On Yoga, Empathy, and Pedagogy

Yesterday I tweeted a bit about my terrible yoga experience.  Here is the letter I wrote to the yoga studio.  It helped.  It reflects my thoughts on empathy and teaching.

Dear Yoga XXX,

I’m writing to tell you of my experience yesterday night at your studio. I guess the reasons are twofold: 1) I think I need to for my own catharsis and 2) I truly hope that it will help your yoga instructors to understand just how words can affect people. I’ve been helped by putting myself in someone else’s shoes, and, while I don’t pretend this letter to be entirely altruistic, it’s coming from a good place. 

I’m going through a particularly stressful time in my life (it’s not important what it is, but it is one of the most difficult periods of my life). My friend recommended Yoga XXX because I am really looking for a mind/body connection and hoping to bring some focus into my life if even for the hour that I can center on me. I had done yoga briefly in the past and had enjoyed it. 

I admittedly didn’t start off great because I ran into the studio five minutes late. I had never been there, and I got lost, even with GPS on my phone my sense of direction is horrid (and taking care of three kids on my own and getting them settled before attending a XXX class was just a big task on this particular day; I don’t mean this to be an excuse, just an explanation).

I was determined to do some “self care,” and there was no turning back for me. In my heart and soul I needed to begin at that moment otherwise I feared that I would keep delaying my own care and keep neglecting myself. Have you ever had one of those moments where you just felt compelled to move forward with something because that is what you needed for yourself in that instant? Yes, this is what was going on in my head. 

I entered the studio and XXXX asked me if I was joining that class. I said, “yes.” She replied, “just be aware that you are late.” It wasn’t the words alone, but the tone, and the way it was done in front of the class to publicly scold. (Oh, I knew I was five minutes late. I had been anxiously trying to find the location only minutes before. Not only did my mind already know it but my tense and stressed body knew it too.). She directed me to the cubicle area with her finger and told me to take off my shoes. I went, and do you know what I did? I cried. My eyes filled with tears, and I watched my face in the mirror as my emotions drained out of it. The weight of the stress in my life and the place where I was seeking to alleviate some of it, to find some refuge, just deflating in huge disappointment in those seconds. But, still, I was determined to stay. I was going to get through that class because I needed to for me at that very moment. (Maybe I should have just walked out because no one deserves to feel that they are being abused when they come to learn. I’m still struggling with the idea of whether I chose to stay because I was embarrassed to leave or because I truly needed to stay for me…maybe both…things aren’t that quite neat.)

I joined the group. Everyone seemed to know each other, and I was getting an inkling that it wasn’t a “beginner” class like stated on the schedule. But, that was okay, I was going to give it my all, and learn what I could. Well, what happened about half way through the class really shook me up once more. I listened and observed a pose being taught, but there was apparently one thing that I forgot (recall, it’s my first experience at yoga in many, many years). I did the pose as best I could, and XXXX came over to help me (I did appreciate that). However, I forgot what to do with my hands. I laid them flat instead of open and up. She said to me, “you really need to work on your listening skills.” Yes, she said that to me in front of the whole class. And the tone was not one of patience, kindness, or respect. My eyes welled up once again, but I held it in. I felt abused in that moment, but I was going to stay. Here I was, a grown woman, feeling like I was two years old. Once again, the place where I was looking for a mind/body centeredness and stress relief turned into another stressful event to pack onto the chaos of my life. She did go around and help people with their poses, and in that sense, she was attentive. She has students in her classes, so they must get something from the experience. And maybe they respond to her sharply telling them, “none of you are listening to me; I’m just talking to myself.” Maybe they don’t know that there is a better way. And maybe some respond well to that given what is in their own personal histories. I don’t know. I will just speak for me and my experience as a teacher…

I choose to take something positive from this experience, and so in that sense it can help me and maybe XXXX too. First, I am a college professor, and in my many years as a teacher, I have learned much about the relationship between student and teacher. One of the most important things I have learned is empathy. As a teacher you never know what is going on in the lives of your students, and I have learned over the years, through the struggles of my students, that giving someone the benefit of the doubt is truly an enriching thing for both parties. In order to do this, one has to have empathy, to be able to put oneself in someone else’s shoes and try to imagine what they may be going through. Empathy also involves kindness, patience, and respect. XXXX cannot possibly know what is going on in my life. I just walked through the door and into her class. But that is the beauty of giving the benefit of the doubt. One doesn’t know what is going on in other people’s lives, and so it is best to err on the side of a kind word. That is a path to opening up communication and empathy. 

