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My Students Taught Me the Power of Fearlessness

Summer training is coming to a close, and corps member Cristina Nunez-Ballesteros finds herself inspired by the preschoolers she taught.   

July 30, 2019

Every summer, Teach For America welcomes our new corps members to Chicago Summer Training: a rigorous, hands-on experience that combines intensive training with immersive teaching practice and coaching. This year, a staff member and a 2019 corps member will be blogging about their on-the-ground experiences! This post comes from Cristina Nunez-Ballesteros, a 2019 corps member and Illinois native who will be teaching early childhood education. (Catch up on Cristina's first post and second post.)

I was 14 years old when Barack Obama announced his executive order for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). I was happy because my family was happy. I would no longer be illegal, I would be a very special undocumented person because my parents had “brought me against my will.” All of the signs that turned them away and the opportunities that slipped through their fingers would now be mine. I was happy because my family was happy, but I hurt because my parents hurt.

Mountains of paperwork, money orders, and informational articles made me feel overwhelmed. I was privileged to have an education that let me understand or at the very least connect to people who could help. Still, the more I read the more impossible it seemed for my parents to ever join me in this special status. The more I read, the more I questioned the usefulness of this special status, as we craved complete socio-political liberation. Then I came across Dora Winifred Reed.

Not familiar with her name? She's Arthur's younger sister, on the TV show Arthur. And on April 16th, 1998, Dora Winifred Reed uttered—to me—one of the most iconic television quotes. This fictional preschooler knew her power when she said, “That sign can’t stop me because I can’t read.” 

“My students taught me we don’t need to be the roses that grow from concrete because we can be the cracks that make it crumble. Pre-K is expanding this year in Chicago, and all of us are better for it.”

Cristina Nunez-Ballesteros

I’ve seen her spirit and moxie in every single one of my students this summer.

For four weeks, they have pushed themselves and my fellow teachers with their fearlessness. They have minimal experience with boundaries and restrictions in a way I find inspiring. The world is the size of their palm and as large as their imagination. Given the state of immigration in the United States right now, I needed a reminder to push back against words that only exist to exclude and dehumanize me. However difficult to understand and overcome, there is always hope in being outspoken about what is right. My students helped me remember this.

I’m leaving summer training with a heaviness in my heart because it holds all of them. It sounds so corny, but it’s true. I hope we set the stage for all of my students to turn the phrase, “That sign can’t stop me because I can’t read,” into “That sign can’t stop me”—point blank. I want them to grow as students with this approach in mind because it’s what they taught me this summer. My students taught me we don’t need to be the roses that grow from concrete because we can be the cracks that make it crumble. Pre-K is expanding this year in Chicago, and all of us are better for it.