I ran in the 16th Congressional District for nearly a year. All over the Bronx and Westchester County, I stumped. I shook hands and bumped elbows. I spoke and debated. The constant traveling and meeting new people was different than the quotidian “stability” of teaching the same kids in the same classroom that I was used to.
The similarities between being a teacher and a candidate, though, made for an easy transition: The focus on community. The listening. The draining hours one puts in for long-term gains they may not be able to personally witness.
I taught middle school education in New York City for nearly 10 years. My first teaching position was at an underperforming public school in Williamsbridge. My school was plagued by administrative neglect, lack of resources, violence and overcrowding.
The contradiction of attending a so-called “failing school” while living in the world’s wealthiest nation was not lost on the students. Some saw school as the great equalizer, while others rationalized that the likely negative return on education wasn’t worth their investment. For my students with disabilities — who on average lagged substantially behind their general education peers academically and made up the majority of discipline referrals — their educational despondency filled the halls occupied by school safety officers.
So much of being a special education teacher is demystifying education for one’s students. As teachers, we get our young people to believe in themselves when the world has told them they should not. Many of my students entered my eighth grade class at first- and second-grade reading levels. It was understandable why they may have hated school when the classroom existed not as a site of development and liberation, but one of their own personal failure.
Most of my students attributed their academic challenges to deficiencies of the self, but they were the ones who had been failed every step of the way. Year after year, they were passed to the next grade without their educational needs addressed. The system denied them the awareness, the toolkit of strategies, the accommodations and modifications that would have made them more successful in school.
“Surreal” was one such student of mine. As an eighth-grader, he comprehended text on grade level, but paradoxically decoded words on a kindergarten level. With little phonemic awareness and no interventions ever implemented during his schooling, he managed to make himself a capable reader by using context to try and quickly figure out what the unfamiliar words he couldn’t read must be.
Surreal engaged in an elaborate, lexical search-and-rescue every time he read, what must have been an unbearably tiring cognitive load to exert.
Our students survive in environments set up for them to fail. They persist absent intervention, and without recognition. Our youth — students of color, students with disabilities — are pathologized and stigmatized in our culture. They are neglected by society, but we know just how resilient they are.
What could we be if we did not have to muster our students’ resilience borne out of institutional neglect? If our collective brilliance was not used just for survival? In low-income communities, in communities of color, in Mount Vernon, the Bronx, our same problems continue — just like for my students — year after year without intervention, without those in power supporting our upliftment.
I ran for Congress because, even before the pandemic, before the protests, we had communities in crisis, communities that had been underserved and disinvested from for too long. Communities that had as little faith in government as my students did in school.
Ever more, we need bold, transformational politics to upend the status quo, but we can’t expect the necessary legislation from business-as-usual politicians who don’t understand our reality.
One of my favorite authors on education, Lisa Delpit, wrote, “In order to teach you, I must know you,” and the same is true for leadership. Our political leaders have no idea of my students, They have no working knowledge of schools and communities of Surreals.
We — the teachers, organizers, community leaders, and those with no so-called experience — do. While I’ve suspended by campaign for this primary, the fact remains: Our communities need us. And that’s why we need to be in Congress.