A Letter to My White Junior High English Teacher

Dear Mrs. Batalia:

15439914_1043397425789434_6185458475698457325_nI was in one of your Junior High School English classes in the late 1970’s. You might remember me; I was the little Chinese girl that sat in the back of the room next to the door. My best friend was Nedra, the tall, thin Jewish girl you once identified as being smart and attentive. You alluded to the fact that you wished “there were more like her.” Then I remember you looked directly at me.

I don’t know why you chose to enter the field of teaching. Maybe at one time, you felt that you liked kids, or that you wanted to “help” kids, or that you wanted to make sure the next generation of children held a formidable command of the English language. Maybe you were tired of these children of color not being capable of expressing themselves well in the dominant language. I don’t know if you have ever attempted to examine your intentions. Of course, perhaps, you’ve never had to, as why would anyone ever question a White woman’s desire to serve as a surrogate mother or one wishing to advance the civility of savages.

I was just an ordinary student. I studied like I was supposed to and followed your instructions. Then you gave me my test back. A “B.” I don’t know what possessed me to confront you, but I recall coming up to you after class and asking you what I needed to do to do better. You told me that “That grade was good enough for me.” Your comment stopped me in my tracks. As a 12-year-old child, I was unable to conceive at that time the underlying presumption behind your comment. All I knew was that it felt wrong. You had no expectation for the Chinese girl to perform well in English?

Fortunately (for me), I have a rather tenacious personality. In the recesses of my young mind, I knew exactly what you meant and I said to myself, “We’ll just have to see about that, Mrs. Batalia!” I studied for hours and made myself understand. I received no less than all “A’s” for subsequent tests. Perhaps I surprised you; but, I remember by the end of the semester I became one of your favorite students and you used my papers often as the “good” example.

Now, I cannot attest to your altruism. Perhaps you felt that you saved me. Well, good for you! You managed, then, to increase my White property value. All I can say is that, whatever your initial inspiration for sticking with the teaching profession was, your microaggressive behavior managed to propel me to seek excellence as a communicator (in the English language). I have you to thank for making me find my voice. I have you to thank for making me speak my peace. I have you to thank for making me the writer I am today.

Mrs. Batalia, I am not writing with the intent to fill your day with regret. I just want you to be aware that this student of yours has managed to find her voice at this time in her life, in spite of the insidious racism and prejudice that pervaded the educational system “back in the day” and in many ways continues to this day.

Kathy Lew (Seto)

Kathy Seto is a faculty member in the speech pathology department at San Francisco State University. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Higher Education at Azusa Pacific University.

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