My grandparents (on my father’s side) were completely illiterate. They could neither read nor write. I spent a lot of my childhood reading and writing for them.
My grandparents (on my mother’s side) could read a small amount and write enough to get by. They tended to avoid situations where reading or writing would be required.
My great aunts and uncles could not read or write.
Neither of my parents graduated from high school (my father left when he was about 12; my mother when she was 14). None of my aunts and uncles graduated high school.
They did manage to get basic jobs. My father entered the fire service at age 16 and was educated there. He could read and write well enough by the time I was born.
However, we had no books in our house except a set of old encyclopedia and several cook books, neither of which were ever opened. I was never read a bedtime story. No one ever helped me with my homework.
Consequently, I was going down the same path as the rest of my family. At age 10 I probably had a reading level of a six year old and was unable to write well. I failed everything (literally 20 or 30% on school tests, if that). By the time I was 14, I was somewhat better at reading and writing - but I still failed and had ZERO interest in school. I had no one to help me with my homework; no one to help me understand the words or what was required of me. So, I constantly failed to hand in work.
At some point I found the Hobbit and couldn’t believe such a story was possible. Around age 15 a great teacher came to my school, in English Literature, and she READ to us. She read the same way my family told stories. I suddenly got the point of words and why they were written down and why we should read them. She made me understand. I went from a 25% on my previous years exam to a 98%.
After high school (which I was one of the first to finish in my family, and the first woman) I tried university four separate times. I failed out each time. I had no conception of what it would take to complete it. There was no uni in my town and being away from my family at that time was unacceptable (we were close, we were a unit, I had a specific role and place - in uni I was just an anonymous random person with no role (except to attend class and write papers) and no support).
My family didn’t really support educating women. They, like many Romani families, believed that a woman should get married and have many children (my own grandmother had 8 children, only three of whom survived. My father was a twin - but his brother died within moments of birth). They did not want me to “become a non-Romani”, which they thought would happen if I was educated. They didn’t understand why I wanted a “non-Romani education” when I was receiving a Romani one just fine.
I didn’t want to get married (I didn’t like the boys chosen for me); I didn’t want to become a young mother; and I didn’t want to spend my life cleaning and looking after men.
I didn’t try university again until 2004, here in the US. I was already married. I already had a baby. I was desperate to learn. I didn’t tell my parents until I was already enrolled. They complained loudly. My dad told me outright that it was a waste of my time, that I was abusing my child by not being with him. My mother said I was being ridiculous, that I was too stupid, and that I had “no opinion worth listening to”. At the time I was very hurt, but I see now they were just regurgitating what their parents had instilled in them.
I graduated in 2011 (I took time off in the middle of my degree to be a foster mother and because I was sick) Magna cum Laude (with a GPA of 3.75 and University honours) and immediately entered my graduate program (which I admit I didn’t really think through). Although I still have work to do, I graduated on Saturday with a GPA of 3.95 in my MA program (though that could change with these last papers and exams I’m making up).
My son is already a million times ahead of me. He has read all of Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and is currently working on the Eragon books, with an eye on starting His Dark Materials trilogy next. He’s ten. I could barely write at his age and certainly could not have read with his voracity. It took me weeks to slog through the Hobbit. He read it in what seemed like a matter of days.
He wants to attend MIT and double major in Robotics and Medieval Weapons Design. He wants to also design full-immersion body suits for virtual reality worlds. He can do complex math, he plays violin REALLY well, and can write properly organized essays utilizing words I didn’t even have the slightest comprehension of when I was his age.
Education hasn’t just allowed me to become a stronger person, it’s allowed me to give my son things I never had - a love of books and math at such a young age, and a hunger for education and knowledge that I never had until I was much older.
I wanted to prove that I wouldn’t lose my Romanjia (Romanipen) by undertaking a non-Romani education. I’ve actually strengthened it during my years in college - relearning my dialect, taking on dikhlo again, and reaffirming my commitment to a žužo (cleanly) life.
Education has opened so many doors for me - not just employment opportunities, but even the ability to connect with other educated Roma (especially Romni like Petra, Ethel, Glenda, and others). It’s allowed me to understand the words written about us in academic journals, studies, books, and newspapers. It’s allowed me to understand the processes involved in addressing the racism and oppression we face. It’s allowed me to learn things that I never knew - like information about the Holocaust and Porrajmos; that we have a World Romani Congress; that we’re woefully underrepresented and excluded from history.
Mostly, it’s allowed me to walk on an (almost) equal footing with non-Romani and learn why and how they think what they do about us. It’s allowed me to understand things my grandparents and parents never did about the world we’re forced to live in. It’s allowed me to read the laws that confine us and understand them enough to protest them.
It’s given me a voice that speaks out; a body that stands up to be counted; and the ability to read and understand articles and other information, analyze and process them, and dispute or agree with their arguments in a way that can be understood by other people.
In short, it’s made me into an effective activist who can take an active part in education and direct action against the stereotypes and hatred that is poured onto us daily.
It’s allowed me to find a way out of the poverty and marginalization in which my family lived. Yes, my light skin is both a blessing and a curse. Without it I would have faced far more racism, though I have faced enough. I fully accept my privilege. I want to help those who are not so privileged and whose dark skin excludes them and sends them to special schools and to live behind barbed wire and walls.
My education means I can help others too. I am lucky enough to have a foot in both worlds and to understand the weight of that borderland life.
Education saved me and my family. When I walked across that stage on Saturday and received my hood and diploma, it meant so much more than a piece of paper with a qualification on it. It was the culmination of a lifetime of hard work; hard work with no support - in fact, directly against my parents wishes. It represents a first in my family. It represents triumph in a system that wants to and actively tries to exclude people like me.
Most of all, it represents the shattering of a personal stereotype.
I am not a stupid or uneducatable animal. I am just as intelligent as any other person. Being Romani doesn’t preclude intelligence.
But, now I’m dangerous.
No one likes an educated “Gypsy”….