Finding My Voice by Colette Johnson

As my senior year of high school comes to a close I’ve noticed a few changes in myself. One, I’ve been a lot more vocal in my Creative Writing department. Two, I’ve gained more confidence in myself not only as a writer, but as a Black woman navigating a predominantly White space. Three, distance learning has its challenges but it’s not impossible to navigate. Four, I am not longer afraid to reach out to my teachers and counselors when I need help, Five, My mental health is important. Six, I wish I had reached this point in my life sooner. 

I’d never had an issue with my confidence before high school. I think this had a lot to do with the environment that I was in. My middle school had been predominantly Asian and Latino, and while I was one of the only African American students I was still surrounded by other minorities. High school was a culture shock as I had never been around many White students before, and many other students with a different socio economic background than myself. When I had auditioned for the Creative Writing department I knew that I would be the only minority, however I wasn’t prepared for the micro aggressions that I’d face from both teachers and students. 

During my freshman year, I was unaware that talking down to a student was a micro aggression. I did not know that singling out a student to answer questions that you think they wouldn’t know the answer to is a micro aggression. There were many times where I was called on to answer a question that I, in fact, did not know the answer to. However, being surrounded by white students who are looking at me with blank stares as I stumble over my words to fabricate an answer to suit the instructor terrified me completely. I felt that I had something to prove because at the time I was the only Black student. Subconsciously I was putting pressure on myself that I had to be a good example of what a Black woman is to trump any of their assumptions, something I didn’t realize I was doing until my senior year. 

Freshman year was the beginning of my quietness in school. I would never volunteer to read a passage out loud, or give my opinion on a discussion topic. I was silent for the most part. Keeping to myself and only reluctantly speaking when spoken to. This led to a series of conversations had between the department head and myself. She’s been an influential part of my journey to finding my voice, always encouraging me to share my thoughts, opinions, and takeaways that may be different from my peers. I could never bring myself to do this out of fear of being judged; I didn’t want my intelligence to be questioned. I think many African American students like myself are taught with the understanding that we are going to be judged no matter what we do for simply existing. It was drilled into me at an early age that I had to show that I wasn’t incompetent, that I could keep up with the other kids. 

I didn’t start to gain the courage to speak up in class until we started distance leaning this year. Perhaps the fact that we’re virtual and not in the classroom contributes to my boost in confidence. I feel more comfortable in my own home behind a computer screen. At the beginning of January the juniors and seniors started our fiction unit working with an Artist in Residence named Danny Nuygen. Danny chose to bring in a series of short stories for us to read, many of them dealing with subject matters involving race, social class, and economic status. I related to many of the pieces in this fiction unit than I have in the past, most likely because I understand the adversity and struggles faced by the characters. I started speaking in class, sharing my own thoughts and experiences on race living as a Black woman in America, something I would have never done in the past.

Colette Johnson, Class of ’21

Fiction and Valentine’s Day by Colette Johnson

In Creative Writing, we spend time together at the beginning of the school year before splitting into two groups. The freshmen and sophomores (CW I) work with Heather on poetry and fiction. The juniors and seniors (CW II) work with artists and residence on units such as poetry and nonfiction. It’s now February and CW I started our fiction unit a month ago in January.

        Before we left for winter break in December, Heather told us to read six short stories from different authors and write a three to five page short story in the style of one of the writers. I used Shirley Jackson’s writing style in my short story. When we returned from break, Heather had us transfer our best paragraphs onto a shared google doc and we peet edited them. Everyone was anonymous. This exercise had its ups and downs. By keeping the authors anonymous we as writers were able to critique and look at the paragraphs as just paragraphs. There was no face behind them which made some of us feel more comfortable because we did not want to hurt anyone’s feelings. On the other hand, however, those paragraphs did have authors and their feelings should have been taken into account, which they were during a discussion later.

During the discussion, a few of us voiced that the way we went about critiquing the paragraphs was wrong, which in my opinion was. My paragraph was the first one critiqued, and while the edits were extremely helpful, I did feel vulnerable during the process. It is good to be vulnerable as a writer and open to receiving criticism, but during the critiquing session, things were not done in the most orderly fashion. There was chaos to say the least, people talking over others, shouting out although not loudly, and most importantly, I wanted to understand my mistakes through explanations but there were none. Needless to say, we came to an understanding to do things like that exercise in a more orderly fashion. Yes, we all can identify mistakes but there is a way to go about addressing them that we all needed a refresher on.