On my being late, what I would have done differently? I would have taken me aside at the end, asked me about myself, my experience with yoga and would have probably said, “You looked a bit frazzled walking in. I hope everything is okay. We need to start on time for your benefit and the class’s, so I hope I will see you here again, and that you can make it on time.” That would have meant so much to me. What is the point of humiliating someone in front of the class? It is not about teaching anyone a lesson. In my years of teaching I have learned that that is not about gaining respect for oneself in front of a group; it is, in fact, quite the opposite. Making someone feel small to feel large, in the end, hurts teacher and student(s). Here is an example from my own teaching: Just this semester a student missed her presentation. I gave her the benefit of the doubt that she wasn’t being lazy or disrespecting me, etc. The very first thought that popped into my head was, “I hope she is okay.” I voiced that first thought out loud to the whole class. Hopefully, I emulated for them the importance of giving the benefit of the doubt. I could have ranted on about being angry that she wasn’t there, and messing up the schedule, and so forth, but that didn’t really matter. She emailed me later in the day, and it had indeed been a very tough evening and morning for her, and I am just glad she was okay. Sure, I will have students who will lie, but I’d rather take control of my own thoughts and know that if they lie to me (and I think the majority won’t), it’s on them. They will experience the consequences of that in the long run, and I will reap the benefit of giving the benefit of the doubt and having empathy in my life. 

On my having the “wrong” hand pose: This one really took me aback. Again, what was the point of humiliating me in front of the class? Does XXXX really know anything about my listening skills? No. She does not. Does she know about my state of stress and how it can affect my cognitive abilities? No. She does not. Do students learn best by humiliation or patience? I think you can probably know that intuitively without me listing the studies that show humiliation is not a positive mechanism for teaching. What motivates students?: patience, understanding, mutual respect, …all of those things that we might intuitively expect but don’t always put into practice (myself included, I have to make a conscious choice sometimes to remind myself that these things best serve my students, and me too). What would I have done differently? I’m sure that by this point whoever is reading this can come up with positive ways that my learning could have been enriched other than through putting me down. 

I don’t know how this letter will be received, but I send this letter with only good intentions. Like I said, my goals are to provide a catharsis for myself, and more importantly, to communicate some things from my own experience as a teacher to let XXXX know how powerful words can be, both positively and negatively. I hope she can take something from this other than defensiveness because that is often the first response to feedback that isn’t glowing. I should know…I’ve experienced that feeling with end of the semester teacher evaluations. 

I also choose to empathize. Maybe XXXX is going through a difficult time herself. The only thing I do know for sure is that her reactions to me actually had little to do with me. I hope that whatever it is, this letter can let her know that teachers have effects on people’s lives in ways that we may not know unless we are told, and that we can learn from these experiences. She has reinforced for me the importance of consciously being aware of having empathy for my students. I will take that silver lining. And if something is going on in her life that is affecting her negatively, I wish her full and rapid healing. Like I said, she has students in her class, so that also speaks positively to her skills. I don’t know if her words to me reflected a pattern or a bad day, but we all have our struggles, and hopefully we can learn from each other. 

May we all work to make the world a better place by showing kindness each day. Thank you. 

