The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Fighting Mr. White
I didn’t accept my teacher’s discrimination
Irving Torres
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It was the first day of 4th grade, and I was big news in the classroom. Everyone else knew each other; I was the only stranger. I had just moved to New York from the Dominican Republic and I only knew a few words in English. Although this was officially an ESL class, the teacher was a white American and the students were white Hispanics. I was the darkest one in the class, and everyone was whispering and looking at me.

The teacher—I’ll call him Mr. White—sat on his desk and asked everyone to introduce themselves. Tension grew in my body as I realized that all these people knew English very well compared to me. The only words I knew were “hello” and “goodbye.” When it was my turn, I introduced myself as best I could.

Everyone laughed at me, but it was Mr. White’s reaction that struck me the most. He grinned. I was surprised and confused. Did he find my English amusing? Was I an amusement to the whole class? And even if the other kids were laughing, wasn’t he supposed to be the teacher?

Exiled From the Group

The next day, Mr. White assigned seats. He put everyone in a group together, but told me to move to a table that was separated from the rest of the students. The way he told me to go over there, with disgust in his face, was something I had never experienced in my life. The rest of the students were looking at me with indifference. As I sat there by myself, I heard whispers of my name. I felt lost and confused.

At the time I didn’t understand what was going on. I was just a little kid, new to this part of the world. I didn’t know how the academic system worked here, but I knew I shouldn’t be treated differently than all the other students.

But that’s how it went the whole year. Mr. White was a good teacher with the rest of the students, but with me he was cold and distant. He spoke to others in a calm tone, but to me he was aggravated and more threatening. When the class did group activities, he kept me out, saying I wasn’t as advanced as them physically or mentally.

New to Discrimination

No one had ever treated me differently because of my origin, skin color, or language. Discrimination was a word that did not exist to me, perhaps because I was raised in a family where everyone is mixed. My great-grandfather is a white person from Spain, and my great-grandmother, who passed away, was Chinese. I have cousins, aunts, and uncles who are married to white Americans and Mexicans. I have both black and white cousins in the Dominican Republic. So I never thought racism existed. I was colorblind until I met Mr. White.

This man, whose real name I no longer remember, whose face seems vague to me now—maybe my head erased him for a reason— revealed racism to me. He never picked me when I raised my hand to answer a question. Although he would look in my direction, he acted like I was invisible. I could tell that he thought less of me. For a long time, I wasn’t sure what to do about it.

Then, one night as I was doing my homework in the kitchen and brooding over Mr. White, I happened to look out the window. The sparkling veil of city lights covered the night sky. I could see the beautiful river and thought I could hear sounds echoing from it. As I looked at this amazing view, I understood something: I should act like the river. Like the river I should be calm, and not get hurt or mad at Mr. White’s actions. Instead, I should calmly fight back, and show him and everyone who thought less of me because of my skin and language that I could be someone, that my origin doesn’t limit my ability to learn.

The Battle Begins

The next day, we all sat listening to the teacher reading out loud. I was paying close attention, waiting like a predator to trap its prey. As soon as he asked a question, I quickly shouted out the right answer, not waiting for him to call on anyone. His eyes widened with rage, penetrating my courage. But I kept at it. If he wasn’t going to call on me, then I would call on myself. After that, whenever Mr. White asked the class a question, I screamed an answer—and I was usually correct.

image by YC-Art Dept

From then on, it was a battle. When I answered without raising my hand, he would give me a detention. Even though I racked up a lot of detentions, I felt good about myself. No matter what the teacher and the students thought of me, I was proving them wrong by showing them that I knew the answers, and that they couldn’t keep me down.

Unfortunately, my mom didn’t believe anything I told her about Mr. White, so I kept fighting the battles myself. Every single time she met him, whether at a parent-teacher conference or when she came to pick me up, he transformed into a likable man.

Two-Faced

The first time I saw this transformation was at a nighttime parent-teacher conference. When my mom and I arrived, Mr. White’s face seemed peaceful and he gave us a fake smile as he sprung to his feet.

“How are you, Irv?” he asked me, in a tone that sounded like we were old friends.

“When did he ever call me Irv?” I thought.

This man, who had made my life impossible, was standing right in front of me making me look like the bad guy. He told my mom that I didn’t pay attention in his class. She already knew about the detentions, but now he was telling her about my low grades—which I didn’t think I deserved—and saying I was disruptive, which I didn’t think was true. I was bursting with anger. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

All my previous teachers in the Dominican Republic knew me for my good behavior and high grades, so hearing this guy accuse me of bad behavior was a big shock for both my mom and me. That night, my mom and I argued about it. I tried to tell her how he had lied and discriminated against me, but it was too late. My mom grounded me for two weeks because of what he said.

The teacher’s actions turned my mom against me, and it also affected how the other students treated me. They were getting more aggressive with each passing day, and I blamed Mr. White. In my opinion, children tend to copy adults’ actions, especially their teacher’s actions. First they started calling me names, and the teacher made no attempt to stop them. When they realized that he wasn’t going to do anything, the potency of their insults grew.

I was an outsider. I continued to yell out the answers in class, but otherwise I became a very quiet kid. I felt like Mr. White and the other students were staining my identity and I started to see hostility and threat everywhere. I was only a shadow of my former happy self.

Proud of My Quest

But I never lost my pride and I continued my quest to prove to everyone that I could succeed academically. I was taught by my great-grandfather that you have to earn respect, that it only comes with dedication and hard work, and I desperately wanted to prove to everyone that race is not an obstacle for learning. So, every day, I studied with my uncle, who spoke English.

As the school year came to a close, I thought Mr. White was beginning to understand that my origin had nothing to do with my ability to learn. But then I found out he had recommended that I be moved to a special education class. I didn’t think I had any learning disabilities—I’d always made good grades before I got to his class—and I was mad. Even so, I felt good about myself. I had worked hard that year, doing all the homework and participating even though I got in trouble for it.

Now, seven years later, I am back in regular ed and entering my senior year of high school. My English is close to perfect, and my grades are pretty high. I feel like I’ve proved that I can be successful, even if Mr. White will never know it. Although I’d never want anyone else to have to go through what I did, my battle with him actually spurred something good in me. I learned to ignore the negative things people say about me. Only I know the person I am, and what I am capable of.

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(NYC-2010-09-12)


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