St. Helens, Oregon, is a rural town about 30 minutes northwest of Portland; it was all I'd ever known. I was used to the flannels and work boots and the fact that most kids' dads worked at the mill. I wasn't allowed to play at a friend's house after I told my mom that my friend's stepdad wouldn't let us in his shed because he was growing funny plants. I shopped at Target for school clothes when we took a rare trip to Portland. Almost everyone I knew was working-class and white.
I first learned about cultural diversity and racial justice in Mr. Sanderson's middle school English class. Sure, we learned about grammar and literary concepts, but Sanderson opened our eyesor at least my eyesto the fact that the world was different outside of St. Helens. We read a book called The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and learned about a different culture, but also about a community with striking similarities to our own.
The main character in the novel, Esperanza, a 13-year-old Chicana, grows up in an impoverished neighborhood in Chicago. Mexican American culture and themes of social class and gender are interwoven through the novel's vignettes. I could relate to living in a poor area with a short supply of opportunity. And, like Esperanza, I realized how important it was to remember my roots and to give back to the community from which I came.
Banned from Middle School
Last year, the St. Helens school board decided to ban The House on Mango Street from the middle-school curriculum. The district's "reconsideration committee" claimed that the book contained "content too mature for this age group" and expressed "concerns for the social issues presented."
Charles Sanderson contacted me, informing me that the school district had temporarily pulled the book and asking if I could help. First I was angry. Then I was razzed up and ready. But I had doubts. Who was I, some college student, to go up against an entire school district and tell them what they were doing was wrong?
I wrote a letter about how The House on Mango Street affected me. The school board could debunk my other arguments, but they could never tell me what I did or did not feel, what I had or had not learned from this book and our discussions in class. The House on Mango Street changed me. Cisneros' writing style inspired me to create a series of my own vignettes dealing with my parents' divorce. I learned to heal through the power of writing. Engaging in the classroom discussions about Esperanza and her life introduced new perspectives and ideas. It made me think; it made me realize that there is more to the world than the insular community I was living in.