by Traci Tousant
With great clarity, in every visual memory I have of my grandmother, she is wearing bright red lipstick. She NEVER left home without applying a solid 2 coats of her cherry red Amway lipstick. I wish I knew the name of it. As a little girl I remember her telling me that it was important to always be “put together” when going out in public. She would straighten out her wig, stare at her face in the mirror, and confirm that her lipstick was expertly applied.
Growing up, I looked up to my mother. In my mind, I used to compare her to Claire Huxstable, not in profession, but in the way she commanded attention at her place of work while simultaneously juggling her duties as wife, mother, sister, and daughter. She left home ready to tackle corporate America as a beautiful black woman, dressed in a pressed 3-piece suit, stockings, and heels everyday. Her lipstick color was different, but like my grandmother, she NEVER left home without being “put together”.
I never cared too much about red lipstick and my profession as a teacher does not require me to show up in a 3-piece suit and heels, but my lessons were “put together”. My relationships with my students were “put together”. My commitment to studying, learning, and being better at my craft were all evidence of me showing up “put together”.
I don’t remember when or where I first heard the term “the mask”. Not even sure when I realized that my grandmother’s lipstick was her “mask”, my mother’s power suit was her “mask”, and me overcompensating to be the perfect teacher, wife, and mother was my “mask”. What I do know is that as a BLACK WOMAN in America, I grew up knowing that my mask was a form of protection and self-preservation. It allowed me to interact with the public and portray only the versions of myself I wanted people to see.
And then life, unpredictable, unrelenting, and unforgiving, happens and the masks begin to crack. I think the 1st crack in my grandmother’s mask was the death of my grandfather. Yes, she still wore her red lipstick but it wasn’t perfectly applied. Sometimes it would be on her teeth, sometimes above or below her lips. Her wig was a little crooked, yet she’d smile and carry on as if everything was alright. My mother’s mask shattered to pieces at her feet when she was forced into early retirement because the company could hire someone younger and cheaper. Then early dementia attacked my grandmother and my dad lost his job. Blissfully unaware of the cracks (because of course, we’re great at hiding) my brother and I continued on in college, until my dad had to tell me that Mommy was not ok. Panic attacks so severe, they would paralyze her. Medication, counseling, thousands of tears shed and my larger than life superhero of a mother became just a human. I remember clearly asking her, “Why didn’t you tell me you were struggling? Why did you let me think you were ok?” To which she whispered, “Because I didn’t want you to worry.”
For me, the cracks in my mask began with the decline of my physical health, first vertigo, then high blood pressure. One morning after car rider duty, I began to not feel well. My fingers were tingling, my head was hurting, and my chest was tight. My coaching partner says, go to the nurse. At first I refused. Why? Because we have consultants coming and it’s a planning day and we have so much to do. So she tattles to my principal and he commands me to go to the clinic. I explain to the nurse my symptoms and she asks me to sit down so that she can take my blood pressure. Sitting in the nurse’s office I’m told at 43 years old, “Traci, your pressure is so high you are in danger of having a stroke. I am legally obligated to mandate medical attention immediately. I either need to call an ambulance to take you to the hospital or you let someone take you to your doctor.” My initial response… “I can’t leave.” My body was trying to talk to me but I wouldn’t listen. “I’m good. I’ve got this. The students need me. The teachers need me.” I’m the type of person who has no problem GIVING directions but not necessarily FOLLOWING directions. But as my doctor so eloquently phrased it, “You won’t be good to anyone if you are DEAD.” Well that was a little humbling.
Because I come from a lineage of strong-willed, determined, fierce women I foolishly thought I was invincible. Here I am 3 years later and I no longer have the mental fortitude to keep pretending. My mask became fractured with the Covid pandemic. One day I found myself sitting in my classroom during a virtual Zoom class, unable to teach my lesson. I couldn’t figure out why my mind literally stopped working. In front of 35 8th grade virtual students, I cried. I don’t know who was more shocked, me or them. It felt like I was having an out of body experience, watching myself on Zoom completely fall apart. Suddenly my students became my cheerleaders, trying to comfort me, telling me I was a great teacher, they loved my class, and I was doing a great job. I continued to “push through”, adjusting my mask, creating what I hoped was engaging lessons for both my virtual and face-to-face students, balancing academics and the emotional well-being of my students, while disinfecting my classroom all day long, getting daily emails about positive Covid notifications from my son’s high school, watching him struggle to navigate technology and failing all of his classes, missing my parents whom I hadn’t seen in months, praying for the lives of my black sons, and taking care of home.
This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series, a month-long movement to feature the voices of Indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars.
Please CLICK HERE to read this year’s and previous years’ contributions.