Every plan has a hole. Every ship has a leak. Every internet session is insecure. These are the new universal writs of living in the new ancient world. I learned that lesson in an especially troubling manner that forced me, in an instant, to reassess my role in the world as a Midwestern White Man teaching at-risk minority undergraduate students at a major New York City university.
I thought the assignment was simple and universally understood. I’d used a similar teaching plan at other universities with great success; but, in reflection, I realize most of those successes were found in mainstream classrooms with well-schooled students who were taught that learning was a priority in the home.
In my new teaching role in the inner city, many of these students working on a B.A. did not come from the same font of mandatory educational opportunities. They scraped by to earn understanding. They fought for what they grasped while others around them had learning handed to them.
There was a great divide of the mind and cultural experience that I quickly had to bridge or the entire end of the semester was at risk of failing, and the blame would solely be mine as the instructor for not being able to quickly re-adjust and move the field lines to be fair to my students so they could find success.
It all started simply enough. My students were assigned to translate their favorite Aesop’s Fable into a story using American Sign Language. I love Aesop’s Fables. They were ancient stories of morality and right living that usually ended with a sort of Twilight Zone-like message that you first had to be true to yourself and your own ability and not strike out against, or needlessly fight against, others.
I had a synopsis of many of the most-favored Fables that I handed out to the students so they could choose their story for final presentation.
After I made the assignment, I immediately sensed tension in the room. Clues to the upset included heavy sighing, eye rolling and students slamming the synopsis page on their desks. When I asked why they weren’t starting their translations, I was met with dead eyes and crossed arms. Those are two pretty raw indicators that you’re losing your class, and so I tried to dig a little deeper into precisely what was wrong.
Nobody was saying anything — that’s the final stake in any rejected assignment — but I wasn’t sensing anger or rebellion against what I was asking them to do. There was something else going on beneath the surface frustration. There was unease creeping into the room and, perhaps, a little bit of embarrassment. One thing you never want to purposefully do in a classroom is embarrass or offend your students and I was sensing that ever-so-slight curling away from me.
Finally, one of the more confident students raised her hand and rudimentarily signed — we don’t allow voice to be used in our ASL classes — “Don’t understand.”
The other students agreed by nodding their fists in the sign for “yes.” I am not usually stopped in class — you’re always thinking and reacting — but I’d never had an entire class tell me they didn’t understand something like Aesop’s Fables. I thought those Fables were a universal human touchstone.
I shared some examples of the Fables and even acted them out. Dead expressions were returned. They’d not only never heard of Aesop’s Fables, they were completely jacked that I expected them to translate something they’d never experienced, even though I thought those stories were embedded in their bones.
I told them to throw away the Fables. Without hesitation, and with definite glee, they all either ripped in two, or crumpled into a paper ball, the assignment sheet and tossed it in the trash can.
Now this is where I had to start earning back their trust because they clearly felt betrayed and embarrassed that I’d assumed something about them that was not true. I’d unwittingly played into my mainstream majority history and expected them to culturally equal in knowing what I knew.
I asked them about Fairy Tales. I gave them some examples. Dead faces were returned. No spark of recognition, let alone comprehension, was evident in their eyes.
Okay, I thought, Aesop’s is too old. Fairy Tales are too wildly generic. I decided to try going more culturally modern. I asked them to name their favorite Disney movie. Having them redact and translate the basic storyline of any Disney movie would work for the assignment, but again, there was no energy coming back to me. They had no Disney movie experience to share? Disney movies were not a part of their childhood and were not cultural totems in any way.
I told them even if they remembered a little bit of any Disney movie, they could just make up the rest — as long as there was a lesson learned in the end. The idea was to take something in your mind and share it with others. They would not budge. Many of the students were born into poverty. Many were not born in the USA. Several of them had English as a third language and ASL was slowly becoming their fourth.
Aesop flopped. Fairy Tales flopped. Disney flopped.
I was starting to flop sweat.
I had one last chance: Religion. I knew these students had a strong moral core. They were good and kind people and they worked hard. Many of them were older and had families of their own. I knew they were drawing their institutional strength from somewhere, and when I mentioned using a Bible story as inspiration, or any of their favorite religious morality story, the entire room lit up with smiling faces and hands wildly waving in the air — the ASL gloss for “applause.”
I didn’t have to say anything else. They were off and working before I could even tell them we were doing religion stories instead of the Fables. Hands were flying and something important and inevitable was being withdrawn and wagered by them to each other: How they became who they are.
As I stood there watching my students work, I understood the error I’d made in crafting the original assignment. I mistakenly thought there were certain, universal, cultural stories that formed us all in childhood, and while that may be tangentially true, the best reality in forward thinking requires closer attention to not just the experiences that separate us, but also those things that bring us tightly together in greater shared, understanding.
We can’t ever think others know what we know. Our task is to bring out the truth and the beauty in each other and we do that by being open to change and willing to modify our expectations to best serve both sides of the learning dyad; and when we successfully open new pathways for understanding each other, our cultural memes begin to merge to create a deeper, and brighter, new human core.