Another thing we do during the fiction unit in CW I is read short stories. February is Black History Month in case you were not aware, and because of that Heather chose short stories by African American authors. A recent one that we read was “Black Girl” by Ousmane Sembene. Sembene had the luxury of not only writing the story but directing the film based on it also. In “Black Girl” a young African woman from Senegal called Diouana works a a maid in France for a couple who treats her as a slave. Diouana is excited to move to France and thinks that she will get to explore the city and move up in class but soon finds that the color of her skin is standing in her way. I absolutely enjoyed both the film and the short story and highly recommend it.

We watched the movie in class and looked for differences in the film and short story. Afterwards we shared our observations and together had a discussion about them. There was a part in the film when Diouana is sleeping and the woman who she works for forcefully pulls her out of her slumber shouting “Get up! You’re not in Africa anymore!” I noted how that last line stuck with me because I was reminded of the stereotype the Blacks are lazy.

As a Black young woman, I felt immense compassion for Diouana. One can study slavery and discrimination and come to know every aspect of it but there is no excuse for someone to feel like they own an entire human being. Diouana kills herself at the end of the film and short story. Whole heartedly, if I was in the same situation as her, I think that I would do the same thing. I know that it is morbid and grotesque but I cannot stomach the idea of living the rest of my life as somebody’s slave. She was not free alive, she was free dead.

Colette Johnson, Class of 2021

Black Joy Parade and My 16th Birthday by Colette Johnson

 In the beginning of the school year, the entire department is together for a few weeks working with an Artist in Residence. Afterward, we split into our respective groups. CW II meets in our seminar room with different Artists and Residents, working on different crafts. CW I works with Heather in the main room. We have a poetry and fiction unit with her. We then all group together for our Playwriting unit.

When we were together we had a unit with Taylor D. Duckett, who is a poet, author, and orator. Her unit was about performance poetry and different ways to bring sound into a poetic work and the messages behind songs. On the first day, she gave us a packet consisting of the songs that we would be looking at. We learned how to clap out the rhythms and identified different poetic devices in them such as slant rhyme, internal rhyme, etc.

I felt that Taylor’s lesson was effective. I tend to forget that songs are forms of poems when I am listening to music. I liked that Taylor had us listen to the songs while reading the lyrics. Reading words on a page and hearing them sung or said are two different things. Heather, our department head, always talks about tone when writing fiction. Tone also applies to poetry. The speaker can perform the piece, indicating the tone of the piece in the way they talk. In this case the speaker would be the singer. Sometimes when reading something before hearing it performed, the tone isn’t always clear. The lyrics mean one thing, but the way the singer sings them means another.

Taylor and I kept contact after her unit finished and we text back and forth. She helps me with my writing if I send her something. Back in January on the seventeenth, Taylor asked me if I wanted to work at her booth during the Black Joy Parade in Oakland. She had her own publishing company, which would be at the parade, selling books and raffle tickets.

I was ecstatic when she asked me and immediately texted my mom to ask for permission. She and I woke up bright and early on February 24th and made our way across the bridge and into downtown Oakland. My call time was noon but I got there around one after extensively circling around to find parking.

It was my first time at the parade and I learned that the parade stretched along for a few blocks. Taylor’s booth was located toward the end of the parade, where most of the other vendors were. We were sandwiched between a company that sold makeup and sunglasses, and another company that sold African print clothes and essence sticks. I helped Taylor and her good friend Angel sell manuscripts, some were manuscripts of Taylor and other artists’ work.

I was there for a couple hours and was able to roam and meet new people. Taylor got hungry a short while after I arrived and so I walked around until I found the food trucks. There were a good many of them with people gathered around in large clumps leaving very little room for people to walk around. Aromas hit me almost instantly. There were corndogs, hotdogs, chicken and waffles, veggie burgers, fried chicken, hot links, desserts, and so much more! I was so overwhelmed with everything and had to call Taylor to ask what she wanted. She couldn’t decide either, so I walked to nearest CVS and picked us up some doughnuts and mini musketeer candies (her choice).

Before I left Taylor introduced me to her mentor Dr. Wright, who teaches classes at Taylor’s college. Both of them made offers for me to sit in on a few classes at San Francisco State University  during my spring break this year. I’ll most definitely be taking them up on their offers.

I was sad to leave the event around four. I really wanted to stay but my mom was freezing and ready to leave. She also did not want to get stuck in even more traffic than expected on the drive home across the Bay Bridge. I’d say that the highlight of that event for me was being able to be around people who looked like me and felt proud to showcase our culture. At school in San Francisco, I don’t see a huge representation of the Black community. SOTA has a small Black Student Union that I am the treasurer of, but other than that, SOTA is not the most diverse school in the district, and San Francisco isn’t the most diverse city either. It was nice to be around people who were just as passionate about our culture as I was and am. It was refreshing to see our community come together and celebrate. The picture below was taken by Taylor upon my arrival.

