What’s up, peeps? David here. It may seem as though I’ve fizzled out right when I began in terms of writing, but my difficulty with writing in the blog is not time constraints, but just a lack of dedication in committing to a single topic. The post I originally intended to write was in regards to race, since it is such a hot topic in my workplace… however, I found myself ranting for nearly 5+ pages and barely even getting to the middle of things. I’ll elaborate more on that later on, but for today, a thought came into my mind: some advice from my mother.
Meet my momma:
I love this woman, and she loves me dearly. I can say that her love for me reaches a level that makes people question sanity. Her undying loyalty and championing of my cause has been the crux of many of my frustrations growing up–she sets a high bar and I’ve failed it plenty of times. We’ve been after each other’s throats (not literally, silly) at times, and she has been responsible for much of the man that I am today… as hard as that may be to admit at times.
Much of her outlook on life and philosophy of how to go about the daily musings are up for debate, and she and I debate about them once in a while. I feel as though I could probably write her manifesto on parenting. Hell, I plan on applying many of her techniques and I’m a student of her thoughts. I am her biggest critic, as she is mine; I am grateful in the end of it all for this. Amid the ideology she’s raised me on, one token of advice she had told me in passing one day has always stuck with me, and it is the advice I always give to my students and the advice I will one day give to my own children.
For some context: My mother, through her own mysterious ways, could probably tell that I was stressing out over school and work. It wasn’t that community college was difficult, but moreso that my academic confidence was at an all-time low because of my foolish first take at Rutgers University, which ended in my academic dismissal. It’s still the biggest regret that I have in my entire life. It helped shape me into the man I am today, but it still is the lowest point in my life. I didn’t want to fail again, especially at a community college (which is much easier than my time at Rutgers and also The Ohio State).
I’m sure my mother was worried too. I didn’t exactly have a good academic history for her to not worry about my performance in school. She also knew at the time that she couldn’t hold my hand anymore. She couldn’t hover over me to slap my wrist and say “no, don’t do that”.
She gave me some advice before I headed out the door.
She said this in Cantonese, so bear with me as I try to word this in English as close to her meaning.
“Remember, sai lo (the nickname that my family calls me by, kind of translating into ‘Little Man’), life isn’t fair. Don’t ever think that it is that way. You’re lying to yourself if you think that way.” — This definitely caught my attention. I arched my eyebrows and looked at her with a confused face.
“There will be people who will be smarter than you.” — I was getting a bit annoyed, because this was the worst pep talk ever.
“You will have some friends and classmates who just seem like they’re better than you. They work faster and can do so much more than you can. Look at how you and your father work. It took you four hours to install a door. It took your father fifteen minutes.” — I got defensive, of course, because when I did install that door, it looked so disappointingly bad that I wish I could’ve just burnt that house down in Philly.
“But know this: you will always have a chance to be better.”
“If it takes you five hours to study and be ready for a test,” she began, “and it takes another guy two hours to be ready for that same test, as long as you put in those five hours you will be on the same standing as him.” Now I know this logic probably has plenty of holes through it, but it was actually somewhat uplifting to hear. I had always struggled with being the little brother and folded when it came to academic rivals (competing against my sisters and also my classmates–particularly a boy named David Tong… you know, because he has the same damn name as me except for a single letter). Hearing this made me feel as though I were some sort of diamond in the rough.
“It doesn’t matter if that guy is smarter. If he puts in only an hour of work and you put in five into studying, then you can be better than him. You’ve worked harder and you’ve prepared yourself better than him.”
That was it. It was a brief piece of advice, but probably the wisest words my mother has given me (in my opinion, that is). It worked so well for numerous situations in life, and it reminded me of that wonderful and quintessential American spirit:
Hard work can trump all.
That advice carried me through college, when I went into my major not having much knowledge at all of the classic literature that my classmates seemed to have been so intimate with off the get-go. I didn’t grow up going to church, so I knew very little about the Bible. It made me so frustrated in Uni when the literature I had to dissect was some sort of reference to Abraham or Job (I figured out at the tender age of eighteen that it is pronounced “jobe” and not “jobb”). My mother’s advice told me to suck it up, Google and Wikipedia the crap about all the references I didn’t get in class.
It even helped me when I was working in a restaurant. My coworker and I would always playfully have a “tip-off”, where we’d just compete to see who’d be able to squeeze out more tips from customers. I was at a disadvantage, because she was an attractive Latina, and I would just watch with a disappointed glare as customers just shedded dollars at her just because she just churned out a tease of cleavage at them. She slayed those poor high school boys. I would think “how the hell can I do that?” Well, since I lacked the tools to do that, I had to find my own workaround–providing nearly flawless service (so that the customers would even feel bad for not tipping me more). Yeah, it was more tiresome than squeezing my chest for some horny high schoolers, but it proved to me that I could achieve the same results if-not-better through diligence.
Sidebar: I believe that everyone should work in the food industry or retail at some point in their lives so they can see how terrible human beings are.
Anyways, I give this advice to my students whenever applicable for many reasons. Being a
product of inner-city schooling, being a minority, being a non-native English speaker, being a child of uneducated parents, being a member of a community rife with drugs, sex, and gangs–a black hole of negativity and ignorance… many of my students find themselves dealt a pretty crappy hand.
First and foremost, it forces the simple truth about life: Life ain’t fair.
I see, hear, and feel it all around me: people who just spend their days saying “this world is not fair to me, boo hoo.” Students. Parents. Coworkers. Random strangers. While the fairness of life, especially in the United States, is definitely a topic worth visiting and realizing the discrepancies, it does nothing to better one’s own situation to just sit there and complain about circumstances.
My mother’s advice, thus becoming my words to my students, tells them one thing: It sucks, but it’s not hopeless.
Being a product of the same system that my students are going through, I see something that I know they will not until it’s far too late: they will never be ready for college. Not just my district, but the state of academia as a whole has this strange belief that every student must go to college. How is that possible for many of my students, who don’t know how to study, who don’t even know how to be respectful? That’s not an insult to them; I really do have students who just were never taught how to be respectful to each other. It’s not an attack on their character.
They graduate high school (which is honestly debatable whether some are worthy of graduation, but administrators and teachers have other forces-that-be that tell them that they cannot “fail” students. They get pushed through a grinder of inadequacy and mediocrity. There are many students who graduate from high schools all around the U.S. lacking the fundamental skills that would allow them to be more success in post-secondary school. Many urban students are from families that do not have any experience with post-secondary, so surviving the challenge of having to swim with ankle weights becomes even more daunting when they don’t even know how to swim, nor which direction to swim.
My mother’s words forces us to realize our situation–that we are starting off behind. It then gives us another serving of reality: That we need to step it up.
This philosophy has always guided my parents through their trying times. It explains how they have been through so much–how they started from nothing, and achieved the American dream when so many others haven’t achieved it. I’m sure these same words that guide me today helped them endure the racism, the criticism, the losses, the hardships, and every single thing that life threw at them saying “No, you can’t have this”.
Your circumstance is a product of your efforts.
Make up for your inadequacies. Navigate through the harmful labyrinth laid out before you. Figure out your weaknesses, strengthen them, and continue to swim against the current trying to drown you.