I’ve been asked to be part of an art project about the value of literacy at a local school in March. The students will work with a visual artist on a mural for the wall outside their library. They’ll work with me on written reflections about why reading and writing matter.
The teachers report that the middle school students — mostly Latino, many of them native Spanish-speakers still learning English — are hesitant writers. The students say they’re afraid if they get too good at writing English, if they seem to care too much about words, they’ll be criticized by their peers for “acting white.”
The biases of peers can be so deforming. For a long time, I had a resistance to writing, in part because I was afraid of what my peers would think. In high school and college, I hung out with the “brains,” the top 10 percent of our class. We were friends not necessarily because we shared values or hobbies, but because smart was weird and we needed each other’s company to stay sane in the “Heathers”-like environment that was our high school. Living along the Illinois Research Corridor in the western suburbs of Chicago during my those teen years, many of my friends were the children of internationally recruited nuclear scientists, physicists, and chemists. Hard science was something you could build a middle-class life on.
Although many of these same friends played an instrument, in the name of being well-rounded or having a creative outlet, none of these parents thought that the arts were the key to their children’s future. When the parents heard I wanted to be a writer, they would tsk. “That is something you can do on the side,” a mom I was especially close to said to me.
The bias extended through college. Nearing graduation, the roommate of one of my best friends — both of them geology majors — started circulating a joke:
Question: “What does an arts major say to a science major after graduation?”
Answer: “Would you like fries with that?”
Ha ha ha.
In one of those poetic turns of life, this roommate ended up managing a sandwich shop a few years after graduation. I don’t know what he’s up to now, but of course I wish him the best.
It’s interesting how in my nouveau-middle-class, suburban teen social circle, a devotion to writing seemed dangerously soft and unfocused. I was putting all of my parents’ investments in me at risk. I could easily slip down the class ladder, wasting everything. My friends’ immigrant parents shook their heads.
Contrast that with these working-class Latino students’ concern that words could take them outside of their culture, beyond some pale of their community’s expectations. They might seem too striving, too willing to set aside their true selves and their real family simply to get ahead.
It’s a lot to think about as I work on my proposed approach to this project.