Aside from the Black Joy Parade, I hit another milestone in February. I turned sixteen on February 26th! My birthday festivities were spectacular. Since my big day fell on a Tuesday, I celebrate that Saturday on March 2nd. On the day of my actual birthday, my mom and grandma woke me up unknowingly bright and early. They were decorating my room with flowers and gifts. When I officially woke up at five in the morning my mom burst into my room, singing “Happy Birthday To You” with her arms spread wide and a smile on her face.

She gave me cards, money, and some clothes, and dropped me off at my bus stop so that I wouldn’t have to catch another bus. In Creative Writing, Heather assigns everyone Writing Buddies. Writing Buddies are usually an upper classmen paired with a lower classman. They are there to be one’s friend and help one with their writing. In the beginning of the year, the older buddy contacts the younger buddy’s parents and asks for permission to take them on a date. This is an afternoon spent getting to know each other outside of school during art block. Writing buddies are also responsible for bringing a treat to share with the department on their buddy’s birthday.

My buddy, Julieta (2019) texted me on Monday night asked what treat I would want for my birthday. My favorite sugary treat is called “Senorita Bread”. Senorita Bread, also known as Starbread or Spanish Bread in the Philippines, consists of small oblong rolls made of the softest dough decorated with butter and sugar. The dough is rolled, sprinkled with more sugared breadcrumbs, and baked. Caution: they are deliciously addicting!

I knew that this would be hard to get. I only find them in Daly City and this was out of the question. Instead Julieta brought in these scrumptious mini blueberry muffins. They were food allergy free and enjoyed by many.

On March 2nd, at five in the evening, my mom, grandma, and two friends from school, both sophomores, ventured downtown to Espetus Churrascaria. The restaurant was an all-you- can-eat Brazilian Steakhouse located on the corner of Market and Gough. Their food and service was absolutely divine. I highly recommend it. It was not my first time dining there; I made reservations for my mom, grandma, and I two years prior for my mom’s birthday. I fell in love with their tender sirloin steak.

We were seated next to a large window in the corner of the restaurant. My friends and I went to the salad bar to grab plates and see what food they had. I’m afraid to say that I was a little less adventurous with my food choices. I only took the fresh grilled salmon. The servers walk around with large sticks of meat and offer your table pieces. I tried the beef wrapped in bacon, the chicken wrapped in bacon, the filet mignon, the sirloin steak, and so many more things. I even tried the grilled pineapple. I hate pineapple so was surprised to find myself enjoying it.

We ordered dessert before we left and the waiters sang happy birthday to me as they brought our dishes out. We order Key Lime Pie and a sundae type dish. When we arrived home, my two friends stayed for two more hours and we did and impromptu birthday photoshoot outside. The video down below includes the pictures that we took. Overall, February was a good month for me.

Colette Johnson, class of 2021

First Days Back by Colette Johnson

Since I’ve been back to school, I’ve witnessed three fire drills and the Field Day event and practices, all in a wheelchair. The fire drills were surprisingly fun. One of my fellow creative writers, Liam, wheeled me out into the quad for two of the three fire drills. During the first fire drill, the two of us were really confused on what to do. We were on the second floor and needed to get down to the football field but didn’t know how. There was an elevator but I was always told that during a real fire or fire drill, you weren’t supposed to use it. Eventually, our Vice Principal Ms. Boyle told us to use it anyways because the fire wasn’t in the main building, it was in the studio theatre. No explanation as to why we had so many fire drills all  one after the other.

The first Field Day practice was a slow day. The head of my department, Heather, gave all of the students two options: we could stay inside and paint my wheelchair yellow (our department’s color) or go out to the field to practice for the events that would take place. I of course, had to stay inside to let some of the other students paint my wheelchair.  While field day practice #1 was  calm, Field Day practice #2 was chaotic. I didn’t even get to actually watch the people on the field practice! My friend and I were too busy figuring out how to get me down to the field safely. That resulted in me freaking out when my friend Nadja tried to push me up a steep, unpaved hill. That was the end of field day practice #2 for me.

The actual Field Day was even more chaotic than Field Day practice #2. I came to school wearing all yellow (which is what I thought was enough) until I saw a boy shirtless with his hair and chest dyed red. Everyone at school went all out with department spirit that day. The main events were absolutely chaotic. There was a combination of screaming, screeching, and celebrating. Unfortunately, CW did not place in any of the activities but we did try our hardest.

Colette Johnson, class of 2021