At 22, I moved from the Northeast to Tulsa, Oklahoma to begin my career as a high school math teacher. At first, I wasn’t sure that my students and I had a lot in common. I was new to Tulsa, had never experienced anything close to poverty and didn’t speak a word of Spanish. At the beginning, some days went really, really badly. When my lesson plan stunk, students got bored and misbehaved. I felt frustrated, defeated and exhausted. How was I going to make it through a year of this? I wondered how anyone could do this for their entire career.
Over time, the smallest connection moments broke down barriers. Students picked on me for having a crush on another math teacher (I denied it, but it was definitely true.) When students stayed after school for help, I offered to drive them home so I could learn where they lived and hear about some of the challenges they faced at home. When Lupita* arrived mid-year from Mexico, six-months pregnant, she spoke little to no English but taught me some math basics in Spanish (multiplicar, dividir, añadir, sustraer) so that I could teach her Algebra. Over time, the lessons started to flow more smoothly. I started to have more fun teaching, and students started to have more fun learning. We became a team.
It’s been awhile since I’ve connected with students in a classroom. Now, as a Director at Radical Partners focusing on community initiatives and impact, I think a lot about how to tackle the issues that matter most to the future of our city. But if I’m being honest, I haven’t sought out connection as often as I should have. I moved to Miami from Chicago almost two years ago and while I was impressed by the diversity of this beautiful city, I was also intimidated by a community that didn’t always look, think and operate like me. Friends from other places continue to ask, “Are you learning Spanish?” and I have to face the honest truth that I so infrequently put myself in situations where I have to speak Spanish that I haven’t developed any fluency. I have let the discomfort of newness impede my ability to embrace my city. And it’s time for that to change.
If we don’t connect, we limit ourselves to an understanding of the world we see in front of us, rather than the world that exists all around us. When we take the time to get to know people who are not like us, we learn that there is much more than unites us than divides us. We all have dreams, fears, moments of weakness and moments of strength. We all have others we care for and issues that matter deeply to us. By opening ourselves up to connection – whether it be by asking about a topic that seems foreign to you or by asking someone about their life – we pave the way for collaboration, understanding and growth.
During the 10 Days of Connection, I’ll be pushing myself to get to know some new people. People in the elevator. The family behind us in the checkout line. My morning barista. That guy who always sits alone in the cafe at lunch. I may learn something new and I may unearth some perspectives that make me uncomfortable. But I’m willing to bet that I’ll discover far more commonalities than differences. Will you join me?
Sarah Emmons is Director of Policy and Impact at Radical Partners, a New Leaders Council fellow, and a proud dog mom.
*Names have been changed.