Desiree Martinez graduated from UCLA several months ago and she knows exactly what she wants to do with her degree: Advocate for education reform so students of color and low-income students are afforded the same opportunities as their peers.
But if Martinez had listened to her high school teacher, she wouldn't be where she is today. In an open letter titled "Dear High School Teacher Who Tried to Discourage Me from Applying to UCLA, I’m a BRUIN Now!" the new grad recalls approaching a high school teacher to ask for help with college applications. Martinez was nervous because she was applying to top-tier institutions and, although she didn't feel confident or "good enough to get in," she was prepared to do everything possible to make herself a competitive applicant.
When Martinez got up the courage to tell her teacher that UCLA was her dream school, she vividly recalls the woman's response: "You let out a sigh; I watched as a frown and puzzled look quickly grew on your face. You commented, 'I don’t know why counselors push students into these schools they’re not ready for.' My heart fell as you continued, 'Students only get their hearts broken when they don’t get into those schools and the students that do get in come back as dropouts.'"
Her words were crushing to Martinez, who was the first person in her family to apply to college. It even made her second-guess whether or not college was for her at all. The teacher then urged Martinez to start at a community college because "kids from this community just aren’t ready for that, the counselors are just setting you up for disappointment."
It sounds like someone landed in the wrong profession.
After the meeting, a devastated Martinez wandered into the classroom of Mr. Palomo, her old AP U.S. history teacher. When she told him what happened, Palomo gave the response a teacher should give an ambitious, hard-working student: "Mija, don’t let her be the reason to hold you back. Yes, UCLA is immensely difficult to get into, but you are an amazing student who has done so much already. I’m sorry to say this won’t be the last time you will face something like this, but don’t let people like that be the reason to hold you back."
Spoiler alert: Martinez was accepted to UCLA and recently became the first person in her extended family to graduate from college. It wasn't all smooth sailing and she says there were times when she considered dropping out, but Palomo's words of wisdom inspired her to push through the rough patches. "You are the example of the kind of educator I strive to be," she says.
But Martinez also wants to thank the teacher who discouraged her, because her actions and words influenced Martinez's path post-grad.
"[A]s a white teacher who was employed in a low-income and predominantly Latino community, you should be the last person advising students to discourage us. Yes, we lived in a low-income community with a school that didn’t always have the resources we needed, but that doesn’t mean we don’t deserve the same level of support students in Beverly Hills receive," she writes.
Martinez says she was lucky enough to find a teacher who provided her with that support, but she knows other students didn't. She recalls that the same teacher advised Martinez's peers against taking AP classes because "it was a waste of their time."
It's only been a few months since Martinez received her diploma, but she's already hard at work to make a change in the education system.
"You encouraged me to fight inequalities in education. You inspired me come back to LAUSD where I worked with students of my own. Low-income students don’t need educators who discourage them from pursuing their dreams, the media already does a tremendous job of doing that," she writes to her former teacher. "We need people who are willing to believe in us and realize that we’re not broken. As students from low-income communities, we are powerful, intelligent, and worthy of educators who support our wildest endeavors."