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Meet Mariana

Mariana Constantinescu

Romanian teacher Mariana Constantinescu reveals the power of the written word, how education can change lives, and the importance of having compassion for both others and yourself.

Mariana Constantinescu

I love fountain pens. I can spend a lot of time looking at pens, trying them out, and writing with them. I love hand-writing and pens have always been special to me. This one is teal metal, smooth and is a size medium. To me, pens symbolise learning, expression but also responsibility.  I use this particular fountain pen when I sign all of my official paperwork. I have made a promise to myself that when I use this fountain pen, I will always use it for the benefit of my students. When I started going to school, it was mandatory to write with a fountain pen. However, my love of pens is actually mostly related to my dad. Growing up, whenever he was proud of me, he wouldn't express it verbally, ever. His way of showing affection or pride was by presenting me with a pen of some kind. 

My name is Mariana Constantinescu. I was born and raised in Constanța, Romania on the Black Sea and I've lived here for most of the 35 years of my life. Being a woman in Romania, especially when you are the eldest daughter, comes with responsibility. Culturally, I think we have a long way to go for equality and partnerships. We're doing a lot better now than we did 30 years ago, but I would say we are largely still a patriarchal society. So of course, since I’m a woman, I was more sheltered as a child. I was allowed to take fewer risks and try fewer things than my brothers. For example, they could go out and play but I couldn't. They could try out extracurricular activities, no questions asked. People also didn't really care if they didn't obey. I didn't have the same, let's say, opportunities, though I might not have had the courage to even ask for them. 

I feel like my family did the best they knew how to, but unfortunately, I grew up in an environment of comparisons. My dad was always...stern and my mum has always been the kind, warm and empathetic one. She was a homemaker–a brilliant one–and for most of her life, she has never worked outside of the home. Actually, most of the women in my family were homemakers and the ones who weren't didn't really have a choice. It was a cultural thing, but also a pattern in our family. I grew up thinking of my mother as a god, simultaneously adoring her and thinking I would never, ever reach the standard that she had set in terms of motherhood and sacrifice. In my mind, I always associated motherhood with sacrifice because of her example. She has had to deal with too many sacrifices, many of which I wouldn't make myself. My dad, on the other hand, was the provider of the family. He also did his best to make sure that we grew up to be decent people, which meant he was the person we'd get in trouble with and mum was the one who would shelter us the best she could. 

The idea that there's so much expected of me and that I will just never be able to do it is very deeply rooted in me. I have had to go through a lot of therapy to shake off the mentality attached to that. My mum just does things. Even if they are difficult, she will do them and not complain. She will just persist through them until she sees the end, which I think is a great quality to have as a woman. I feel grateful and I feel bad about that at the same time.  I greatly admire the fact that I am who I am today because of all of the work and effort and sacrifice that she has put into us [her children]. But at the same time, I wish that she had had opportunities to be more herself sooner. I am grateful that, as a society, we're slowly shifting away from the idea that motherhood is martyrdom.

As I navigated these expectations growing up, I began receiving pens from my dad. Sometimes it would feel kind of random, but I was always the one receiving the pens instead of my siblings, so it represented something to me. Especially as a teenager, I had grown up thinking that no matter how many academic achievements I had–and I've had a few–they would never be enough for my dad. So it was even more special to receive a pen during those times when it felt like I would never be good enough for his expectations. He was a policeman and he once brought a pen home from work that wasn't a fountain pen. It was a very, very cheap, inexpensive plastic pen. But I had no idea that it was so cheap or inexpensive, so to me, it was a very, very important pen. I remember breaking it the next day and I felt so bad and so scared. I thought, “Oh my gosh, what did I do?” and when he saw it, I expected to be punished and reprimanded. But that didn't happen. He just asked me what happened and I said I was sorry and that I didn't mean to–I just broke it. I expected a huge reaction, but that didn't happen. This was a surprising but welcomed response. 

My dad is a very complex person.  He grew up in communism and in a rural area, extremely poor, wanting things, working for things and having things taken away from him. He has seen some really difficult times in life both in situations and in relationships and they have created a tough shell. So it came as a big surprise and a little bit of a shock to me that when two missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came knocking on our door my dad was open to their teachings. I had never known him to be a religious person. He was the first one in our family to be baptised and we all followed when we were of age. We were baptised in the Black Sea in August of 1998. My dad is not currently what we would call an active member. He does not attend church but he told us that he felt something special there. My dad opened a path for me in that church that has led to numerous opportunities for growth and for that I am immensely and eternally grateful.

