Opinion
Teaching Profession Opinion

The Teacher Who Inspired Me to Be Who I Am Today

It wasn’t until 10th grade that a teacher truly saw me for the first time
By Raj Tawney — May 31, 2023 3 min read
Surreal art of dream success and hope concept, a man in a grey environment looks through an open door into a bright colorful exterior
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Coming of age in a mostly white Long Island town just an hour outside New York City wasn’t easy for a multiracial American like me. My Indian immigrant father and Puerto Rican and Italian American mother worked hard to move their family from a tough neighborhood in the borough of Queens to what they deemed as greener pastures in the suburbs. My home life remained culturally rich, but my school days were met with constant confusion and ridicule. It’s difficult enough being an erratic teenager.

Being a mixed kid meant I never fit in no matter how hard I tried. Sometimes, I was shy and awkward around peers who chose to either ignore or tease me, while other times, I was boisterous and defiant toward teachers in class to get a laugh.

I knew I was already different from my classmates. I’d been told so since I was 5 years old, ever since kids started making fun of my curly, dark hair, bushy caterpillar eyebrows, olive skin, and foreign-sounding name. The torment never ceased, but I learned how to return punches and insults as a form of survival.

To me, being rebellious didn’t mean drinking, smoking, and stealing but, rather, expressing myself through creativity. Instead of taking notes, I wrote poetry and rap lyrics and would eventually perform them at school talent shows. I was inspired by artists like Tupac Shakur, Rage Against The Machine, DMX, and other musicians who were not only just as angry as I was but also equally emotional and misunderstood.

Although I was a poor-to-mediocre student, some teachers recognized my curiosity and eagerness to learn, often dubbing me as the one who “has potential but needs to try harder.” Unfortunately, few expressed further support beyond that somewhat-encouraging line on a report card.

In 10th grade, however, my English teacher, L. John Friia, saw me for the first time. He was cool and easy to talk to. I felt comfortable opening up to him and expressing my hobbies and interests. He’d spend his free time regaling me with stories about his youth and being a wild rock ‘n’ roll musician or just discussing the latest episode of “Frasier” (a favorite show that my mom and I would watch together but I never dared to admit to friends).

It didn’t matter if I wasn’t a great student. Mr. Friia didn’t care about what I looked like or my ethnic background. He appreciated other things about me, and that mattered during those formative, tumultuous years.

Somehow Mr. Friia knew there was something more to me than just an outlier with no academic direction. To him, I was still worthy enough to try and fail and keep trying. Slowly, he began to recommend books I should read based on my interests—titles not part of any recommended reading list. “Give it a shot,” he’d sometimes tell me.

Although I can’t recall any specific book, the gesture was enough to excite me about reading just about anything. I hadn’t seen myself as a worthy reader up until that point, but Mr. Friia showed me there was no criteria to love books.

I admired his passionate yet freewheeling personality so much that I signed up for his elective Latin class the following year just to spend time in his presence. I passed with a C, but I knew I was receiving a greater education beyond the textbooks and regimented curriculum.

In an age where book regulations are becoming common and frequent, suggestions from teachers and librarians have never been more influential.

In October, I’ll be the author of my first published book, Colorful Palate: A Flavorful Journey Through a Mixed American Experience—a personal account of my family’s cultural complexities and my own personal struggle toward understanding my unique identity.

As a result, I’m now being approached by teachers who have been asking me to speak at their schools, to share my story with kids in hopes they’ll too feel seen.

Even though I’ve been out of grade school for nearly 20 years, I’m honored each time an educator sees me. I could never turn down an offer to potentially make a tiny difference in a young person’s life, the way Mr. Friia had done for me.

In an age where book regulations are becoming common and frequent, suggestions from teachers and librarians have never been more influential. I hope my book never becomes restricted or banned for its honesty and vulnerability. I wrote it in hopes of building tolerance, not turmoil. If Mr. Friia was ever fearful of being himself or discouraged me from being myself, I don’t think I’d be who I am today.

I bumped into Mr. Friia a few years ago, not long before he passed away in 2021. I tried to thank him for the influence he had on me, but I’m not sure I had the right words to say at that time. He was retired by then but still encouraging and eager to share his wisdom.

One Latin phrase he taught me that has stayed with me all these years: fortuna est caeca. It translates to “fortune is blind.” If only he knew how wealthy he made me feel.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 14, 2023 edition of Education Week as The Teacher Who Inspired Me To Be Who I Am Today

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