Sincerely,
Becky Martinez

I love birth stories, just not this one

For someone who loves birth stories, just ask me and I’ll give you all the details of my kids’ birth…and I’ll make most of you regret you even asked…there are two birth stories that I don’t like.  I’ll share one now; the other one will have to wait.  This is my mom’s birth story of when I was born.  She would tell it to me when I was a child, and I would cringe deep within me.  I never let on that I didn’t like the story.  In a strange voyeuristic—watching a traffic accident kind of way—I wanted to hear it…again, and again…

 

As my mom tells it, she was looking at a calendar trying to calculate when I’d be born.  It was probably one of those free calendars hanging high on the wall, given out by churches , grocery stores, or gas stations.  (side note: why do Mexicans hang pictures and calendars high on the wall, way above eye level? So the kids don’t mess with them? I know you think it’s a stereotype, but just take notice…). 

 

My mom said that I was still two months away, but at that moment…my mom is a little bit dramatic…she said she felt something warm traveling down her legs.  She looked down and felt between her legs.  It was blood.  Warm, wet, and red…not a good sign.  My mom had miscarriages before and lost my oldest brother at delivery (the other birth story I hate), so I can somewhat imagine the fear that engulfed her, especially with a seven-month pregnancy.  (I had a miscarriage once, and even at six weeks, the alien shaped clot of blood that passed through me onto the toilet paper was traumatic).  She said my dad wrapped her in a blanket and whisked her off to the hospital.  I can imagine he was probably driving at full speed.  He always did have a heavy pedal, even when trying to get me to school on time, the few times that I asked him.  He was one of those drivers who couldn’t fully stop at a stop-light or stop sign…he was an “incher” if you know what I mean.  Inch Up. Stop! Inch Up. Stop!

 

At the hospital, my mom said the doctor couldn’t locate my heartbeat.  She said she remembers him putting his hand on her forehead and saying something to the effect that he didn’t know (no sabia).  He didn’t know if I was alive or dead.  They cut her open.  They took me out of her womb that had experienced both the gift of life and the sorrow of trauma.  I was born back in the day… Today this might not be such a big deal…fetuses as young as 25 weeks old are being brought from the brink between life and death.  Not to say that it’s the norm, but the technology has made my birth less “miracle” and more “mainstream.” 

 

My mom said the doctor told her I was a “miracle.”  That I had survived was a miracle.  I don’t know what caused my premature delivery.  Perhaps placentia previa?  I don’t know…I’ve always been weary to ask…maybe for myself, but also for my mom.  Would she want to relive these moments?  And why, anyways, did she feel the need to tell me all of this when I was a child? (I think I have an inkling). 

 

I think my mom wanted me to know that I was a survivor.  At least that is how I choose to read it now.  I made it through…no one was going to declare me dead before me time.  As a kid, though, I felt the weight of guilt every time she told that story, whether it was just to me or to a group of family members.  I was conflicted…I wanted her to stop, but I wanted to hear it. 

 

And then it just got worse…she said that I was so strong that I was able to go home before she did.  She told me the doctor had said that we almost both died.  What?  Yes, we had almost BOTH died.  So, how does that make a child feel?  I’ll tell you now.  It made me feel guilty as all hell, thinking that I almost killed my mom.  I couldn’t articulate that as a child, but, damn…I’m sure that’s why I always hated the story of my birth. 

 

And even then, an intersecting story is what my mom told me about my tia Anita’s comment when I was born:  “no tiene ojos de color”  (she doesn’t have eyes of color).  Recall, brown is not a color.  My mom was older when I was born, and it was pretty clear I was the last baby.  My beautiful mom with the green eyes and white skin had four (maybe five; I still don’t know how to count my oldest brother) brown eyed, brown skinned children before me, and my tia said I was the last hope for “ojos de color.”  Even at near death, …the message was that ”ojos de color” are important…

 

As an adult, I just wish to take with me from that story that my mom thinks I’m strong…”ojos de color” or not, she thinks I’m strong.  We are both strong.             

      

Internalized Racism…here we go…

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Internalized racism is painful.  The pain is multi-level.  It affects you personally and, as I realized yesterday, in a very deep way (super huge flashbulb moment), it has implications for family connections across the generations.  

