I can be as self-serving as the next person; I cherish the occasional glimpses I get of myself from the outside, whether they are complimentary or not. The tendency of teens to be honest, casually, offhandedly, is one of the things I have enjoyed about working with young people.
My focus for Sophomore English was international literature. I saw that as a way of helping students see “The Other” as less alien, certainly on a personal level, but also socially and politically. It is important for youngsters to see different as neither good nor bad – just not the same. As they prepared to write stories in foreign settings, I shared my story, Taxi Baby. It is a marginally fictionalize piece about something that happened during my Peace Corps years. I wanted to lay bare my writing process, and hoped that by taking that risk of revelation I would encourage the less sure among them to take risks as well.
The year before I had worked on revisions, more or less in public. One of the ed-techs in the school (thank you Marti) had been my chief editor, but I had also worked on the process with student editors. “This sounds stupid” and “I can’t understand a thing you’ve written” and “This is boring. No one would want to read it” were all comments I took to heart. They improved my product, and I required students to justify their opinions with evidence. We all grew.
That year, the year it was published, I shared some of the revisions I had made, let them examine the marked up manuscript, and read the story as it had been published. We ended up with a slew of side bar conversations that had little to do with the writing process – that had become invisible, which I guess is a good thing in terms of how effective my writing was. One of the discussions started with the comment “That girl really has no idea how to be a good friend.”
What! Had I really written that in the story? Apparently I had. “Well, I was twenty-three or four at the time. I think I was still learning how to be a real friend.” And we were off on when friendship, responsibility for others, and maturity converge. In the moment of the student’s comment, however, I was conscious of a shift from being one of the people chained in the cave, to one of the shadow-casters. I was still bound to the fire, but I knew what was casting the images on the wall.
Later I did a Q and A for those kids who were interested in Peace Corps, living abroad, and just being nosy about me. I focused on perspective and cultural stance, things that would amaze and perhaps shock them. I talked about North African city streets where the norm was men holding hands with each other, as were women, but where a man holding a woman’s hand was repulsive and shameful, something an elder would put a stop to. We discussed shame vs. guilt societies. In the States a person is more likely to feel guilt over something they believe is wrong, like viewing porn on the web, even if no one could possibly see them. In Morocco you would only feel bad if there were public evidence; being seen bringing wine or beer into your house is the shameful thing, not that you might drink it in private. I worded to broaden their scope, to reveal the flames.
We talked about circles of permissiveness. In a restrictive society, once you have proven you can follow the most strict rules, no one will mind if you break some of the others. I was able to shade some of the gender restrictions because of the way I behaved in public. I spoke Arabic instead of French. I did not bring alcohol into my house. I kissed the hands of old ladies, and kissed the knuckle of my own index finger after shaking hands with old men. I stayed off the street at night, or allowed myself to be walked home if I was out late. The escorts were for witness, not safety. As a result I was able to ride and own a moped and take a glass of tea at the local café without anyone giving me grief.
When I was invited, by the women in the public bath, to be featured in a prank on the men of my village, the conversation started with “We thought you were a whore, but it turns out you’re just people.” I had lived in El Menzel for about six months at that point, and had made something of a spectacle of myself wearing a man’s djelleba (woolen robe) against the cold. This invitation was another step out of the cave for me. While I had suspected that my morality might have been on the villagers’ minds, I had been treated cordially enough, if somewhat distantly.
The other Peace Corps volunteer, Mike, had offered to move in with me since, as he put it, he had just realized that I was probably quite lonely so far from home. Coincidentally, Mike had just lost his housemate who had transferred to a larger, more happening Peace Corps post. I knew Mike was lonely, and that he was really regretful about how callous he might have been about my solitude. I also knew that it was the cold part of winter, and with only charcoal braziers for heat, my house on top of the public oven had a serious advantage. The women’s offer tipped a balance. “Sorry,” I said to Mike, “but I’ve come to see how right you were. We are not here just to create a little America abroad.” Yes, I was smug. I was aware that this was my divergent road, and as Frost said, that made a difference.
As the sophomore Q and A came to an end, one girl said “Hah! That explains it.”
“Explains what?” I asked.
“We’ve been talking, wondering why you are so conservative. And this explains it. It’s a culture thing. You never wear dresses, only pants. You wear turtle necks; you never show any chest. You never wear your hair down, or you cut it short. You know – conservative.”
Apparently there were subtle shadows on the cave wall, but I strived to see them, and to understand how they were cast. To begin with, I’d had no idea I was the topic of any discussion beyond “Why’d she give me that grade I don’t deserve.” But to be labeled “conservative” was astounding. Never mind politics; I could tell she was not talking about the opposite of Left-wing. I wore loud shirts and vests over my turtle necks. I come from a time when trousers were the most radical form of dress in the classroom. My classroom practice tended to lack the rigid structure determined as “safe” by administration. I had taught kids to knit as a literacy activity, for goodness sake. But with all this evidence, this girl, who I knew attended one of the more evangelical churches in the community, and her friends had labeled me as “conservative.”
However weird I found this, the challenge of the cave and the fire and the dancers is not to see reality, but to understand how another person’s perception might be right. I still don’t think of myself as conservative, but I can see that in a society where flagrant display of flesh is the norm, covering up might seem conservative. My classroom style really harkens back to the best teachers I had in the sixties and seventies. Question driven teaching, which might more properly called “retro,” is certainly old fashioned enough to harken back to Plato’s own teacher.
I see myself as sufficiently mellow to take up the struggle to see myself as others do, not in a contentious way, but so I can continue to improve the current model. I have it from others, my husband included, that this is hubris. While I may have mellowed relative to my own self, no one would mistake me as a mellow person. When I first moved into computing at TJL, one of my clients remarked how nice it was to work with someone really laid back. I was proud of having achieved “laid back” and shared the comment with a friend. She had snickered. “You are definitely not laid back. Consider who she was comparing you with.” Isn’t that the way of the cave? However far into enlightenment you wander, there is still a larger cave and more shadows to contend with. Or, as Augustus De Morgan wrote, working in the other direction:
“Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.”