“I am Portuguese-Canadian, the daughter of uneducated, working-class immigrants that fled here via Angola to (as the fairy tale goes) seek out a better life. I grew up with kids just like me—struggling to learn English, born into the role of cultural go-between, linguistic interpreter, permanent outsider.
“I grew up knowing my place without having to be told.”
* * *
Through much of this past year, and especially around the time this photo was taken, I’ve been dealing with some things. Some class things. Some self things. Some “do I cave and be what I’ve been led to believe I should be, or do I break away from seeming fate, out into the unfamiliar, and just be really really me” things. It started around the time my mom wrestled away from decades of degrading, exploitative jobs and decided to go to school at the age of 56, completely astounding and inspiring me.
I wrote this in June, when we were both struggling so hard with the impossible.
* * *
“I’m so proud to see how far she’s come in this last year. She reads Steinbeck and writes poems. She has fun with Excel and has taught me how to create PowerPoint presentations. Her google research skills make my journalist heart swell with pride—though I’m sure I’ll rue the day she decides to type my name into a search engine and sift through the results.
“It’s been a difficult, and revealing, process for me. It’s forced me to look at my class, at education, at my relationship with my parents, and at the entire process of immigration and how it can transform a person.
“My mom carries this inner tension—she’s caught between wanting so badly to learn, to excel, to transform her lot in life… and feeling too old to bother, too late, too dumb. She’s at a point where she feels discouraged by the job prospects before her, she’s wondering if she should bother trying to earn her Grade 12 certificate, or if she should just give up now and get back to work—back to factory work, to cleaning, to every manual labour cliché that has defined our people in this country.
“My mom is at risk of becoming a high school drop-out, and I’ve been thrust into the role of councilor. I encourage her to stay in school, to be optimistic about her options, to stick it out. I come over in the evenings to help her with her homework, answer questions via email, send her helpful weblinks via instant messenger. I, at age twenty-five, am advising her, at age fifty-seven, on her career options, educational goals, life direction. I catch myself saying things like, ‘I just want to see you do well,’ ‘believe in yourself,’ ‘trust your abilities,’ and realize that I’m echoing words she’s said to me for years. Our roles have been reversed.
“As all of this is happening, I’m also going through my own academic adjustments. Come August, I will be leaving Toronto to begin a Masters in New York City, at Columbia University. I’ve had a tremendously difficult time reconciling my freshly bestowed Ivy League status with my class, my upbringing, and how I see myself.
“In our own way, my mom and I are challenging the stereotypes and class definitions that have been attached to so many working-class immigrants by changing how we see ourselves. We’ve broken beyond what’s normally expected of us, and blown past lowered expectations that we’ve set for ourselves.”
* * *
A page from my diary. Too personal? Perhaps. I might just regret posting this here, now.
But before I do anything rash and delete this, let me just give you the update:
My mom stuck it out. She worked hard and made it out of her ESL program into a regular grade 12 class, brushing away tears of frustration and exhaustion and deep-rooted issues of self-worth and intelligence that so many immigrants of her generation carry with them. And, as of this July, I am very proud to say that she is the freshest of fresh high school graduates. We had a small celebration with natas and espresso, and my dad, brother and I smiled to see our own pride reflected in her eyes. Finally.
As she contemplates college courses for the fall, I contemplate my own path. I am, as of about a week-and-a-half ago, a rookie Manhattanite, already wearied from heatwaves and express subway trains that don’t ever seem to stop (or come). I’m going to grad school, and a stush one at that, and it’s taken me months to feel okay about that.
Was I not ecstatic to find out I’d been accepted? Was I not joyed to finalize plans to attend the one post-graduate program I’d been dreaming of since I wrapped up my BA three years ago? Of course I was, and of course I am. My difficulties lay in coming to terms that I could belong in a place like this. My apprehensions, my pangs of self-doubt, my deprecating comments and attitudes were echos and mirror reflections of the very pangs my mom was suffering through in her high school experience. Somewhere along the way for her, I don’t belong here became I need to be here, and internalized bullshit took a backseat to the challenges at hand. No room for distraction. Shake off your baggage. Nevermind what you’ve been told. This is serious business.
If she stuck it out, I’ll stick it out too. This is a page, a snapshot, and really only the beginning. The story writes itself over the next nine months.
[ Image caption: The highest dropout rate of any ethnic group in Canada, but these two ladies are breaking the Luso mold, one semester at a time. These two right here are some certified drop-in tag-team graduates… ]