“What does it mean?” My 5th grade teacher asked me in front of the class. Light, I wanted to say. My name means light. Instead I said I didn’t know. I rushed back to my seat: my hands sweaty, my face flustered. My name means light, I repeated in my head, but struggled to find the voice to say.
You’re so quiet, I was constantly told—by classmates and teachers alike—as I grew older. They weren’t wrong. I was quiet not because I didn’t have anything to say, but to minimize myself—to suppress any part of me that wasn’t already noticeable. As one of the only kids of color in my school, my classmates and I had enough differences already.
When I was in elementary school, my mom would prepare for job interviews by practicing English in her bedroom. She always kept the door shut. Still, I would lean against the wood and salvage any broken strands of English that slipped through. I knew what was wrong. The b in debt. The would in place of the had. I listened to her rush through her sentences and the stuttering that filled the empty space when she didn’t know what to say next.
My mom spent nights learning English in the same classroom I had been in earlier that day. I imagined her working her way through and’s and but’s, sitting behind the same desk as mine. She was struggling to be understood. I didn’t want to be heard.
As I grew older, I became convinced I was missing something. My silence was so ingrained in me that I was unable to speak when I wanted to. It seemed like everyone around me had no trouble raising their hand in class and speaking freely. Why was it so hard for me?
At home, I reflected that frustration onto my parents. My words cut through theirs, harsh and unapologetic. I would correct their English relentlessly and exaggerate my irritation when they requested I read over an email or letter.
My parents remained unphased. They had seen worse. I eventually realized the criticism I imposed on them at home was only a fraction of the outside world’s.
Years later, my mom would tell me stories of her workplace: bosses who would ignore her, colleagues trying to overload her with their work. She was an immigrant woman of color who struggled with English; the kind of person America would try to silence—but couldn’t.
Why not me? My mom told my sister and I to ask ourselves. That was how she hit milestones in her life. How she embraced everything this new country required: a new language, a new job. Why not me?
I began asking myself the same question. I had spent so long trying to meld into the background that I had conditioned myself into believing I didn’t have anything to contribute. But why not me? I took small steps: raising my hand in class, asking teachers for help. I joined the newspaper in high school and interviewed dozens of people; with each new story, I grew more inspired to cover voices beyond my school. It was easier to use my voice when I discovered what I was passionate about. I realized my family’s experience with language wasn’t a solitary one: I felt compelled to share our story and created a podcast focused on linguistic discrimination.
Now, when I volunteer with kids at an affordable living community, many who are multiple grade levels behind in school, I want to empower them to realize what they are capable of. I want to shatter their thoughts of the status-quo and inspire them to break open the box that society will build around them, like my mom had done for me.
Because while my mom struggled with language, she had always had her voice. Her simple three words—why not me?—helped me find mine.