Growing up I had two main role models: my sister, Lorraine, and my mom, Norma. Both changed my diapers when I was one, and both made fun of my clothes when I was 15. They dealt with my adolescent “You just don’t understand!” phase, and years later, I’m proud to say, they finally saw me grow out of it. Each was the epitome of a “strong, independent woman.” Honestly, they put that chick in the Ne-Yo song to shame, catchy as the joint is.
I’m not saying that their influence wasn’t enough, but as I got older so did my interests. I started to delve deeper into my love of language. The further I fell for the arts, the more I felt alone.
My mom was a nurse, and while she had this God-given oratorical gift (I experienced it every day), I couldn’t ask her how I could write this article or line-break that poem. My sister was the same deal. Her expertise was the sciences. To this day, I still brag about how she majored in biomedical engineering. I never even took calculus. (True story.)
It was difficult for me to focus on what I loved to do when I didn’t have anybody to show me what I could become. So I started looking.
On my quest to find women I could “model myself after,” I read books. I read one biography after the next, studying how they walked, jumped, or crawled from point A to point B, maybe Z. Elizabeth Bishop was one of them. I learned how, despite the small amount of work she published, she’d go on to become one of the most influential contemporary poets of our time. I read about Gwendolyn Brooks, another amazing poet, who by the way grew up in Chicago (represent). I read about Jill Scott, who despite her success as a singer, had started out as a spoken word artist working miscellaneous jobs on her way to the top. I even started to look up to my “Intro to Poetry” teacher, Professor Harrington, who although scared me sh*tless during my first week of class, was instrumental to my progress as a writer.
As I began to grow as an artist, I’d come to know not only female role models, but female role models who were Filipino-American and Asian American as well. Some of them I’d met through shows I’d done. Others I’d come across via Twitter or other social-networking sites. They were artists who worked hard every day to make a voice for themselves, whether through song, dance, and yes, spoken-word. I discovered Fil-Am women who were journalists (“Hello?!)”, and Fil-Am women who were rappers (Double, “hello?!”). I even started to look up to some of my best friends: future doctors, fashion designers, lawyers, pharmacists, nurses, social workers… I see you.
In the end, that extra “umph” that I’d searched for toward the latter half of my life was there all along. I didn’t need to look “to the stars” or open up a magazine to find it. These extraordinary and many times “every day” women became the supplementary aides to the already existing guides-to-life known as Lorraine and Norma. Women who weren’t exactly like me, but who were exactly the right people I needed to know in order to build my self-esteem and see my self-worth.
Today, I added yet another woman to that list: Tina Chang, Brooklyn’s new poet laureate. (Check her out here.) After reading the New York Times profile about her, I decided to stay up until 3 a.m. to write. Be sure to shoot her an email if you’ve enjoyed reading my post so far.
Somewhere there’s a girl who’s just as confused as I was. With “gifted” scribbled on her forehead, but an excuse to give up blocking her reflection. Maybe I can be that role model to convince her not to.
– Abet Speaks