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Nicole Stanton: Finding Her Voice and Making Her Own Box

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Stanton encourages a student to think deeper in a class discussion.

Stanton encourages a student to think deeper in a class discussion.

Katie Niver

Katie Niver

Stanton encourages a student to think deeper in a class discussion.

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“I, of course, drew my own box,” says Nicole Stanton.

She was in high school and went to the Baltimore DMV to take her driver’s test.  She had to fill out a form that asked for her race. The form had boxes for black and white, but there was no box for multi-racial. Stanton, a half-black half-white woman, did not identify with any of the boxes on the DMV form, so she drew her own box that reflected her true identity as a multi-racial woman. Later, a white DMV employee returned the form to Stanton, and she saw that he “had just crossed out my little multi-racial box and just stamped ‘black’” on the form. Looking back at that moment, she says, “There I was identifying as multi-racial; in the context, that identity didn’t exist for me and so someone else was choosing my identity and that didn’t feel good.”

Teaching seems to come naturally to Stanton. At 8 o’clock on a cold Wednesday morning, she greets her English I students warmly as they shuffle into her classroom. Before she starts class, she asks her students about the previous class, which she missed, and expresses her regret that she was not with them when they read a poem about dying woodchucks. As an ardent animal lover, Stanton wanted to be with her class in case they were upset, reading about a dying animal.

Despite the early hour and the sleep deprived nature of the students, she is able to engage them and encourage them to contribute to the class discussion. She encourages her students to talk and pushes them to think deeper and more critically by asking them, “how does this connect?” and “what does this mean?” She smiles broadly and nods her head vigorously in appreciation of her students’ contributions. When class is over, the students are alert and engaged thanks to Stanton.

Growing up in a predominantly black neighborhood in Baltimore, Stanton felt out of place. “Sometimes kids made fun of me for being not black enough or too smart,” Stanton remembers. After 7th grade, she went from a predominantly black public school to Bryn Mawr, a predominantly white private school. At Bryn Mawr, she continued to feel out of place, but for different reasons. “[I] still felt like an alien because then, I went from being not black enough in public school, to suddenly being not white enough and not rich enough.” She jokes that at Bryn Mawr, she had to learn about summer homes, pesto and arugula.

It wasn’t just the students at Bryn Mawr who made her feel out of place, it was the teachers as well. For example, one of her 8th-grade teachers asked Stanton to be a server at the teacher’s dinner party to which Stanton refused. The same teacher told her how surprised she was that Stanton was doing so well in her class. “That comment stuck with me for years, and it was only later when I realized, wow, that’s the tyranny of low expectations. I came from a public school, I was a student of color, and she was shocked that I was such a good reader and writer.”

For all the alienation that she felt at Bryn Mawr, it was also where she found her voice. Stanton took an English class at Bryn Mawr’s brother school and she ended up being the only girl in the class. The class read the book The Awakening by Kate Chopin, which Stanton describes as a book about a rebel woman who starts to see the oppression of wives and mothers and feels trapped in a gilded cage. According to Stanton, all the boys in the class hated the book and thought the main character was a disgusting woman and a bad mother. But Stanton saw it differently, “I saw this woman awakening to her oppression and thinking about marriage in the way she’s trapped and I found my voice with that book … I’d always had a kind of feminist consciousness, but with that book, I learned that I really had to defend this woman and so I took on seventeen wealthy, white, entitled boys that semester.” It would have been easier for Stanton if she had stayed silent and not challenged the boys’ criticism of the book, but Stanton resisted the temptation to accept the boxes created by the boys and made her own instead.

In graduate school at the University of Michigan, Stanton continued to raise her voice and make her own box. While she was there studying to get her Ph.D., she was part of a theater troupe called the CRLT Players. The troupe traveled around the country to perform controversial theater sketches to generate discussion about topics like diversity and sexism. She recalls that one of her roles was a “young woman, a Ph.D. student in the sciences, and I had a male mentor who was really dismissive of me and who played golf with his other grad students but never invited me along because was a woman.” After a performance at Harvard, the audience discussion was so intense that people almost came to blows.

Even today, Nicole continues to make her own boxes. At Marin Academy, Stanton appears to fit into the community that she is a part of, but says she feels that she is still “on the outside looking in.”

I probably feel most comfortable, ironically, when I’m on the outside looking in. It’s where I’ve spent most of my life.” Just like at the Baltimore DMV, there still isn’t a box for a multi-racial woman from a poor background, so she has made her own box in the MA community. “Probably I’m a teacher because I think it’s so important for people to understand the myriad challenges women and people of color face in our society.” Drawing on her experiences starting in Baltimore and at Bryn Mawr, Stanton is trying to create a new box, both for herself and others.

“Like Anna Deavere Smith, I embrace Twilight – that time of day when borders and boundaries become less visible and thus less powerful. I live in the twilight of race and class each day.”

1 Comment

One Response to “Nicole Stanton: Finding Her Voice and Making Her Own Box”

  1. Judy Gamble on April 13th, 2017 9:20 am

    A beautifully written piece about a beautifully strong woman.

    [Reply]

If you want a picture to show with your comment, go get a gravatar.




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