Lesson: Week One
January 24, 2014 § 1 Comment
I ask my class to write about a personal experience of being stereotyped because we’ve just watched Chimimanda Adichie’s “Danger of a Single Story” Tedtalk. You can watch it here: http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html
I start the semester with this as an icebreaker because it sends us off on a note of truth and it bonds us, most of us descending from poor people the world over. I have my own small story of being put in the box of the hillbilly, which is a constant battle, but it pales in comparison to my students’ struggles.
Most of them dread the assignment and are eager to tell me how much they hate English class, and writing, specifically. “It’s important, I say. Reading and Writing are what college is all about!” As I say it, I wonder to myself if some of them wouldn’t be better off studying something else if they hate studying language. They groan, but comply.
Their responses don’t exactly address the prompt, but they humble me. They write about race, size, gender–all the usual suspects. I have three or four students from Burma, though, whose stories are stunning. One of them, I’ll call her Bibi, writes about her birth: “I was born in the forest,” she says. “My mother had to run away because of the war when she was pregnant with me. Can you imagine? A nurse later named me. It means Blossom Flower.” She is sunny and beautiful; the name seems to suit her. An American student says to her, “Isn’t it called Myanmar now?” Bibi looks puzzled. “I didn’t grow up there,” she says. “I grew up in a refugee camp in Thailand. We lived there for thirteen years. I was born in Burma.” She is sure that the name Myanmar does not match her struggle, or her story. Another student, Thi, says, “Girls were forced to marry soldiers and boys were forced to fight. We hid in the forest when I was four until I was about seven. Then we came to a refugee camp called Mae La.” This is the largest refugee camp on the Thai border. My American, Kenyan, Mexican, and Dominican students in the class have powerful stories too, but none speak to me like the women from Burma, who are not actually Burmese. They are from the ethnic group called Karen. They are now in their very early twenties. They have been in this country for four years and now, here they sit, in jeans and sweatshirts, logging onto the computer as I ask, like all the other students in my classroom.
What have I got to teach them? Nouns? Adverbs?
I follow the syllabus–what else can I do? James Baldwin saves me. We read “Stranger in the Village” https://pantherfile.uwm.edu/gjay/www/Whiteness/stranger.htm and Baldwin’s words call to me: “the root function of language is to control the universe by describing it.” That is what each of us in the room is looking for, some semblance of control over the world, over the way we are described, what we are called, how our stories are told. Our very survival, I have learned this first week, may actually depend on words.