i went to a student’s home for, i believe, the first time in all my nine years of teaching. S invited me to her graduation party. she lives a 20-minute walk from the closest T stop, in a neighborhood whose triple-deckers, loosely contained front yards, and sometimes littered sidewalks look quite similar to my own, but whose economic differences are evident in the scattering of corner stores and absence of really anything else. culturally i felt almost as if i was in a foreign country. walking from the T, i encountered only one other person of my own race, and walking the three-quarters of a mile to S’s house i experienced a litany of self-examinations: did i look scared? was i dressed strangely? should i meet people’s eyes or not? should i show curiosity? were those men laughing at me? hyper-conscious of my obvious difference (or maybe not- maybe there are other white people who live there and i’m just not seeing them; maybe it’s all in my own head), i passed by front stoops filled with muscle-shirted young men, front yards filled with cheap plastic chairs with arguing spanish-speaking families, several pit bulls, and trash, and a few times, younger kids playing with scooters and bikes in the street.
arriving at S’s house, music was blaring. i thought i knew enough not to ring the doorbell. the party was obviously in the back- only, arriving an hour late, no one was there. chairs and banquet tables were set up, graduation balloons filled, a congratulations sign on the fence, meat on the grill. two men passed me several times, one nodded at me once. i stood around. S’s mom appeared and greeted me; i offered to help set up but seemingly it was done. i experienced probably ten minutes of extreme social discomfort, standing around trying to look occupied, holding S’s graduation gift as a man bustled about the grill and the mom disappeared inside. i looked at my phone, i fluffed up the ribbons on the gift, i felt like an outsider. eventually a 20-something woman approached me and struck up a chat; flattered and relieved, i became a passive reinforcer, nodding and agreeing with mostly everything she said even though her statements about serving in the military and enjoying the suburbs couldn’t be more at odds with my own values and lifestyle.
eventually, my student appeared, very dressed up- here’s one cultural difference, a backyard party in my experience usually calls for jeans and tank tops, not dresses that you could wear to a prom- with two other students i know with her. small talk was disappointing. i asked questions about the party, about their summers, about their plans to go to college in the fall. they talked to each other about their iphones and how hard it was to find a job. they are good students and interesting people; in my class they shared provocative thoughts and asked great questions. but that was in school, and now this was their party. bringing up issues of war, inequality, what i did last night or current events seemed impossible.
what i really wanted to ask was, can i see your house? what kinds of things do you hang up on the walls in your room?what do you do all day when you don’t have a job yet and school is over? do you read, go out with your friends, do what? what are you curious about? what are you anxious about? (i did ask that one.) what can i tell you that might help you succeed in the next stage of your life?
but i played by the rules- social, cultural; racial, hierarchical. i did not probe. i was not actually a foreigner who could be excused asking socially outré questions.
then, walking home, i was thinking about all that i had said in my exit interview at C- about the challenges of asking kids to read, discuss, engage intellectually with ideas, when many of them have come from families and homes where that is not the norm; it’s not supported. how can we get kids to read if no one around them ever does?
but is it insulting? is it racist to judge the lives of non-readers? what elitism am i exhibiting by denouncing childhoods spent watching tv and chasing friends on bikes on the street and cooking with grandma and taking care of your little cousins? it’s really not that different from mine.
i’m wrestling with the idea of education as acculturation.
who decides what we want our kids to aspire to?
what would they do if they had no models?
how can i respect kids’ backgrounds but also enable them access to the institutions they are aiming to become a part of? this is the question of C.
but i can give them much more besides that access. values and methods too…