stephanie jones

Mr. Ramirez

In family-school relations, high school, personal narratives, professional development resources, social class, stephanie jones on June 19, 2007 at 6:08 pm

The sun beat down ruthlessly as I marched across the spacious and vulnerable lawn of the outdoor Florida high school campus that was framed by one-story brick buildings. Doors hung open in fifteen feet intervals revealing classrooms filled with rows of chair and desk combinations and a teacher at the front of the room. I stepped into the shade of the canopy that covered a walkway and made my way to the classroom where I first learned about beakers and chemicals and where I memorized the table of elements and slouched in a chair staring dreamily into the dark afro in front of me. Today I was on a mission – no attending class, no slouching or dreaming, no goggle-wearing or chemical mixing. It was a new semester and a new day, and though Mr. Ramirez held my attention impressively throughout Chemistry, I was not going to follow through with his recommendation that I take physics. Stepping up and into the laboratory-like room, I handed him a piece of paper that indicated I was intending to drop his physics class and take something else. Mr. Ramirez (who was about forty years old, dark-complected, good-looking, and the food for my fantasies of marrying off my mother to a middle-class man who could provide her with an easier life) pushed his moustached lips together, shook his head and said something like:
“Stephanie. Don’t do this,” and gave me a long hard look.
“Why are you doing this?”
Another pause.
I can’t for the life of me remember if I responded to him or just sat there staring at his face or my shoes.
“Tell you what, I’ll give you an A. Just take the class. You can do it.”
At the time I had constructed some perverse fantasy in my mind that this “bribe” was to keep me in his classroom as eye candy, or something exceptionally stupid like that. People told me that I was pretty and had since I was old enough to understand words, so nearly everything that happened to me was immediately designated as a response to my physical appearance. Now, as an educator who has counseled first-generation college students who were on the verge of dropping out, and as someone who has made similar “offers” just to keep students in the line of possibility I reread this historic event differently. I have sat in my office chair pushing my lips together, shaking my head:
“I will do everything I can to make this a good experience for you.”
“Don’t drop out. I will get you through this, you can count on me to do that.”
For the life of me I can’t remember their responses. Perhaps they stared silently at me, or at their shoes, or perhaps they shook their head and mumbled something about not fitting in, not being able to manage family and school, not being able to talk in classes where they felt so different. Those details have left me, but the real physical pain of feeling my heart in my toes and knowing that I was about to lose one has stayed with me. Mr. Ramirez must have felt that same pain.
Mr. Ramirez was trying. He had to know that I was a recent newcomer, that I was from a family headed by a single woman at the time struggling to pay the bills, that I had been teetering on the edge of the abyss for at least two years, that I had the brains and the motivation but not the know-how to find comfort within school walls. How difficult it must have been to watch me walk out the door with his signature on the paper indicating that I was now officially dropping his course, physics, a course that could have provided me with cultural capital had I thought about applying for college, a course that could have convinced me to pursue science beyond high school, a course that might have helped me find comfort within academic settings.
He knew.
I didn’t.
That part of the conversation never happened, but of course, it’s so clear today.
Even had that conversation taken place, what is a sixteen-year-old who hated school, despised witnessing the privilege of schoolmates, and needed to make every dollar possible to pay for her own clothes, food, shoes, and help with younger siblings and household expenses to do? I needed money, and school was placing too many boundaries around the hours I had for working. I transferred to the district vocational school where I took classes for a few hours in the morning and then left to go to work – to make money – at noon. Mr. Ramirez, in that moment, didn’t have a shot at me. He might have convinced me across a number of conversations and across time, but in that space of me smiling and handing over the “drop” slip from the high school office, he didn’t have a fighting chance. I was done. Gone.
The multiple, competing, and contradictory narratives of my mobility across social class divides are filled with tense spaces such as that constructed between Mr. Ramirez and myself on that hot Florida day. Near-misses I call them – moments when I might have begun down a path that was foreign to me and most of my family, moments that might have made me miss the carefully practiced beat of walking in working-poor shoes, moments that might have gone either way, though they were in the habit of going in the same direction as the moments for generations before me, moments that constantly threatened to reclaim any stake I had made on the path to mobility. Money and time were always at the center of those tense times for me, two concepts that I found intriguing as a young child but unable to control them, at least in small ways, until I was an adolescent. Both, however, are forms of capital that work for us or against us in various societal exchanges, and that was something I did recognize early on in life, as well as the fact that physical beauty and a feminine demeanor could be used nearly as well as money in most circumstances. And use them I did.

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  1. Wow. I know it’s probably not easy to admit that coyness sometimes has more social capital than confidence in this crazy gendered world we live in. Thank you for making me think.

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