Compton California in the ‘80s was a dangerous place to grow up, filled with drugs, gang violence, and violent crime. My parents were both Guatemalan immigrants fleeing a civil war in their country and came to settle in Compton due to the abundance of manufacturing jobs in the area. We were not allowed to play outside and distrusted anyone who was not part of our small community. I understood that law enforcement was as dangerous as the gangs and that the “migra” was my boogie man, out to take my family and my home. I grew up knowing what streets were okay to walk through and what colors were okay to wear. At night, the helicopters, police sirens, and bullets would be the last sounds I heard before going to sleep.
My parents always reinforced the importance of school and would tell us that if we wanted to have a good life, have money and not suffer, then we needed to get an education. For our family, education was our ticket out of the violence. But violence followed us to school. The gangs in the area were an ever-increasing threat to our personal safety. In elementary school, it felt like we were constantly on lock down due to the proximity of gang violence. Loud school alarms would alert us to take cover as fast as possible whenever police activity was nearby.
In one instance during recess, the alarm sounded and I was particularly far from the building. Normally I would remain as close to the building as I could as I was not a very good runner and alarms could sound at any time. I remember feeling afraid since I had very little time to get inside the building before the doors would be locked. I took off running as fast as my little legs could carry me, and I was able to make it into the building as the door closed behind me. Moments later I could hear students outside yelling and scrambling to get into the building through another door. I remember being out of breath as I rushed back to my classroom as the teacher was getting a head count, we were usually still missing students. We would wait in the classroom as the teacher would rush to the principal to report who was missing so they could check bathrooms and other likely places the students could be.
Although the alarms would frighten me, it was our normal school operation, and we were used to violence in our neighborhood. It became common for the school to be robbed and vandalized until eventually we had no paper or pencils. In the midst of this war zone, I relied on my family for comfort, but I also had a teacher who changed my life. Ms. Barlow, my third grade teacher, was the first young white woman that I had ever met. Because of the situation of our school, the rules were strict and the teachers were too. Even at a young age, the punishments were harsh and little was tolerated. We were growing up in toxic environments and many of us had very little hope.
Ms. Barlow was a kind and caring person who provided her students with the opportunity to experience the world beyond our school and neighborhood. She would select small groups of students to take on non-school field trips. On one occasion, my friends shared that Ms. Barlow had taken them to Disney’s The Little Mermaid at the movie theatre. At eight years old, I had never been to the movies, but I was determined to be on the next field trip. Maybe it was my constant requests and the fact that I was trying to be an extra good student, but I was lucky enough on one occasion to have gone with her to a local production of the musical, South Pacific. It was a small community production of this musical in which her boyfriend played the piano. The scenes were colorful and the music stayed with me long after the show was over, I can still hear the women on stage singing “I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair.” The experience was so strange and wonderful to me, not just because of the musical but also because Ms. Barlow showed me so much kindness, patience, and love.
Ms. Barlow, who some might argue was naïve and idealistic, made a huge impact on my life as she dared to show her students beautiful things outside of a very cruel world. Ms. Barlow dedicated time and effort even at a personal loss to herself in an environment that showed very little hope of any benefit or success. As I grew older and moved away from Compton, I realized that what Ms. Barlow did for her students became an ever-brighter beacon of compassion and hope. Through her tremendous effort to show her students another world, she instilled in me a desire to dream for a better future. What might have seemed impossible for a little girl growing up in Compton was now possible and attainable. Even though the journey was never easy, I graduated with my master’s degree in supply chain management from the University of San Diego. Because Ms. Barlow showed me how much more powerful compassion and love can be in the midst of violence and scarcity, it has motivated me to show that in my own community involvement. It has become my own personal standard in how I conduct myself. I see her influence as I help feed the homeless, or as I lead a small bible study at a local convalescent home, or organize toy drives to benefit children in rural areas of Tijuana, or even as I lead teams into rehabilitation homes, orphanages, or migrant camps. In my day to day activities, what drives me is hoping that my work influences someone to have more compassion and love. Because of what she did for me, I know that one act of kindness can change a person’s life. Maybe what has been lost in our school system and in our society in general is that naïve idealistic wide-eyed hope that all students and people are worth the investment and the tears of frustration. And so, I dedicate my work both personally and professionally to Ms. Barlow.
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