So, here is where part of the story starts, and I’ll talk about other specific moments in later blogs…  

My dad was born in Santa Monica, California.  His name was Antonio Martinez, and he was a tall man with dark skin that reminded me of a the cafe con leche that he drank by the thermos-full (those old school big silver thermoses).  He had the thickest wavy black hair that he’d slick down with Brylcream, and he’d apply generous amounts of Old Spice after shave…I think I can still smell it sometimes, especially in my times of need.  (He died when I was 16. And I do feel his presence sometimes.  I’m sorry for you, not for me, if you think that’s strange).  I always knew he was getting ready to go somewhere because the scent of Old Spice would waft from their bathroom spreading a thin fog throughout the house.  The only other smell daring to challenge it was my mom’s perfume, usually some spray from Avon that one of her friends had sold her…la Avon lady.  I can picture my dad now in a white cotton tank top (why people insist on calling them wife-beaters is beyond me. stop it people. that’s horrible.), green polyester pants (with cigarette burns on them), a scapular around his necks, sipping on a Tab soda and smoking a Kools brand cigarette at the kitchen table.  He was a sheet metal mechanic in Long Beach for McDonnell Douglas, and made the galleys for airplanes.  He’d only gotten a 7th grade education, but it was back in the day when the U.S. actually manufactured stuff and you could get a decent job with union protection.  I’d always known him with heavy eyes; he always appeared tired to me, and I’m pretty sure he was.  He had these large luna shaped bags under his eyes that looked to me like you could pop them with a needle and they’d deflate.  He was chronically ill with diabetes, and I even remember times when my mom would pull out a little silver case with a needle and go with him to their room to give him an insulin shot.  He was the oldest of 11, I think.  I know if I try to name them all, I’ll forget some.  He was born to Fernando and Tirsa Martinez.  I’m sure Tirsa is short for something, but not sure what.  I think this is another reason I feel compelled to write at this very moment in time…I’m searching for family, and I am searching for myself (but I digress…).  Who are/were these people who shaped me in some ways, many ways?  I don’t really know, and it makes me think I have a lot to learn about who I am (again, I digress…damn!…please bear with me).  

My mom, Maria de Jesus Escareño Lopez, was born in San Pedro, Coahuila, Mexico.  She goes by Maria Martinez.  She is also the oldest from a family of 11 or 12 siblings.  I always remember my mom making flowers and flower arrangements.  She studied up to the sixth grade in Mexico, and had to take a vocational path in her studies.  She didn’t like knitting or embroidery, so she chose flower making.  To this day, she makes flowers.  Her hands are never idle.  She makes them out of ribbon, napkins, paper bags, egg membranes (yes, you read that right), anything she can get her hands on.  When I was growing up she had a little business from the house making arrangements and selling them for weddings, quinceañeras, and folkloric dance. Flowers, flowers, everywhere…I did grow to despise them at times, but her talent helped put food on the table, especially when my dad was sick, laid off from work, or on strike with his union (as he told me once, “I ain’t no scab”).  My mom never smiles in pictures.  She says it causes wrinkles, and she despises wrinkles.  If you spend five minutes with her, she’ll break out old photos of herself and tell you how people always give her compliments on her beautiful skin.  I used to get irritated by this, but c’mon, she’s got a point, just look at that picture.  Flawless.  I find it endearing now.  I told her recently that I think I’m starting to get some fine lines.  She said, “No, that’s not possible. I just started getting wrinkles myself.”  FYI, her secret:  Pond’s Cream.  My mom is funny, though, which is odd given that she won’t smile in pictures.  Well, at least I think she’s funny.  She’ll start to tell a joke but can’t finish it because she breaks out in the biggest ugly laugh you have EVER seen: mouth wide open, grabbing her belly, tears streaming down her eyes.  I can’t recall her ever telling a joke without this scenario playing out.  She can usually get to the punch line, and the jokes are pretty damn funny, but what I love most is that beautiful “ugly” belly laugh that emanates from her very soul.  In that moment she’s not worried about wrinkles; she is just full of joy.  Physically, my mom is a bit vertically challenged like myself, but unlike me, she has white skin and green eyes.  Yes, white skin and green eyes. And that is an important point.  Her skin and eye color have shaped a number of things about my childhood and even adulthood.  It wasn’t until I was an adult, however, and learned about such concepts as white privilege that I could articulate the multifaceted ways in which color shapes experience.  And, specifically, the way color has shaped my experience. (I’ll tell you about the hazel contact lenses I wore my freshman year in college another time).  My mother’s whiteness is such a large and looming issue that it will need it’s own series of blog entries, and likely it’s own book.  It’s certainly related, and I’ll draw the connections to internalized racism at another time, but her whiteness is not what I want to focus on for this post.  I’ll be building to this…But I did want to introduce my parents, and their physical, as well as personality characteristics, provide a foundation for some of the things I’ll discuss as I blog along.             

