When I was in college, a professor once accused my entire class of being racist. It was not meant as a negative judgement on his part, but simply a statement of unavoidable fact about the condition of being human. We live in a world where the color of your skin tends to mediate your experience in life, making race one factor that makes it more difficult to communicate with other human beings. Being aware of the influences those differences and even naming our biases were important steps in getting past them. I don’t think that I quite understood what he meant until last year when I was in a place where I was interacting with people with a wide variety of strong cultural backgrounds and learning about the ways that cultural and linguistic backgrounds do (and should or shouldn’t) influence a child’s experience in the classroom.
In the context of thinking about race in the classroom, I am most definitely aware of race. I do not see kids as better or worse, nor as more or less capable based on their skin color or accent, but skin color and accent are very salient reminders of a question that I try to ask myself of all kids I interact with: how is this child’s story different from mine, and how can my experience be best used to support them given the differences or similarities? Where is my life story going to make me react badly to some kids? Where is my experience going to make me more likely to favor others? Teachers always need to be self-monitoring for this, regardless of the diversity (or lack thereof) in the classroom: race happens to be a sensitive factor that’s easy to spot and therefore easy to focus on as a potential barrier to communication.
I was a little bit nervous about working with my kids this summer before they arrived. As they’re coming from the inner city, I imagined we would have a wide range of cultural backgrounds. We do. I have never worked with a group this diverse before–every group of students I’ve worked with or studied with has been composed of people who were primarily from cultural backgrounds very much like my own in many ways. As I watched the buses pull in on Monday morning, I was worried that my lack of experience would mark me fatally as someone who the kids couldn’t possibly trust to teach and care for them. I worried that I would misconstrue something simple and spin catastrophes out of crossed wires.
I won’t say that I’m suddenly convinced I’ve got these kids figured out. They are each a mystery, but comfortingly…no more so than my kids whose cultural stories are so similar to my own. Race and language are factors that add their own interesting flavor to the difficulty of learning to communicate effectively and demonstrating respect, it’s true, but they’re not insurmountable walls to be nervous of. I think that my heightened awareness of how difficult it is to communicate well probably balances out the equation–my fear of being a complete jerk unintentionally has me paying much closer attention to what both I and the kids do and say.
What’s more, I’ve rediscovered something I love about camps: they give everyone a common second skin. When you’re tromping through the woods swiping at spider webs strung across the trail and jumping away from ticks, learning to navigate a foreign and uncomfortable environment, the most salient thing about your skin is the way it feels. Sunscreen, bug spray, bug bites, dirt, spider silk, and dead bugs are the bricks of a new exoskeleton mortared together by humidity and sweat. Campers and counselors alike share this uncomfortable second skin, and believe me, we are all way more interested in counting our bug bites and overdosing on DEET than we are in anything else on the face of the planet and possibly the moon.
Common grievances, even against nature, seem to be a pretty darn powerful foundation for a community. Powerful enough to take precedent over the subtle difficulties in communication most of the time. I have mixed feelings about this, but I also suppose I will never have a better opportunity to be grateful for the unifying power of mosquitoes. I am therefore going to enjoy our the disgusting beauty of our second skins for what they’re worth and use this disturbingly-close-to-mud phenomenon as a foundation for the strong community we hope to build at camp.
Just for the record…I’m still taking a shower the minute I get home.