The Moment We Were Seen: Why AAPI History Month Matters
Each year, I take a brief detour in my 7th grade English class to teach about the labor movement.
Let me explain: as part of my 7th-grade curriculum, I read Omnivore's Dilemma: the Young Readers Edition with my students. We inevitably end up talking about workers' rights, and so I discuss the labor movement with them.
"Do any of you know who Larry Itliong is?" I ask my 7th graders at the beginning of class on an April morning.
Inevitably, they all shake their heads. They've never heard of Itliong or his work.
"That's okay," I assure them. "Until a few years ago, I didn't either."
From there, I lead my students through a few quick lessons. Larry Itliong was a prominent member of the labor strikes alongside Cesar Chavez. Despite his sizable contribution, though, he is often overlooked in the history books.
So, we start uncovering that history. We listen to some radio stories, read some articles, and watch a video. We talk about the fact that the word often used to describe the Filipino farm workers is "forgotten."
"How many of you have ever learned about anyone Filipino or Asian-American in a history class?" I ask. The hands stay by their sides. They are silent.
So we talk about why we need to make sure that we tell stories so we don't forget.
The above is important exposition, but it isn't why I'm telling you this story.
I'm telling you the story because of this moment.
At the end of the lesson, I teach my students about the unity clap. We start together-- clap clap clap-- the rhythm builds. When it is at a frenzied applause, I stop them. "At this point, one person yells, ISANG BAGSAK!"
Immediately, a handful of students look over at me and their eyes light up. I smile slyly at them. "Does anyone know what that means?"
Eventually, one will raise their hand. Last year, it was a quiet, thoughtful girl in the back of my room. "Um, does it mean 'one falling'? Or 'one' something?" She paused. "Isang means 'one.'"
"You're right!" I exclaimed. "How did you know?"
Everyone turned and looked at her. She smiled. "Well," she began, "I'm Filipina too, and we speak Tagalog at home." Around her, other Filipino students nodded their heads.
I don't know if I can properly put it into words how powerful that was for me as a Filipina-American woman; the moment where there is an understanding between teacher and student. "I see you," it says, "I hear your voice and the voices and stories that brought you here."
It is one thing to be "seen" in a classroom. It is another to know that someone else-- student, teacher, or even text-- sees not just you, but the cultural narratives and traditions that you carry deep inside you and made you who you are.
I know that many of my AAPI students are starved for that feeling in their history books and classes. Like many, the stories of their ancestors have been rewritten or simply erased. In a world that so often encourages students to conform and lose culture, what would it mean if all our students had that feeling in class-- the one that validates their stories and the stories that brought them into the room?
So, this AAPI history month, I'm excited to keep sharing stories. As an educator, I am hopeful that we keep working so all students can have the same feeling of being known, understood, and loved in their classes and lives.