The Story of Oyaya
The myth I tell about myself is that I’ve wanted to be a teacher since I first met a teacher. I remember the first standardized test I took, in the same classroom as I played with electric blue play-dough and drew pictures of flowers with no petals, no stamens, only hearts at the tops of their stems. I loved filling in that scantron. I was a child who loved sitting still, loved reading, fed on the jolt of pride that came from giving an accepted answer. Every bubble I scribbled full with my number two pencil gave me that jolt. Our test scores were sent home with us weeks later in manila folders with golden closures. I was labeled academically gifted and ushered off to learn from exciting teachers who thought I was great to teach and provided me with fascinating classwork, individual attention and lots of forgiveness for willful and snotty behavior – all of the luxuries of excellent schooling.
“Everywhere I carried my fragile superiority that I hated living with and felt I couldn’t live without.”
Often I was the only Black, working class child of a single mother in my sequestered classes, even though all but one of the ten schools I attended before college was chock full of us. My neighbors toiled. I was one picked to escape because of something about me. Whatever it was (smartness?), I knew I had to protect it to maintain my position. I moved on average every other year. I lived in rural places, urban places and went to some of the most diverse schools in the country and some of the least, on the West and East coast. Everywhere I carried my fragile superiority that I hated living with and felt I couldn’t live without.
When I was 16, I found the book Pedagogy of The Oppressed at a beach store. I had never heard the word pedagogy before, nor most of the words I encountered upon opening the book, but I was enchanted by the end of the first chapter. That oppressed people could be actors in their own liberation – AND that of their oppressors. That education is not just about acquiring knowledge, in fact not about that at all, but about understanding the world, about your place in it, about your power. That was good news to me. The way I thought about my life’s work as an educator completely changed. Equity and Social justice became my gospel.
Slowly, I began to notice the toxic messages I was being subtly taught at school. I realized I had learned that intelligence is something that is inherent to people, that living a fulfilling life is about constant competition and comparison, that everyone of a certain age should have achieved a certain set of goals and one is either ahead of or behind everyone else, that some are meant for lives are luxury while others are meant to work hard forever, that ways of knowing are limited mostly to reading, writing and math, that any piece of knowledge could be disconnected from another piece.
With this new perspective I entered the college application process. It was the apex of all of the competition and comparison of my K12 education and I was constantly reminded that the stakes were very high. Where I went to college was to be an evaluation of all I had done before and the determination of all I would do after. But all I saw was the ceremonious beginning to a life of ceaseless competition and joy postponement for externally created goals.
The world was new to me
“I didn’t know any Black people who homeschooled, especially not working class families like mine.”
I went to college for a year, then left for four years of working and volunteering. I found that I liked learning by working and reading independently and being active in my community. I read alot about unschooling during these four years. I was enchanted, but snapped myself out of it. I didn’t know any Black people who homeschooled, especially not working class families like mine. After years of struggling to pay for day care they were happy to send their kids to school, which was paid for by property taxes, not out of their quite unlined pockets. I let it go and imagined taking the spirit of unschooling into the public school classroom with me.
“It soon became crystal clear that I would not be able to be successful in a career for which I had build up a healthy reserve of disgust and disdain.”
When I went back to school I thought I’d be a radical science teacher so I majored in Biology. I was saddened to find that my science classes were all, more or less, based on rote memorization, with some lab work on the side. I hated it. I hated the competition, the curved grades, the cramming of more information than is truly feasible for human to retain, the lack of emphasis on the critical thinking that I thought would actually make someone a great scientist. My education classes were worse. Although there was almost universal agreement that the educational guidelines imposed by politicians were not conducive to authentic education of students in their kaleidoscopic diversity, our professors were required to toe the line. We were taught to disregard our own instincts, our passions, our students unique strengths and interests except for a detour here or there. We were educated out of excellence. It soon became crystal clear that I would not be able to be successful in a career for which I had build up a healthy reserve of disgust and disdain. And which I felt morally opposed to! I left both Biology and Education with gratitude in my heart for the teachers playing the political games required to truly educate and a list of ideas of what else I could do with my lifelong dream of becoming an educator.
I earned a bachelor’s degree in Critical Education Studies. My degree was an inquiry into why there are so few working class kids of color unschooling and in Free Schools. The question is still central in my life. Soon after graduating I conceived of Oyaya – a forum to extend that question to people of all kinds and other community centered and decentralized ways of educating ourselves.