This I Believe

Mary Jo - Ann Arbor, Michigan
Entered on April 16, 2006
Age Group: 18 - 30
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I believe in the individual voice. As a fourth-generation Irish-Catholic woman in 21st-century America, I thought I knew the sound of my voice. But when I started teaching creative writing at a charter school in Michigan to children of Middle Eastern and North African immigrants, my voice all but disappeared. I was afraid to make certain observations, discuss my religion, or wear my favorite pink V-neck sweater. Female students dressed conservatively in scarves and long, dark dresses with only the skin of their faces, wrists, and hands showing. Admittedly, it wasn’t until I admired the shapes of their smiles, and listened to the sounds of their voices, that I was able to tell them apart.

Ironically, I recently encouraged my students—especially the girls—to use their voices by writing. I wanted them to feel empowered. They taught me that they want to be heard. We decided, in my middle-school class, to write a collaborative poem, one that would, as an eleven-year-old Iraqi-American girl said, “Break misconceptions about us.” She became so excited at one point that she jumped from her seat. “So much has happened in Iraq and now everyone thinks all Iraqis are bad.” Small and thin, she flapped her hands as she spoke, occasionally touching her vibrant orange and blue scarf. She wasn’t angry—this particular student is almost always smiling—but her voice rose above the others. Other kids stopped, listened, and agreed. “We need to write a poem and try to publish it everywhere!”

Outside of school, I attend church, socialize with friends from similar backgrounds, and discuss current events that seem a world away. We discuss the war in Iraq, but do not know anyone who’s been sent overseas. When I first started at this school, I spoke in soft, ambivalent tones.

Later in my class, as we discussed content for the poem, someone said that she never met her uncle. “Because he died in Iraq. He had dozens of bullets shot through him. He was thrown in a ditch.” An 11-year-old Iranian-American girl quietly called attention to her spot in the discussion circle. She told us that her father fought in the Iran-Iraq War. “We need to decide on the perspective of this poem,” she said and we knew what she meant. “Not everyone is Iraqi,” I said, and heads bobbed. These girls inspire me.

By discussing prejudices and stereotypes, these students’ strength has encouraged me to speak up. When I read them this essay, including the embarrassing bit about previously being unable to tell them apart, they didn’t bat an eyelash. What did they do? Smile, of course.

My voice is louder now, clearer because these children have taught me what I was trying to teach them: If you speak up, others will listen. I told them I believed in them. They applauded my essay. “You really care about us,” one girl said. “Thank you.”

The message was loud and clear. What a voice.