It’s twenty-twenty, 12 years since I’ve graduated from the 12th grade, and I’m sitting on the floor, yearbook in hand, crying.
I’m so far past high school. I’m a political activist. Art is my weapon. I am about tearing down the past to build a new future. This future is gay and brown and feminist! — 2008 is the last thing on my mind.
…It probably helps that I’ve suppressed so many memories from that time because I was being abused at home. School was my shelter. I would do all the extracurriculars because I never wanted to go home, and at home, I would do all the homework and all the extra credit. Anything to get away, even just in my mind. So I was very, very good at school. It was a good time. Teachers liked me. I had a lot of friends.
High school gave me Sara, to whom our yearbook is dedicated. She taught English, French, mythology and Shakespeare. She was my Academic Decathlon coach. In my yearbook, she wished me sovereignty and serenity. But on her death bed, her last word to me was “cour-ahhhj,” a fancy French way of saying courage. She taught me to love the world.
High school gave me Tom, an English teacher from Ireland who loved rum raisin ice cream and the New York Times. In my yearbook he wrote, “You are destined for good things because of who you are—intelligent, kind, caring.” The day he died was one of the saddest days of my life. He taught me to love myself.
High school gave me Carinne, the one girl I think I might’ve loved. And I feel so stupid now, looking at her gorgeous cursive. “I adore you. Every aspect of everything that makes you so wonderful, unique and special. I will miss you dearly.” We definitely stayed in touch. But I probably could’ve realized the crush was mutual a little earlier. She taught me to love others.
I had a good time in high school. And I miss Sara, I miss Tom, I miss Carinne.
But that’s not why I’m crying.
On May twenty-fifth, twenty-twenty, George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis by a racist, disgusting pig. On May twenty-fifth, twenty-twenty, I am woke as hell and have been screaming that Black Lives Matter for years. But a lot of people who hadn’t been vocal before, finally spoke up. And suddenly, students from my school started sharing their stories.
For generations — Black girls got more dress code detentions. Black girls were harassed by teachers, especially in science and math. Girls in general were derided, groped and sexually assaulted. Students who were poor, in bad family situations, who were experiencing mental health issues – were dismissed, mistreated, penalized, abused.
It came out that today, in twenty-twenty, racist kids are pretending to whip their Black classmates with an app. It is finally coming out that basically all our gym teachers were sexual predators. And of course, the board of ed. just barely cares! Because the city just barely cares. The state, the country, the people don’t care.
This was not at all the first time I heard horror stories from my alma mater, but it was the first time these stories were so loud. For so many of my classmates, high school was not a shelter.
Teachers who knew I was struggling helped me. That wasn’t true for everyone else. That wasn’t true for brown kids. For Black kids. For poor kids. For queer kids. For trans kids. This school taught some of us to hate the world. To hate ourselves. To hate others. And that is why I am sitting on the floor crying.
I don’t like to center myself in my activism. Like I’m not going to say, “Asians for Black Lives,” like, wow, I get a prize for being a minority that cares about another minority. And it’s not a “gateway for other Asians to join the cause”—they can use their basic human empathy to do that. They don’t need to see my Asian face holding up this slogan. And I don’t need to market basic human empathy.
(breath) Still, as we confront institutionalized racism, I can’t forget who I am in the context of this institutionalized racism. And this is my space to dwell on that.
My yearbook used to bring me joy. Because that was a good time for me, that I can’t remember otherwise because I was abused for 22 years. But now it makes me want to puke. And riot. And cry. And destroy the system.
I don’t think I had a good time in high school anymore. Because how can I call what was happening there – what is happening there — a good time, even if it was good to me, when it wasn’t good for everyone else?
Summer Dawn is an Asian/Hispanic artist based in Jersey City. Her organization In Full Color, which empowers artists of color through education and the arts, has received two commendations from the New Jersey State Assembly and the Jersey City Arts Council’s Performing Arts Award. She’s also won the N.J. Governor’s Award in Arts Education, served as a theater grants panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts in 2021 and is a teaching artist for Young Audiences and Storytelling Arts. She’s also an events coordinator, arts journalist, writer, actor and activist.