By Taylor Lowery (McGill)
Unprepared, but totally authentic. I had just finished writing a to-do list when I walked past the community center and was greeted by a group of adolescent boys. I asked one of their names, as one generally does upon first meeting, and thought to write down what I heard. Suddenly about 15 kids crowded around and I had them say their name and repeat it back to them to clarify. Then I wrote down what I heard phonetically. Mostly they just laughed because I have probably said something ridiculous, such as “I eat my fingers for lunch.”100’s of times I repeated and they laughed or they nodded, or the older ones even took the pencil from me and wrote their names properly. That chorus of laughter is ingrained in my mind now; their laughs and those smiles.
I think I have gained a companion on that day. She sat beside me the whole time and corrected my pronunciation, breaking it up into syllables for me. She was very patient and always cushioned her feedback with a smile, giving me permission to smile back. This game of “help Taylor remember your names” was played for an hour. Different kids coming in and out of the huddle, more laughs and smiles, and still that little teacher by my side. We played until my paper was full of names written in every different direction and all different handwriting.
I could tell that these were patient kids and so eager to be a part of the learning process. But mostly, I could tell that this pencil I had in my hand was a BIG deal. And of course, so was my skin colour.
Forward to the next day- this experience still in my mind and my overwhelming feelings of privilege standing strong. I had a conversation with a young mother, whose child I had met the day before. I asked her how receptive she would be to send her 10 year old to an after school program run through Praxis Malawi. When she seemed open to the idea I asked what she might like her daughter to learn at this program. She thought for a second and then responded, “I would like her to learn to be just like you.” I smiled, slowly said “we will see what we can do,” and she left. And I started to cry. Not knowing exactly what was meant by her request, I could only think to interpret it as, “I want you to give my child the same opportunities that you seem to have, to be here and to have all these great things happening to you.” Or maybe she just meant that she wants her daughter to speak English, or to be inquisitive, confident, educated or… maybe she meant to be white. Whatever her meaning, the task seemed impossible. I am the way I am because I was lucky enough to be born into a world where nothing was out of reach; a world where I always had access to a pencil.
It is possible I am extrapolating, as in the moment I didn’t have the emotional capacity to clarify what she meant by “be just like you” but for some reason, this beautiful compliment was wrapped in such sadness. I am told that this feeling is understandable and as prescribed in the steps of culture shock I am smack dab in the middle of the Disintegration phase (Pedersen, 1995). The excitement of our first day welcome over, and now the tag team of guilt and helplessness have moved in and will probably be tenants for awhile. Hopefully their lease will be up in a couple days and I can rent some more productive feelings.
Pederson, P. (1995). The five Stages of culture shock: critical incidents around the world. Westport, C.T: Greenwood Press.