The connections swirling in my head with internalized racism at this very moment start with my parents moving to Orange County, California before I was even born.  (Internalized racism definition needed?  Okay:  http://www.div17.org/TAAR/internalizedracism.htm ).  As I’ve heard the story told, houses in Los Angeles were expensive, but there was a place a little south that was beginning to develop, and the houses were cheaper.  That was Orange County, California.  Yes, you read that right.  This was awhile ago, mind you.  My mom would tell me of the cows and orange groves that made up a large part of the area when they first moved there.  Even when I was in elementary school and much of the land had been taken up by tract homes, I could smell the strawberry fields nearby. It’s one of the scents of my childhood that I carry with me; the smell of strawberries can almost always make me smile.  (I have an attachment to strawberries).  I lived in Cypress, California from the day I was brought home to the hospital until I went to graduate school (there was one year in between where did Education Abroad and lived in Madrid, Spain…that is a blog for another time.  Let’s just say I was the only college kid in the airport weeping, feeling the weight of guilt for leaving my mama for a year).  

It’s an understatement to say that Cypress had a big influence on me.  It was a small community with the elementary school just two short blocks away.  We were not the only Latino family on the street, the Mendoza’s still live a few houses down the street, but they seemed very different.  Now, I realize it’s because they weren’t poor, like us.  There were also two Japanese American families on the street a few doors down.  Both families were made up of white American fathers and Japanese mothers.  I rarely saw the women; they stayed mostly indoors.  Trying to picture them now, I can’t.  I can picture the men, though.  Burly type guys that I’m pretty sure had been in the military.  Both families had kids but they were older than me, and I didn’t interact with them.  My oldest sister did hang out some with Mike, who lived two doors away.  Everyone else on the street was white.  But, it’s not to say that my neighborhood wasn’t diverse.  I went to school with other Mexican American kids:  Sylvia, Fernando, Toni, Guy, Johnny, Monica, Louie, Yolanda, and I’m sure a few others that I can’t remember.  But what I do know is that none of us spoke Spanish to each other.  I’m sure some of them spoke Spanish in their homes.  I did.  I grew up speaking Spanish and English because my mom doesn’t speak English to this day.  I knew some of their parents spoke Spanish.  But what I realize is that what we all had in common was trying to fit in…we NEVER spoke about our heritage.  Hey, we were suburban kids…had there been the vocabulary, we would have embraced color blind racism to the fullest.  We were all just Cypress kids with no history.  Some of us still embrace that, like my Facebook friend Fred. I told him that I knew him as Fernando in elementary school and asked him why he was now “Fred.”  He said a number of friends couldn’t say “Fernando” so they called him “Fred” and it just stuck.  That seriously hit me like a ton of bricks! Who was I to question his name? I’m Rebecca and Becky.  My mom even has a hard time saying “Becky.”  Spellings of my name by my mom and Spanish speaking relatives include: Beki, Becki, Becky, Beky…  What I think me and my elementary school friends were searching for is simply belonging…and that meant we had to give up our history and our language, at least in public.  It was embarrassing to be of Mexican heritage.  We were just American. End of story. Punto!  But as I grew to have the privilege of discovering my identity in college (I was the youngest in my family and the only member at the time to attend a four-year university), things began to change…slowly.  I took Spanish in college, learned the appropriate grammar, studied abroad in Spain (my only way to get to Europe), and yet, the internalized racism nagged…  Speaking Spanish with my brothers and sisters was still “weird.”    

