I stood in front of a classroom as a teacher myself. I am from showing other students what they had inside of them and still having to convince them I wasn’t “just being nice.” I am from the power of education awakening us to ourselves.
I am from a late-in-life gift from who knows where—a woman who found me when I was 50 years old and told me she loved me. I am from the life she and I have built and continue to nurture. I am from a place where empathy was hard to come by, but meant enough to me that I nurtured it in myself. I am from a family of friends who tell me the truth, encourage me to grow, and hold me both close and accountable. I am from enormous good fortune and the opportunity to share it. And I am from gratitude—more now than ever.