Sunday, November 7, 2010

Cultural Collision

It is 2:30, and I am walking my 38 students to my room for homeroom - the last 10 minutes of the day where we take attendance, give out homework, and make important announcements. The kids are energetic, bouncing around in line, eager to get into, and out of homeroom.

A familiar woman waits outside the door, and as I let the kids into the classroom, she tells me that she needs to speak with me. I recognize her as the mother of one of my students, and tell her that she can come in the room if she would like, and we can talk after the kids are dismissed. She shakes her head, evidently very upset, and says that it’s personal, and we need to speak privately.

She waits in the hall while Wendy and I let the kids get packed up and ready to go home, and then line them up for dismissal. When we approach her after dismissal, she tells us that she is very upset because a male student in our class has been calling her daughter, asking her to come over to study. We both pictured the scrawny 13 year-old boy, who looks more like he is 9, and spends nearly all of his time with his head in his books, and wondered, What was the problem?

She went on, her voice trembling, saying that it wasn’t appropriate for him to be calling her daughter. She said that they shouldn’t be studying together, that they should not be talking or spending time together. She was enraged that he would call, that he would try to do something so inappropriate. Her daughter joined us, a sweet, curly haired girl who always wears her uniform and reads on a 3rd grade level. She looked sheepish as she realized what her mother was ranting about.

Her mother turned towards her daughter, and shook her finger in her face, that she should not be talking to that boy! We intervened, assuring the woman that we had never seen them interact in school, and were surprised to hear that they were friends. We assured her that we had in fact encouraged the students to find neighbors to study with, and that perhaps that was the only intention of this boy.

The mother could not be deterred. She was outraged, disgusted, and most of all, terrified. She works until midnight every night and lives in the projects in a terribly unsafe neighborhood. Her only daughter is at home alone, working on her homework, eating dinner, presumably doing chores. They immigrated here from Guyana, and the culture shock of the Bronx couldn’t be more pronounced.

She confided to us that when her daughter is showering, she checks her body for marks, and when she is sleeping, she goes through her things, searching for clues, evidence, of some crime that she fears will one day be committed.

The little girl is outraged, as any American girl would be, that her mother is so strict, so angry about nothing.

“But Ma, I didn’t do nothing! I don’t even talk to him, or like him, he just wants to study!”

“No! I don’t want you talking to any boys, you should not even be talking to them, looking at them!”

GIrls are pregnant in this school. Even if they weren’t, even if we were in the most elite of schools, in the most affluent neighborhood, it would be natural that girls develop a keen interest in the opposite sex at around this age. It’s programmed into them. And so I find myself sympathizing with the plight of this girl, who is crazy about her mother, but embarrassed and frustrated by the cultural expectations that accompany her.

Wendy steps in, saying the only thing that we can really say. “Do you understand that this is a big deal, and that it is really important to your mother?” she asks the girl. The girl nods, her big brown eyes widened to show us that she is serious. “Really important, and that you have to respect what is important to your mother?” she nods again, a bit reluctantly.

“Your mother is worried about you,” I say, when she begins to protest again that she hasn’t done anything wrong, “she isn’t there with you, and she worries. You need to make sure that you don’t give her anything to worry about.”

After they leave, we look at one another, speechless. It’s rare to see parents at all, let alone ones who are upset and advocating for their students. Usually they arrive after being called multiple times, dragged in to remedy some behavior problem that their children are presenting. It’s always moving to see a parent who really cares, who proclaims that it is their only job to protect their child. And yet, in this case, we both understood the position of the daughter.

“She’s raising her daughter in America,” Wendy said. And she was right. I often consider the unique set of circumstances that these kids are presented with as the result of being immigrants. A huge language barrier that sets them years behind their peers, a high level of financial instability, the many obstacles that arise from trying to become citizens, the possibility of deportation. And yet I rarely consider the cultural implications that may come with it - the norms that are so different here than in the cultures that they came from.

You live in America, but you came here with a deeply ingrained sense of propriety, and of what is right and wrong. You arrived with your own set of expectations for your children. And here, you encounter cultural norms which may be very much at odds with what you are used to. It’s like making sure that your kids learn Spanish, in an environment where it makes much more sense to speak English. How do you ensure that both languages, both cultures, both sets of principals survive?

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