On When Things Hit Close to Home

by Heather Charles, B.A. ’10 + M.A. ’12

When I was an undergraduate I had several people tell me that I should just pretend that my family wasn’t poor, that I hadn’t gone to a bad school, that I didn’t grow up in a rough neighborhood, and that I hadn’t been abused. I was supposed to pass, which should have been even easier for me because I was white. I was deeply offended by this, I am not ashamed of where I come from, I have no reason to be. I went to Stanford, what do I have to apologize for? I am proud of my working class roots, because even though it was difficult it made me stronger, a better human being, a better teacher. I also found this advice to be terribly impractical. For one thing, I had an accent, and for another I could only reference what I knew and having never seen rich people before Stanford I really only had one truth to talk about. I couldn’t lie about my mom when it was visibly clear to everyone that she had had me as a teenager. I couldn’t make up stories to hide the fact that my summers were spent looking after my brothers and sisters and reading books. There were things I obviously didn’t know about, foods I had never seen, cultural references I didn’t get, and locations I had never heard of. I developed some close relationships with people more privileged than I was so that I would always have someone to call when I needed something explained to me, which was quite often.

This is how big the gap in the rich and the poor in this country, at a university 3 hours away from my hometown I was a foreigner. I had professors call me exotic. I was taken out to lunch by a doom-mate so he could learn what it was like to be poor as if I was the representative of a foreign planet. People couldn’t understand the version of English I spoke when drunk or when I wasn’t trying to be academic. People knew instantly, one of my exes explained that he assumed I was poor because I wore glasses instead of contacts, had not perfectly straight teeth, and was “curvier than most white girls.” I felt more comfortable in East Palo Alto than I ever did on the Stanford campus. And yet, academically I was thriving. I was so incredibly happy to be in a place that cultivated and satisfied my intellect. I did well, I traveled abroad, I took classes about big ideas and attended theater productions. Stanford became one half of me, but never accepted the other half. North Highlands, where I am from, was the other half and it could never accept Stanford. I straddle the lines of several different cultures, and I do this as someone who was born in this country.

I decided to become a teacher, because I wanted to do something about this, and also because I really love children. I amassed a massive amount of cultural capital, expertise, training, and cultivated talent. I was awarded a National Teaching Fellowship. I am so excited to work in the poorest schools with the toughest kids, in part because they remind me so much of home and also because I know it is the right thing to do. Today is my little sister’s birthday. She is 18. When she was little the teachers said she was gifted in math. I just found out that her education is so bad that she can’t make it through high school algebra. I am home for a couple more months, and I have to prep her for her GED. A part of me is scared that I am not that good, but every part of me knows that I have to try. This is the greatest pain for me, it is the watching of people I love fall through the cracks. While I gallivant around the world being Stanford, I can’t save them. So I stopped gallivanting. This is why I could never pretend to be from somewhere else, because my past is very much and always will be my present. Because in the end you can’t walk away from the people you love to save yourself. You save as many as you can while you pull yourself up. You do what you can and it’s never enough. People stop wanting “to deal” with your family. You stop talking about it in front of others, but it never leaves you. You can’t flee from the truth. But for me, this is ok. There is profound pain but also profound beauty in that truth. What I have seen has confirmed the most fundamental truth and beauty of the human spirit. We endure. We love. We have joy. We bring light even into the darkest corners. I love more deeply because my roots run so deep. I am grateful for that love. There is no deeper and greater happiness.

Heather Charles is a Stanford Class of 2010 graduate in history, and a STEP graduate of 2012 in Social Science. An Annenberg-Woodrow Wilson teaching fellow, she has spent her time working on educational inequality, first as one of the founding members and presidents of FLIP and then as a classroom teacher. Underneath her notoriously obnoxious and intense demeanor is a girl who loves polka dots, kittens, hanging out with children, consuming media and South Park. You can reach her at hcharles2010 at gmail dot com.

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One thought on “On When Things Hit Close to Home

  1. Carlos says:

    I’ve spent a fair amount of time in North Highlands (I live in Sac and am an admissions volunteer) and I’m proud of Heather and proud of Stanford for making an effort to bring in students like her – not just for her sake, but for the benefit of the other students who get to know her.

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