None of my siblings and I, there are five of us, spoke or speak to each other in Spanish.  We will on occasion when we don’t want someone else to know what we are saying, but it’s rare, and FEELS incredibly awkward.  And we all have different levels of fluency.  My oldest sister and I embrace it the most.  We developed close attachments to our cousins in Mexico, and I think that was a big part of it.  I would go with my mom to Mexico when I was in my teens, and got very close to my cousins in there.  I enjoyed my time there and my cousins and I had a blast!  I even developed a long-time crush on a Mexican boy from my mom’s town:  Armando Varela.  Every summer for two or three years I tried to get him to notice me, but to no avail.  I was a very late bloomer…no ass, no boobs, skinny as a rail with braces…not high on the cuteness scale.  And always looming in the background…I’m darker than my mom with those “plain” brown eyes.  I’m not delving deep right now, but to be white in Mexico is HUGE.  In a small town where families know each other for generations, that beautiful white & green eyed Doña Maria had ordinary brown skinned, brown eyed children is, well, not quite a tragedy, but…           

(Yes, I know, I digress…)…In Mexico, I could be Mexican…sort of.  I would always be a “ni de aqui ni de alla” (not from here nor there), but I could explore my identity.  When I started college, I was even more intrigued to know about my origins, and started the process of questioning all of the internalized racism that I had held onto.  Growing up in a largely white suburb and not daring to speak Spanish outside the home makes you have survival skills.  Speak Spanish?  Thank god none of my friends ever asked.  I spoke without any sort of accent…not like my cousins from Los Angeles…on the few occasions I would see them, I knew I was “better” because I didn’t have that awful twang that said, “L.A. Chola.”  (okay, yes, this is painful).  Everything about my surroundings in Cypress told me that I was “American” 100%…except my last name and darker skin and poverty.  And boy did I work hard to maintain that identity.  But when I got to college and had a self-identified Chicano professor and guidance counselor who changed my world, I began to question and question and question…on the road to good and painful discoveries…

My Mexican identity and the camaraderie with my Mexican cousins strengthened, but my cousins in Los Angeles, just 45 minutes away remained distant.  I could celebrate my Mexican heritage, but my cousins in L.A. …something was still eating at me.  Did I think I was “better” than them?  Why was I competing?  Who was asking me to compete?  What in the hell was going on?  I teach a course on Latinas and identity formation, and still, my own identity was eluding me… And, yet, for the last dozen years, I’ve known…deep within me.  I did think I was “better.”  Internalized racism led me to engage in this self-defeating hierarchy that masks itself as a form of “belonging.”  

It wasn’t until yesterday that I was confronted with the actual possibility of confronting this internalized racism head on in the form of apologizing to my L.A cousins.  I called my cousin Monica in the hopes of learning more about the farmland that my grandfather owned, and a potential story about my grandfather holding onto a farm owned by a Japanese man who was interred during World War II.  But my first question to my cousin was “how are you all?”  Maybe it wasn’t a fully honest question because I wanted to get to the nitty gritty of it all about the property.  But when she started to answer from the heart about all of her siblings, I started to feel guilty, but also realized I really wanted to know about my cousins.  I called for one reason, but started connecting on a whole other level.  I was thirsty to know about this side of my family.  Yes, I REALLY wanted to know.  The shell around me began to dissipate.  I’m no better than them, and quite frankly, I’m in many ways worse.  That my Aunt Sally could tell me she loved me…that was huge.  How could she tell me that?  How could she have such an open and giving heart when mine had been closed all of these years?  My cousin Monica was so open and giving of herself when I had not been in contact for so many years…yes, there was the Christmas party about four years earlier, but after that, nothing…I didn’t look to keep in touch.  

Internalized racism made me think I was better…that’s how that shit works…it tears apart you individually but it also tears apart generations who could and should know each other.  So, I dedicate this blog entry to my L.A. family.  I am so very sorry from the bottom of my heart.  I hope that you can forgive me.  And I’m very glad to know you little by little all over again.  I hope you give me a chance.  With love, Becky.