For me, it starts with the American Dream. The American Dream brought two hardworking, dedicated and optimistic individuals to the United States, specifically New York City. A place filled with dreams. The two were brought together, becoming parents to two first-generation daughters. For both, it’s been around twenty years since they first got here. Still, one thing remains the same. Restless eyes that manage to work many hours and envision a bright future, better than the one that could have been provided in their home country. It’s been around twenty-years, but life hasn’t gotten any better. This is the misconception of the American Dream. However, my parents keep reminding me of these things: “Don’t drop out of school”, “Keep studying”, “Get good grades”, “Be kind”, and “Be respectful”. As I think back to the pivotal moment in which I realized the importance of education, I think of my family and the constant reminders of the privilege it is to be in the United States. I think about how the impact of receiving an education would better myself and also the lives of others. The same mentality goes for many other families like mine. There are also so many obstacles that people never realize when it comes to The American Dream, especially when wanting to receive an education as a student of color, low-income and coming from a Spanish speaking household.
Ten years ago, my parents enrolled me in P.S.179 ( P.S. standing for public school) and told me to take education seriously because, if I didn’t, I wouldn’t get out of the Bronx. For the first few years, it was all fun and games, but once third grade came around, we had to prepare for our first years of taking the state test. In a class of nearly 30 students, it was hard to learn, and so, despite my best effort to pay attention, I was still finding it hard to understand. I was shy as a kid, so I didn’t ask questions when I was having a hard time. Luckily for me, I went to a homework help program. I wasn’t the only one struggling. It seemed as though a lot of the students in the class were having a hard time getting one-on-one explanations. Students struggled with language barriers, slow information processing, or other conflicts that interfered with their ability to learn. Our curriculum was so fast-paced that the information would go in one ear and come out of the other.
Since I grew up in a household that did not speak English as its first language, I had to take ESL classes all the way through elementary school. The disruption of being in a classroom with students, then all of a sudden being taken out of class in a small group took away time from participating in activities and lessons. I was one of the only students that remained in ESL for all five years, from first to fifth grade, while all the other classmates progressed and dropped it. I no longer wanted to experience learning as an ESL student just wanting to drop it. Somehow, I made it through middle school without having to take ESL classes which made me feel “smart.” As a first-generation American, the mentality of not knowing English continues pushing to mentality of stupidity which I also observed in other students. Though I still struggled with the English language, I made an effort to push myself even further by constantly reading books like the Percy Jackson series, Divergent, The Hunger Games and others.
“School districts with the highest rates of poverty receive less funding per student than those with the lowest rates of poverty, a new report shows.”
Like any other 9 year old, I wasn’t aware of racism or discrimination. But I also wasn’t aware that my normal was not normal for others. To have parents that work two jobs, to see students drop out, to be a part of a perpetuating cycle of poverty in an underserved Bronx neighborhood was not everyone’s normal. I never questioned why Manhattan was always so much cleaner, nicer and attracted more tourists. Among the many things I observed, I absorbed but never questioned. See, there wasn’t a specific event that triggered my realization of an issue, but rather, choosing to ignore an issue that was right in front of me Even now, I wonder, if our local government decided to aid people of my community, how would things change for many, especially children? If educational opportunities like going to private school were more accessible if the public school system became more positive and healthier if the local government aided in building more educational systems instead of investing in prisons and fixing infrastructure, and providing more aid towards families living under the poverty line? If any of these things were brought attention to, then perhaps the cycle of high school dropouts and poverty would finally come to an end.
Earlier this year, the NYC planned to build a 26-story jail, 5 blocks from my home. I firmly believe this was a huge step back from the work the community has been trying to do to improve the social climate in South Bronx. Instead of this jail, many residents have decided to put together a plan that would instead benefit the community, such as building 700 homes for low-income families. If the environment is bad, how can one expect the people to be happy? To break the conditions that people in the Bronx are plagued by, we need to break the cycle of crime, and in order to do that, we need to develop a community based surrounded with positive conditions. This, and only this way, education becomes a priority. The less violence observed by young kids, the less likely students would find themselves mixed up in violent acts. The programs implemented in supporting a student’s education and their families, the more likely students stay in school. Promoting a positive outlook on the community is vital to promote a better school climate. Thus, the environment in which students learn needs to positive for a student to continue pursuing an education.
As I stared out of the window, all I remember feeling was utter defeat. Approaching the Bronx on the ride backcrossing the Willis Avenue Bridge, I stared and stared out looking at the projects, families walking and laughing, graffiti on the walls of stores and realized how much privilege and backgrounds really do affect opportunities. I was in 7th grade and I had just come back from my first debate tournament against other beginner teams. We were so sure we’d come back with at least a trophy for a student, but we all came back empty-handed. It made us frustrated, but it taught us that in our world, some people have to work harder than others to achieve the same goal. Why? Privilege: “The special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.” I understood why I had to work harder. Harder for my family, friends, and community. You see, The American Dream isn’t always in your favor if you are a person of color, immigrant, low-income, or simply not rich and white. Privilege and race play a huge role in where people settle and how to build their lives. This slowly continues the perpetuating cycle of either a good or a bad environment.