When Cherese Smith, a Shoreline Community College student and bodybuilding champion, submitted her essay, “The Racist in the Room” to a national essay contest, she didn’t think for a moment that she would win.
In fact, the only reason Smith had entered the competition was because her English 101 instructor Sarah Zale required her students to participate. It turns out the young athlete is as good at expressing herself in written form as she is at bodybuilding competitions.
“I’m so proud of her,” said Zale of the YES Magazine essay winner. Zale had worked with her students all quarter to gain focus, technical control and critical thinking skills. Part of the class reading was an article by Kate Sheppard about how, as an environmentalist, she found common ground with her father, a conservative farmer. Zale then assigned an essay that reflected on a similar personal experience along with submission to the magazine competition.
When Smith saw the essay question - “Has anyone close to you, a friend or family member, distanced themselves from you or severed the relationship because of what you believe?” - she immediately knew what she would write about.
“I knew I had to write about my Grandma,” Smith said. “She doesn’t hide her feelings about Hispanics and it doesn’t feel right to me.”
“The Racist in the Room” is the outcome of an emotional phone call to her father’s mother, who Smith calls Grandma B. Before calling, Smith thought about Zale’s lesson on being a compassionate listener.
“My heart was really beating fast at first because (Grandma) gets really irate when I talk about Hispanic people,” Smith said. Drawing on her compassionate listening skills, Smith asked about her grandmother’s feelings. “It really helped me listen to my grandmother’s story rather than just feeling disappointment and anger.”
During the hour-long conversation, Smith listened to her grandmother’s story of living in the Las Vegas suburbs, growing up in a working-class family. Her grandmother had witnessed the effect of hard labor on her relatives and respected them for never giving up. Her grandmother built a successful window cleaning company and prospered. A booming construction industry drew a growing and increasingly diverse population looking for work. It wasn’t too long before the business felt the pressures of competition.
“Grandma B said she lost bid after bid because she was not willing to work for such minimal pay,” Smith said of the conversation. At one point, her grandmother feared the company would fail, jeopardizing her children and jobs for many family members.
Smith said her grandmother spoke of resenting the changes that were coming to the neighborhood, too. It was the first time Smith recalls hearing her grandmother cry.
Her grandmother said she and her and siblings were teased and sometimes beat up. The experience shaped her grandmother’s later behavior toward Smith, following the children in her van while they rode their bikes to school. “If kids came to hurt us, Grandma would jump out of the van and chase them away,” Smith said.
Smith said she began to see what was behind her grandmother’s anger, fear and stubbornness.
It wasn’t until she had hung up, that Smith realized that she had also given her grandmother a precious gift. “None of my family has ever taken the time to listen to Grandma. I was the first. It touched me.”
YES Magazine editor Jing Fong wrote in a letter to Smith: “As you can imagine and appreciate, it is a challenge to make a final selection when each essay has its own unique merits and qualities. Yours stood head and shoulders above the crowd because you brought beautiful imagery to a difficult situation and conversation … I want to acknowledge the importance of your writing this essay. I appreciate that you not only shared your opinion and experience, but also opened yourself up to having your essay judged for this competition. That’s what good writers do.”
Cherese Smith is a freshman at Shoreline Community College. She is interested in health and fitness and loves helping people, but when it comes to talking about her career goals she says that she is leaning to teaching but has a long way to go before deciding where to put her energy and compassion. You can read her essay on the college’s FACES blog at http://www.shoreline.edu/Faces/blog/. It will be published on the YES Magazine web site later this month and in an education outreach newsletter (sent to over 24,000 teachers across the country).
Sarah Zale teaches English literature, poetry, and composition at Shoreline Community College. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College and master’s degrees in literature (University of Colorado), education (Michigan State University), and rhetoric and the teaching of writing (University of Colorado). She believes that good listening is critical to understanding conflict and for becoming a more compassionate citizen of the world, and she has incorporated listening tools into the curricula of her classes. Her involvement with The Compassionate Listening Project (TCLP) began when she traveled to Israel and Palestine with a peace delegation from the organization in 2006. Her collection of poems, The Art of Folding, was inspired by her travels. She is also a facilitator of Theatre of the Oppressed, a form of theatre for non-actors that allows individuals to practice ways to resolve conflict situations.
Please enjoy SCC student Cherese Smith's winning 2011 ( university / college division) Yes! Magazine essay at http://www.yesmagazine.org/for-teachers/essay-bank/fall-2011/the-racist-in-the-room