Jasminne Mendez

Small Talk: School Age



Jasminne Mendez is a poet, educator and award winning author.  Mendez has had poetry and essays published by or forthcoming in The New England Review, Crab Creek Review, Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, The Rumpus, and others. She is the author of two poetry/prose collections Island of Dreams(Floricanto Press, 2013) which won an International Latino Book Award, and Night-Blooming Jasmin(n)e: Personal Essays and Poetry(Arte Publico Press, 2018). She is a 2017 Canto Mundo Fellow and an MFA graduate of the creative writing program at the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. 

You can find more info about her and her work at: www.jasminnemendez.com  Twitter/Instagram @jasminnemendez

Being Afro-Latinx to me means identifying with issues, pain, trauma, joy, and hope that lives in both the immigrant community and the Black community. It’s a complex and beautiful existence because I think we have the power to unite these communities and become something really powerful and great. Being Afro-Latinx means being the type of person white supremacy is most afraid of.

I. Student Teaching

Year: 2006

Place: Graduate School

Age: 22


         All teacher training programs require future teachers to undergo student teaching. In most schools this is called a practicum. This is where you go into another teacher’s classroom and teach their students for a few months to get practice. Ideally you learn how to manage a classroom, write lesson plans and assessments, and grade papers. You get observed by a professor often and then you take state certification tests in order to get a public school teaching job after graduation.

         On the day you receive your placement, a petite blonde, probably named Amanda or Sarah, who has become your acquaintance through the many courses you took together asks you what school you will be teaching at for your practicum. You tell her Spring Branch High School. A high school with predominantly low-income at-risk students of color. The kind of school, that as a person of color, you hope to get a job at after graduation. Your classroom acquaintance sits aghast. High school, she exclaims?! Her small head pops back and her green eyes widen. Aren’t you scared she asks? No, you say. Why would you be? She shakes her head, because you look like one of them! Because some of them are probably bigger than you! Because they’re going to eat you alive! No, you say, you’re sure you’ll be fine. Even if a small part of you is a little afraid, you don’t show her this. You are strong enough and smart enough to handle a classroom full of teenagers. You look like them and share their stories, unlike Amanda, who also looks like a teen but is the wrong skin color to survive in school like Spring Branch High.

For now, you are confident that though you have a lot to learn about teaching, the students will love you and you will succeed. 

         Later, after several years of forming bonds with students but not teachers, you will understand that it was never the students you had to be afraid of anyway. It was never the students who were going to you eat you alive. It is the teacher’s and staff’s underhanded comments and patronizing remarks about your age, ethnicity, fluent English and Spanish, great skin, natural hair, and advanced degrees that will seep under your skin and gnaw at your subconscious day after day, year after year until it devours you from the inside out.

II. La Profesora

Year: 2009

Place: Hair Salon

Age: 25


         My first teaching gig, after going through student teaching and taking an extra year in school to earn my Master’s degree in Education, is at a middle school. It is the end of summer before the beginning of my third year teaching and I’m at a hair salon wanting to get a trim. I don’t have a “regular” salon or hairdresser because I don’t do this often. I don’t let most people touch my hair because they have no clue what they’re doing with my curls. When I need a trim, I always go somewhere different and only let them cut off an inch.

         When I enter the salon a short Honduran woman with dyed auburn curls and a uni-brow asks me how I’m doing. I hear her accent and respond in Spanish that I am fine. She raises her eyebrows and asks me where I’m from. I tell her my parents are from the Dominican Republic. She smiles and asks me what I want. I tell her I want a wash and a trim. She walks me to her chair. I sit down and she drapes a giant black cape around my neck. I let down my ponytail. She parses out my hair, detangles it a bit, and walks me to the washing station. I lay my head back and let her get to work.

         Her fingertips against my scalp beneath the hot steamy faucet sends a chill down my spine. I inhale and smile. She begins to chatter as hairdressers are known to do. I’m not really here for the small talk but I indulge her because she’s nice. She asks me what I do for a living. I tell her I’m a teacher. She smiles even harder. She says it’s great that I’m a teacher. She says we need more good teachers in the world. I agree with her. She asks me what grade I teach. I tell her middle school. She shakes her head, takes a step back and looks at me up and down. No! She says. Impossible, she says. She says there’s no way I could TEACH middle school because I look like I AM in middle school! My scalp tenses and I feel water dripping into my ears. I am uncomfortable in the chair. I squirm. She rinses my scalp and sits me up. I see my face in the mirror across the room. My wrinkle free face and taut brown chin and neck are dripping wet from the wash. I smile but there are no laugh lines. There are no dark circles under my eyes. There are no gray hairs on my scalp. I have nothing to prove I am an adult with a Masters degree who works fifty hours a week and doesn’t sleep. My face is flush and bright. My adolescent face hasn’t changed since high school. My face has not matured despite all of my education and experience.

         I tell her I know I look young but I am definitely old enough to TEACH middle school. She smiles and walks me back to the salon chair. When I tell her I studied literature in college and have taught language arts for the last three years, she nods approvingly and calls me “la profesora.” In both our countries, being a teacher is a prestigious and honorable profession second only in importance to priests and/or doctors. Like priests and doctors, being a teacher is considered a vocation, a calling of the most high. Not something just anyone can do. She knows that if I have stayed in the classroom this long, that I must be doing what God has called me to do. Despite her initial skepticism she believes me and bestows me with the respect she believes I deserve. I know this because even though she is older and in our cultures I should be asking her for advice on life or love, she spends the rest of my visit asking me how to get her fourteen-year-old son to read more books.


