Monday, September 3, 2012

My Culture

As school is once again about to start, I find myself thinking today about a course that I developed and taught with the goal of helping educators understand and appreciate the significance of the culture that their kids bring to their classrooms.

Because culture is often hidden or hard to notice, I often feel that not everyone 'gets' this concept  - what is culture? Its a big thing - and to clarify my thoughts, I offer this description of my own cultural roots.

I grew surrounded by women who believed in the power and necessity of feeding people. Cooking was not only a daily task, a way to celebrate holidays and mark the Sabbath, but a competition. The women in my world really cared who made the best chicken soup, whose apple pie was the most delicious, and whose food was made only with the ‘finest and best’ ingredients. Refusing food in any home caused deep offense.

I grew up among people whose basic forms of communication included yelling, broad gestures, and at least two languages in the house. And almost every adult I knew spoke with an accent.

I grew up among three generations, where caring for our grandparents was a part of every day. I grew up seeing disabilities – my father was deaf, my grandmother partially paralyzed by a stroke; my upstairs neighbor was in a wheelchair. I grew up understanding that war did terrible things to people, and that life was not easy. I also grew up believing that kids were mean, and you better know how to defend yourself.

I grew up in an apartment building surrounded by people from different countries, religions and backgrounds. I grew up among survivors, (of war, loss, depression and family.) I grew up understanding that the people I knew all came from somewhere else – whether a different country, neighborhood, religion, economic status or set of values, I grew up aware that not everyone believed or behaved the way my family did. I also grew up knowing that neighbors looked out for each other and cared for one another.

I grew up in the city, on paved streets that scraped your knees if you fell while running or playing ball. I grew up thinking that plants were something that grew on window sills (fire escapes when the weather was warm). Trees grew in the park; bushes were what lined the entries to buildings. Flowers were a gift on your parent’s anniversary, and that food came from stores.

I grew up believing that education was not a choice, that college was an expectation, that my behavior, in school, in the neighborhood and at home was a reflection of my family, and I undersood that pride and shame were two sides of the same coin. I grew up wearing my best clothes for holidays, especially the beautiful hand made coats and hand knit sweaters that showed the talent and the caring that went into their making.

I grew up with a sister to fight with, play with, and find solace with. I grew up knowing that fathers work, and take care of us, and mothers stay home and take care of us. But, I grew up with the message that I could grow up to be and do anything I wanted – as long as I behaved myself, and went to school.

I grew up surrounded by art, books, theatre and culture, and the taste and smells of foods from around the world – the upside of a city childhood.

All of this – the richness, the sharp edges, the people, the food, the languages, the terrifying moments and the wonderful ones, shaped who I am, the work I do, the life I lead and the family I have raised.

The more I learn about culture, and the more I write and teach about it, the more I understand its impact. When we work with kids, when we seek to be culturally competent, in classrooms and programs, we are working not only with the present, but with a past, and with beliefs and behaviors that may span generations and color every interaction, every day.