Gender & Identity, Life

Substitute teaching helped me understand my own parents

As a teenager I never understood why my parents may were so strict on certain issues. But as an adult teaching teenagers, I realized I was more like them than I thought.

Being a substitute teacher at the high school level was both exhausting and exciting. Some days I was teaching core subjects. Other days I would be covering for random ones which I knew nothing about. One substitute teaching day, after taking a year off between college and graduate school, I was substituting for a health class (not knowing that public health would become my career path). That day the teacher’s lesson plans centered around having the students read a chapter on sexual health out loud. The chapter was boring and the book hadn’t been updated since the1980s.

I was as bored to death as the students. I worried about going outside the scope of the lesson plans because this was in the state of Texas. Comprehensive sexual education was next to non-existent.  I was also confident that most of these children’s parents did not explain it to them. While this book was not particularly “abstinence-only,” the reference to condoms was so general that it was pointless.

I could not take it anymore. I stopped in between the sentences and asked the students what they knew about safe sex. One student raised his hand and told me someone should double-up on the condoms. I stood back and thought, “Wow, this kid must be having sex, and has maybe tried this. For his own sake and any girl he is with I hope he stops after I correct him.”

The next period was an advisory period. For some reason, the school administration placed all pregnant teens or teens with children in this class together. I still never understood why. Nevertheless, as I listened to these teens whose lives centered around their relationships and now their babies at such a young age, I realized I could not relate.

They were too young to be thinking about these topics. When I was their age all I thought about was studying for those exams, orchestra practice,  sometimes the cute guy in third period, and how big my thighs looked in my jeans. I knew as an advocate for safe sex and comprehensive sex education, they lacked the resources they needed. However, something in me started to creep up: even with sex ed, I would not want to see my own kids go through any of this. It began to occur to me: Oh no, I sound just like my parents.

While my parents could not completely shelter me from public American high school, I understood why they worried about me so much as a teenager. Peer groups matter and my parents understood that. I was by no means an angel, nor did I never rebel, but my rebellion looked extremely different: talking to boys and sometimes wearing clothes that were out of the question in a typical South Asian Muslim family. Other than that, I could not afford much rebellion if I wanted to leave my hometown for college. Too much of my family and community were looking for an opportunity to say, “Your daughter will not behave if she goes away.”

And you know what? It served me well.

Of course, I craved the freedoms that my non-Muslim or non-South Asian friends had many times. I could not understand why everything that came with being a typical American high school teenager was a problem. School dances were out of the question unless my brother was with me, although, they did lighten up once when they knew my group of friends. They had to know everywhere and everyone I was with after school.

Any outing or concept of “hanging out” was not going to come without twenty questions. Coming home beyond 9 or 10 p.m. at night meant another twenty questions. Sleepovers did not happen, and the term boyfriend was not something I could utter. My grades had to remain high – and sometimes I probably was more strict on myself with this than my parents.

While this lead to my own form of teenage angst and arguments between us, I grew much closer to my parents as an adult. I was lucky that they helped me understand my value in terms of my hard work rather than the opinion of boys. Maybe it was not through empowerment campaigns or direct messages, but rather in the parenting itself. In some ways, I related to the children of Amy Chua, the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

While my parents were not at the same level as Chua, the idea was very similar, regardless of how you feel about Chua herself or her methods. They expected my brother and me to spend all the time needed to make straight A’s (my brother actually fulfilled this expectation way better than I did). It came with a high level of pressure, but it also paid off when it came to killing it in life – including the bouncebacks from failures and shortcomings. Sure, grades are not everything, but the discipline of keeping high standards is not something I ever regret.

My parents were not perfect. Nobody’s parents are. While some aspects of their parenting made being a second-generation kid harder than my peers, it shaped me. I would not be surprised if I used some of their methods for any children I have in the future.