“This is not how a school should be,” I thought as I watched over 60 armed police officers enter my high school. It was the fall of my first year at Thurgood Marshall Academic High School in San Francisco. A small fight had broken out at my school and, all of sudden, for no clear reason my school was under siege. It was an unforgettable incident that would lead to some much-needed police reforms in our community. In the hours that followed, questions swirled for me. Would this have happened if the majority of the students were white? What if we were in a more affluent part of the city?
I walked out of school that day determined to make things better.
As I thought about ways I could improve things for low-income kids of color, I thought about the people who had empowered me and made my own success possible: my mother, whose love and trust gave me confidence; my 7th grade teacher, Ms. April Holland, the first teacher to tell me I was a writer; my baseball coach, Gary Johnson, the first and only father figure I’ve ever had; and Professor Carlos Jackson, who transformed me from a student to a learner. Collectively, this group of incredible individuals loved, supported, inspired and pushed me to become a stronger person. I decided to become a teacher because of their impact.
I currently teach intensive reading at Miami Northwestern High School in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood.
The majority of my students are black and come from low-income communities. Every day, I look at them and see a reflection of myself and my classmates at Thurgood Marshall. That makes my work deeply personal and demands I make it personal for them, too. And so, whenever I have a connection to what we’re reading, I share it. My students know that I grew up in the Bayview – one of the most ethnically diverse and economically disadvantaged parts of San Francisco. They know I attended UC Davis, and was the only one of my close childhood friends to finish college. And they also know I’ve fought for years to be their teacher. Back in 2013, I was accepted to Teach For America, an organization that enlists recent college graduates and professionals to teach in high-need communities and advocate for educational equity. Then, I was in a near-fatal car accident. The doctors believed I wouldn’t be able to walk, talk or read.
I want my students to understand my struggles because I know that they may face similar challenges, and they need to know that they can still succeed despite them.
Too many people make negative assumptions about kids who look like mine – the same way those police officers did about my high school peers. But what do I see? The leaders on which our future depends. I refer to my ninth graders as the class of 2023 – the year they’ll graduate from college. Serving my kids means holding them to these high expectations. They deserve nothing less.
After all the passages have been read and tests have all been taken, I believe what kids really want is to know that they matter. So I come to school every day and do whatever I have to do to make sure my kids know that they are seen, heard and respected by their teacher. This, I now believe, is how school should be.
Moving from a history of oppression to a future of empowerment will take major, substantive change. But that doesn’t mean we have to wait for it. Every day, I work to continue the legacy that my own mentors have started. Whether you’re looking to make a bigger impact yourself or know someone who is, consider teaching. Together, we can give our kids the futures they deserve.
Emmanuel Padilla is a 2011 graduate of UC-Davis, where he majored in Community and Regional Development. He worked on campus with the Early Academic Outreach Program (eAOP), Sacramento Area Youth Speaks (SAYS) and Educational Talent Search (ETS). He is a 2014 Teach For America corps member teaching at Miami Northwestern Senior High School.