Naturally, my parents are some of my role models, but I also hold great love for some of my early teachers. This love stems from my love of learning. Reading, learning and writing have always been passions of mine. I feel so grateful to have had the gift of curiosity as a child when it came to learning, and especially towards books. I was craving stories–I was hungry for stories–and I spent a lot of time reading them, diving into them and becoming absorbed by their beauty. I have had many wonderful teachers that nurtured this passion, but one particular French teacher basically shaped the trajectory of my professional life. 

This teacher would have us read in class and I would rarely volunteer to read, but she would call on me anyways. Her constant encouragement made a real impact on me, and I became much more involved in class. One day, I was a little frustrated because she hadn’t called on me even though I had raised my hand and everything. I really wanted to read, but she didn’t call on me until the end. Afterwards, she said something to me that I will never forget. She told me that she loved cake but that, for her, the “cherry on top” was not the best part. For her, whipped cream was the best part, and she had saved me for last because, to her, I was the whipped cream. I could feel the love behind those words and could tell that she was truly invested in me and my future. This meant the world to me, and I think that singular moment moulded a large part of who I am and what I have achieved. 

This experience ultimately led me to become a teacher myself, and I now teach French to children aged six through fourteen. I actually highly doubt that they will remember any French that they learn from me, but I very much hope that they will remember that they are loved unconditionally and seen for who they are in my classroom–that they are safe. That, to me, is what it means to put a pen in someone's hand–to give them the safety and the space to express themselves. Education has done that for me. My teachers have all placed extremely important pens in my hand, as have my parents, and they have pushed and encouraged me through example, trust, confidence and by being there for me when I needed them.

We all need the safety and space to express ourselves in life. For example,  as I navigated all the expectations placed upon me growing up, I always tried to be the “good girl”. Never would it have ever crossed my mind while growing up that I might be bisexual. I realised that later in life. It’s part of who I am, a part of my identity, and I cherish, treasure and honour that. I have come to learn that I don't have to prove anything to anybody. I can be who I am. You don't have to have been in a relationship with someone of another gender to be bisexual. If you're bisexual, it doesn't make you heterosexual to be in a relationship with someone of a different gender, and it doesn't make you gay to be in a relationship with someone of your same gender. I've spent a lot of time reflecting on that, and have begun to realise how little we know about the people around us, especially in church settings. A little while ago, a point was made when someone said: “If you don't know anybody who's LGBTQ+, you might want to ask yourself why people are not feeling safe enough to be themselves around you.”

I think in religious settings, and in general, we can do better in creating an environment where people don't have to prove themselves. Where they feel safe and have space. I think all of us deeply desire to be seen for who we are and to be loved just exactly the way we are. I think we have a ways to go, but baby steps will do. For some of the people in the LGBTQ+ community who crave to be part of a religious community, being their true selves can be excruciatingly painful because they feel like they have to change to be accepted. For me, being married to a man makes it so I don't have to deal with those kinds of questions from others because people don't even think about my sexuality. It doesn’t even cross their minds that I might not be straight. But let's say I was transgender. How would that affect my standing in a religious community? How would that affect people's acceptance of who I am? A lot of people–most people–have to come out over and over again even once they are “out”. I greatly treasure my friends and people around me who are LGBTQ+ because it takes a lot of courage to live authentically. 

We can choose to listen to each other’s stories and use the pens we’ve been given to write our own. Giving someone a pen is like giving them a tool for learning. I have no idea which language I picked this saying from, I was certain it was a Romanian saying but I speak five languages, so maybe it's in one of those languages; To put a pencil in one's hands is to give them power. Through this beautiful dance of handwriting, the pen helps them learn how to shape letters, absorb information and think critically, and, later on, to express what's in their mind and heart as they become who they are. In my opinion, placing a pen in someone's hand is the single greatest act of support and love. The pens I’ve been given throughout my life have connected me to my father, my teachers and inspired me to offer that same empowerment to my students. Each of us has something in our heart that's worth sharing. 


Contributions
Pre-production: Clare Hamn
Interview: Krischelle Joseph 
Transcription: Ryan Cook
Writing: Krischelle Joseph & Clare Hamn
Editing: Martsie Webb & Amy Epps
Audio: Emma Reyelts 
Photography: Lăcrămioara Țînțăreanu

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