Through the mist, through the woods,
(Beauty and the Beast)
In the fall of 2010, I was about to begin my first job after graduation. I was a little nervous to be working at a primarily non-white, non-middle class school, which was different from my own school and life experience. Nervous not about the students, but about me. How was I going to react? How would I feel? I was out of my comfort zone: living in a big city for the first time, relying on public transportation, and working with children whose histories were in many ways completely different from my own. It is like in the Disney movie Beauty and the Beast, when the villagers are storming the castle where the Beast lives. They sing "We don't like what we don't understand and in fact it scares us and this monster is mysterious at least." It's the difference that creates these rifts between groups, because no one took the time to get to know the other, and discover that different does not make one characteristic better or worse than another. Belle knew better because she took the time to get to know the Beast. Because I was not entirely sure what to expect, I entered my job with an open mind, ready to learn, ready not to make the mistake of the villagers but to give difference a chance, à la Belle.
It turned out to be a very smooth transition. The differences between my students and me were important not because they were differences, but because each one meant a different story that affected how a child learned. In the end, it was not too difficult to find common ground with every one of them. I may not have the same skin color as my students, but that did not stop one African American student from proclaiming that he wished I was his mother. I made an effort to get to know my students as individuals to learn how to best help them. I had more things to worry about than the color of each student’s skin when I was focused on bringing them up to grade level in reading or math.
My school requires students to wear uniforms, which helps diminish some socioeconomic status symbols, but my students’ histories began to emerge, and with that I began to learn the most important lesson about successfully interacting in this diverse environment: Don’t assume anything. My previous picture of what comprises general knowledge or common childhood experiences had to change. I could not assume anything about my students’ situations and thus had to be wary of making one of them feel uncomfortable with a seemingly harmless comment. It affected everything from the smallest detail, such as my freckles, to life altering details such as talking about parents. You quickly seek alternative ways to phrase these questions when a kindergartener shuts down because asking about their father leads to learning he is in jail. While at first it was a very conscious effort, it now just rolls off the tongue to ask for a parent, grandparent, auntie or uncle’s signature on an assignment versus asking for a mother or father’s. Education, in many ways, must be personalized for each student in order to optimize his or her learning.
Humans are adaptable and I am no exception. After a couple of months into the year, I felt very comfortable at work, even though it was quite different from every other place I had worked or lived. My job has enabled me to think about opportunity and privilege in a way I had not before. When I look at the beautiful rainbow of my students I realize that putting yourself into new situations, as long as you shed your assumptions and get to know your surroundings personally, can be incredibly rewarding. A good relationship can transcend the superficial differences that separate us and you may find out that what you did not understand is not so different after all.