III. Dress Code

Year: 2012

Place: High School Campus

Age: 28


         You have been teaching for a couple of years at a high school. It is a big school and it is hard to know anyone outside of your department or grade level. You don’t really like the way most of your coworkers talk about the students so you tend to keep to yourself, work and eat lunch inside your classroom and avoid places like the teacher’s lounge so you don’t have to hear the white teacher’s complain about the brown and black kids who “just don’t know how to listen.”

         It is the week of midterms and therefore it is a casual Friday on your campus. You are wearing jeans, Converse Chucks, a school t-shirt and a hoodie. You are too preoccupied with grading papers and wrapping up the semester so you let your T-shirt hang beneath your hoodie, un-tucked. Student dress code rules dictate that even on casual Friday student’s t-shirts remain tucked in. This rule does not apply to teachers and you hate tucking in your shirts anyway. You do not give your un-tucked shirt a second thought.

         During your planning period you go to the copy room to make copies. As you are  copying and sorting and dealing with the machine that has a bad habit of getting jammed, someone else walks in. You turn and smile and say good morning. A tall white man in jeans, a flannel button up, hipster beard and thick-rimmed black glasses looks you up and down and says good morning. You turn back around towards the machine, remove the jammed paper and restart your copies. He asks you who you are making copies for? Without turning around, you say yourself. He walks up behind you, taps you on your shoulder and says, excuse me, do you know you’re out of dress code? Startled you turn towards him, furrow your brow, shake your head and say what? He tells you you need to tuck in your shirt. You laugh and shake your head again. Oh, you say, no, no I’m a teacher here, not a student. His brown eyes widen, his face flushes red. He says, he didn’t know. He says you look like a student. Yeah, you say, you know.

         He asks you how old you are. He says he knows it’s not polite to ask a woman her age, but you look so so young. You tell him you’re twenty-eight. He chuckles and tells you you don’t look a day over fifteen. He says maybe if you didn’t dress like a student you wouldn’t be confused for one. Your eyes narrow and you grind your teeth. You sigh as if the weight of a hundred years suddenly rested on your shoulders. There is so much you want to say. You want to explain that people of color age differently. You want to say that it shouldn’t matter what you wear, you are a teacher just like him and you deserve respect. You want to call him out on his ignorance because even if you were a student there is no reason for him to talk down to you. But sometimes, the words you want to say don’t come when you need to say them and because you said nothing, the moment matters simply because it happened to you again.

IV. Fountain of Youth

Year : 2016

Place: Teacher Training Seminar

Age: 29-32


         After several in the classroom, I have to leave teaching full-time due to my failing health. I am still passionate about education so I find a job working as an online professional development consultant teaching teachers how to be more effective teachers. Since I cannot drape my graduate and undergraduate diplomas around my neck like a giant sandwich board I asked my boss to make me business cards with my fancy grown-up title: Director of Learning Strategies and Design printed on them. Somehow, this still isn’t enough for some people, to legitimize my experience or expertise.

         I work for an organization that serves elite private schools. At least, they are the only ones that can afford our services. As a consultant, I sometimes am required to go to different schools throughout the year and present on everything from classroom management, to technology use, to diversity and inclusion on campus. These campuses are almost always all white, all boy’s schools. White administrators. White faculty. White male students. This means that my dark skin, youthful appearance, and femaleness are already three strikes against me. I’m out before I am even given a chance to play. I don’t have the whiteness or the maleness my home-grown American farm boy boss from Omaha, Nebraska has and I certainly don’t have his age or private school connections. For these reasons, I try to always wear “professional attire” because I know I need to look like I am deserving of the title I hold. Whereas my boss can be comfortable and secure wearing jeans and a faded polo with our company’s name on it, anything less than a starched three-piece suit or dress for me won’t suffice. I usually wear a black or navy blue pantsuit with a classic white Audrey Hepburn button down shirt or a monochromatic wrap dress and heels. My hair is either up in a bun or a ponytail at the nape of my neck. I wear my reading glasses even if I don’t need to, to hide my wrinkle-free eyes and assume authority as an expert in my field. I keep my makeup simple with neutral colors and dark tones because too much rouge or red lipstick makes me look even younger and like I’m trying too hard, even though looking simple and homely and older takes twice as much effort.

         At these onsite training sessions, there is always a veteran teacher who does not believe he or she needs to be professionally developed. They have been teaching for over three decades, are experts in their fields and believe “kids these days are hopeless.” These people think I am one of “these kids” and they like to size me up before I present. They try to hide their judgmental scrutiny in the form of friendly “getting to know you” banter and questions. But I know what they are thinking: who is she and what can she teach me that I don’t already know? I politely engage them, since that is a part of my job, to network and learn more about their background and their needs and so I answer their questions.

         Where am I from? Texas. What have I taught as an educator? Mostly English and Drama. How long have I been a teacher? Almost ten years.  Their eyes widen the size of giant gumballs.  They laugh and ask me how old I am. I say I am thirty/thirty-one/thirty-two. They scratch their salt and pepper heads amazed. No way! They say I look twelve. They say I look sixteen. They say I look like their college bound son or daughter. They ask if I have any children yet. I say no. They say no wonder I look so well rested. I nod my head and say well at least when I’m forty I’ll look twenty-five. They agree. We all throw our heads back and laugh. They ask me “what’s my secret?” Where can they find the fountain of youth? At this, I smile and have learned to say, as if it is a scientific fact: black don’t crack, you know, black don’t crack. The energy in the room shifts. The power dynamic has changed. Everyone tenses and I smile. Despite their bias and assumptions of my credibility and expertise, in this moment, my melanin is my privilege. In my genes lies the illusion of eternal youth, and immortality. I have something they want but cannot have. This is the end of their questioning. I smile, knowing I have finally found a way out of all this small talk. I take my place in the front of the room and say I am the Director of Learning Strategies and Design, please take your seats and let’s begin.

© The Acentos Review 2020