“You got a C in your history class? Don’t even think about asking me to go hang out with your friends this weekend, me entiendes?”
I felt a sudden rage fill my body in response to my mother and her willful dismissal of the five hard earned A’s on my report card. I wanted to say, “But it’s 78%, which is really close to a B. Second of all, it’s an AP class, so, technically, that makes it a B. And third, the teacher is a bitter, racist jerk who is condescending to all students of color.” That’s what would have rolled off my tongue except that I knew better than to say anything back or there would be serious consequences. I could just hear her now. “Who are you talking back to, son?” would have been the rhetorical question that came simultaneously with a heavy hand to my face. A very heavy hand.
As someone with a lot of experience on the receiving end of that lethal weapon, I knew it wasn’t worth it. Besides, she wouldn’t understand, I reminded myself. How could she? She dropped out of school at my age because she was pregnant with my eldest sister so she could never understand being in a difficult class that was preparing me for college.
“You know what a C is to me, mi’jo,” she continued to blab as I tried to zone her out, “it says you’re average. You are not average, Raymond, and I mean it when I say you better get it together. I expect more from you.” This lecture was typical when we were not meeting her standards. My five siblings and I had learned to keep our mouths shut as she preached about how we had to work hard now, while in school, so that we did not have to do the labor intensive jobs that she and my dad did everyday to put food on the table.
But don’t confuse my flashback with an opportunity to vent about Rosa Maria Gonzalez, my strong, beautiful, hard working, chingona mother. This is a shout out to her and to women like her who put their children first — women who make the conscious choice to be the tough parent who guides their children in the right direction. She did always say, “It would be easy for me to let you guys do whatever you want and not care. It’s tough being the hard parent who is constantly up in your business trying to make you a better person. But, I am not your friend, I am your mother, and my job is to help you be a good, successful, hard working person.”
Back then, at sixteen years old, when the biggest crisis in my life was making sure that my Vans matched my outfit, I saw this as my mother being annoying and not understanding what is was to be a teenager. Now, ten years later, as a Dean of Students with a Masters degree, I know this was a woman instilling a level of belief in her son that he needed to persevere and truly compete with other scholars if he wanted to make his dreams come true. My dream at sixteen was to get into UCLA, the best public university in Southern California, and my mother did everything she could to keep that dream alive.
My mother may not have had the resources to sit down with me and teach me the content associated with AP classes, or help me fill out college applications, or help me study for the SAT. What she could give me was the confidence that I needed to be successful and the push that inspired me to work hard and be resilient enough to achieve my goals.
It was moments like these, when my mother grounded me for not having the grades she expected, that truly reflect my mother’s tough love. Her tenacity and perseverance in life is what helped me get into UCLA and graduate from my dream college. And it’s her tough love that guides me still in my everyday interactions with students I, in turn, care about. My students are held to high expectations because I am preparing them for their life journeys in an implicit partnership with their families.
I have to be tough on them because life is not easy, and there are no shortcuts. But just as my mom could be relentless with her expectations, she also complimented those lectures with a lot of hugs, affection, and love. My five siblings were told daily that they were special and doomed for greatness as long as we worked hard, “If you work hard, you can do anything you set your mind to. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.” Those are the same words that I tell the students at Equipo Academy. The same fuel that my mother afforded me is the same belief I try and instill in my students to complement the work their family is doing or to fill the void their family does not have the capacity to fill. My mother’s tough love is the secret ingredient that I use to motivate my students and guide them to success.
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