This post is part three of a four-part series on my song, “could be,” from my album my anxious age. You can read part one here, on the importance of knowing and honoring the stories of the ones we love in order to know them fully, and you can read part two here, on the hard and necessary process of letting ghosts go in order to live whole.
In my first post in this series, I noted that I consider this song to be the thesis of my latest album. I wanted to make an album that contained a lot of big statements on my feelings on the world and what I had learned about it in the five years since my previous album, but what I needed to make was an open record of my struggle with depression in the fall of 2016, which in itself is a political statement, considering our world’s persistent stigmatization of mental health issues. Thus, on “lately,” when I rap, “want to say something subversive/but I wonder if I’m worth this,” I am expressing the feeling that I should be saying more, but was crippled by low feelings of self-worth.
After the first and second verses narrate my journey from the sixth grade to now–and what it took to overcome my depression–the third and fourth verses shift the album, just before it closes, to broader concerns than the self. I have grown weary of the idea of selflessness, because I subscribe to e.e. cummings’ belief that “there is no such thing as a peripheral person.” All of us are who we are and do what we do because of our own experiences. The idea that we care about others just because we should naturally be pure at heart is–at best–a romantic sentiment, and–at worst–a debilitating standard for those who struggle to see past their own present day struggles and pain. Show me a person who became compassionate by chance, and very quickly we will come to the moment in their childhood or through a loved one when they actually learned the necessity of compassion.
I would not have become the teacher I am if I had not been bullied in the sixth grade and struggled through periods of social anxiety and low self-esteem. I trace my passion for ending discrimination and oppression toward people of color, LGBTQ+ communities, and other marginalized groups back to the sixth grade, where I experienced firsthand mistreatment by others. I am not equating this mistreatment to that of marginalized communities, but I believe my compassion is a direct result of this personal experience. When I began to learn about systemic oppression in college, it was easier for me to believe the stories of these communities and want to become an agent of change.
Thus, this third verse is the next step in my growth, as I move from my personal experiences to reflect on what I saw as a teacher in Dallas. From my belief that standardized tests spell the death of creativity in schools (“measured by multiple choice, all the way to primary/tell the kids to fit in boxes and don’t let results vary”) to the injustice of perpetual racism in our schools and every American system (“everything whitewashed and darker shades gonna cost you”), this verse captures some of the most crucial lessons I learned in the classroom.
The first two lines (“they waged war on the bathroom in the name of binaries/and if the kids can’t read, then tell me: where’s the library?”) are two of the deepest felt lines of my writing to date. As Texas and other states continue to fear-monger over transgender students who just want to feel safe in the bathroom or locker room, I was teaching in a 7th-12th grade school that had no library. The system that says students of color have low literacy rates and this is why they can’t get jobs becomes a different story when you’re in a school that requires teachers to buy books from our own wallets so that kids have something to read. When I hear legislators invoking the name of God to back up their personal bigotry about transgender students, I think about what students would actually benefit from if someone with the power to give them resources really put their Christian faith to caring for the marginalized. This is much of the reason why I am earning my Master’s in theology, so that I might put my faith and the faith of others to the test of actually making this nation a place where every child really does have the chance to succeed without undue obstacles.
I hope that whatever you are doing, you are aware of the ways that your past experiences influence who you are today. I hope that you aren’t ignoring how capable you are of compassion, that you remember the moment in your life where having a friend would have saved you, and then you become that friend. I hope you stop accepting what politicians and religious leaders have asked you to worry about, and really think about what it would take to make our world better for everyone–not just our own selves. It might be a problem too big for our generation to solve finally, but it might start with a bookshelf in a classroom or a changed mind about the sacredness of an LGBTQ person’s life. When I rap that “if you don’t become you, I can never be,” I am speaking of a philosophy put forth by Martin Luther King, Jr.: ”
Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.
We must bring to the table our whole selves, and we must become human together or else we will lose our humanity. No one becomes whole until all have the opportunity to do so.
You can listen to “could be” here. You can purchase my anxious age here, which includes “could be” and ten other songs, along with a 24-page full color zine, featuring lyrics, stories, and poetry. Follow my blog to receive updates on the last part in this series. As always, thanks for reading.