Thursday, May 12, 2011

Cultural Differences

One belief I just don't share with my students.

Teach For America training heavily emphasizes the "diversity competencies," a set of skills designed to help corps members think pluralistically and demonstrate tolerance towards others, no matter what your students say.

A couple of conversations from my classroom yesterday:

Student A: Hey [Mr. N], did your parents ever put you on time out?
Mr. N: Yeah, sure.  Why?
SA: [giggling] Ohmygawd.  No way.  I was watching this show [something to do with nannies; couldn't quite catch it] with my mom, and she thought it was just so weird when they put the kids on time out!  I can't believe people really do that!
Mr. N: Why, what do your parents do?
SA: Hit me, duh!
Student B: Yeah, my parents hit me all the time!
Mr. N: Funny thing about white people, we're not so into the hitting.
SB: That's so weird!  So time-outs actually work?

Student C: Hey [Mr. N], did you ever play with a Ouija board?
Mr. N: Yeah, once or twice as a kid.
Student C: Do you believe in them?
Mr. N: I believe they exist.  I believe they can tell the future about as well as any two people's hands pushing against each other can tell the future.
Student C: Is that really all it is?
Student D: You shouldn't play with those!  The devil will get you!
Student C: Yeah I know.  My dad won't let me play with one because he did once, and then bad stuff started happening.

Turns out items sold at flea markets are to be avoided as well; they're often bewitched.

While new teachers often feel the urge to try to "blend in" in the community in which they serve, there's really no point; they can tell you are white/rich/educated/etc, and students can smell B.S. a mile away.  Mine have come to see me, I think, as a quaint kind of creature that uses overly formal speech patterns, can't pronounce local place names to save his life, and hasn't heard of anything cool; a visitor from another world (often erroneously assumed to be Texas or Europe, as any real Californian would have a Mexican accent).

Who can blame them?  The only white people from wealthy backgrounds they meet are other teachers -- we just seem like a foreign breed.

"So you're white -- just white?" one will ask from time to time.
"And your parents -- they had money?"
"And you went to college?"
"So... why are you here?"

Nothing ever seems to satisfy this last question -- maybe in part because my own answer changes from day to day.  But most days (the ones when I don't feel the overwhelming urge to correct every "can I go restroom?" I hear), I'm happy to have crash-landed on this strange planet.


  1. "So... why are you here?"

    When I was a beginning teacher (in the Bronx, where I am decidedly not from), I used to hear that. As I became a better teacher, that question went away.


  2. Since when do White people not believe in hitting? Really? I suppose that was the best you could come up with in the moment but be very mindful about the impressions you are leaving with your students about who White people are--especially wealthy White people. It sounds to me like you are reinforcing that racial groups are monolithic and that you are so very different from them--perhaps better than them and their upbringing in some fundamental ways. Hmmmmm.

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