Monday, October 4, 2010

Culture Shock

Dear Secret Blogiary,

One of my students today, while we read an essay about growing up with black and white TV, calls me to his table. I go looking to help with a question; instead, he leans over his book, his dreads falling into his face and he points to a grainy black and white photograph the kind you only see in a grandmother’s album.

“Look at this, Mrs. W.” He looks up at me. “What they doing?”

I cringe a little at the poor grammar, but as I have been instructed, I correct only through modeling proper speech. I look at the photograph: a family sitting, Norman Rockwell style, around a table eating dinner. I look at him and blink.

“What do you mean?” I ask frustrated that this was not a “real” question regarding the assignment and fear he is trying to avoid the work, “They’re eating dinner.”

“Yeah, but, they all sittin’ at a table together.”

“Are you serious?” Confused now I stare at him and he looks back at me and nods.

“Yes.” I say slowly nodding trying not to appear as though I am indulging a small child. “That’s what people do when they eat dinner. They sit at the table and talk about their day. Most of the time that is the only time people have together with all the busy schedules.”

“Huh.” He looks back at the picture. “You do that?”

“Eat as a family?”

He nods and his dreads bounce, once, twice.

“Every night. And I try to make a point of having a breakfast together every week too, usually on Sunday.”

He looks at his group, all young black boys, as if to say: “the things crazy white people do” and then back at me dumbfounded. “You watch TV while you eat?”

I shake my head.

“What you do then?”

“We talk. About our day, what happened at school and work. Things that we learned or funny things that people said at work.”

“How long do it take you to eat?”

“At least half an hour, sometimes longer. After dinner, about two or three times a week, we’ll play a card or board game.”

He falls silent for a moment absorbing what I say.

“Huh,” he says finally, shaking his head and flipping back to the story.

“What is it?” I ask.

“Mrs. W.” he says, “ain’t no one in my family ever do that. We grab the food from the kitchen and sit in the living room to watch TV or text while we eat. Most of the time, my ma just text on her phone while we eat.”

I am horrified.

How do I tell him that his parents are robbing him of a good childhood? Do his parents not realize that eating with your children is one of the best ways to stay in touch with them, keep them on track? How do I convey the best part of my day is joining my family at the table. So much can happen at the dinner table, it makes me sad to realize that some kids won’t ever have that experience.

And then just as soon as I think that, I realize I shouldn’t judge. It isn’t my place. I remember my "cultural diversity" training and realize that even though we are both Americans, we do not share the same culture. Still, I am distraught and even though I have taught in this school for six years, I am continually shocked by the foundational differences.

I have no response, so I smile at him, point to the book and tell him to get back to work. And as I reflect on the moment, I wonder if I had said all the things I was thinking, would it have made a difference?

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