On a school bus sometime in the middle of second grade, I discovered that Americans don’t kiss each other on the cheek when they greet each other. That this, in fact, is taboo.
That was also the first year I rode a school bus, the first time I was surrounded by people who weren’t Orthodox or nearly-Orthodox Jews. It was a few months after I discovered that shorts, T-shirts, and sneakers were appropriate school attire for girls, but before my mom started letting me buy lunch on ham and cheese sandwich day.
Hearing my new white non-Jewish friends re-tell in disgust the story of one girl kissing another girl, I thought about my mom greeting her female friends with kisses on the cheeks and lips at synagogue. My seven-year-old brain made a mental note – “Kissing to say hello is ok at synagogue but it’s wrong here” – and filed it away under Cultural Differences.
Even at age seven, I understood that the greeting I watched my mom give and receive in synagogue is not a regular American hello. It is a fuller hello, a hello that says I’m with you, I missed you, I’ve been thinking of you, I haven’t seen you in a while, but I heard about your father-in-law’s liver cancer, and I’m praying for you. It says congratulations, it says how have you been, it says we’ve been out of touch and I have no idea what’s going on in your life, but I care about you. It has little bearing on how much you like someone; it is about being connected to them.
I was not thinking about this while I sat outside the Farmers’ Market sipping coffee and watching people come and go. I was reading, I was wondering if it was too early in the morning to run into any of my students and their families.
I noticed two Ethiopian women sitting on a bench nearby, and absentmindedly speculated about whether they were waiting to be picked up after an overnight shift, or relaxing for a few moments before going inside to begin a 9am shift. While I sat, cars and vans pulled up and dropped off their uncles, brothers, wives, and neighbors. As workers gathered, they greeted each other with handshakes, hugs, kisses on the cheeks before filling the benches, then greeting more newcomers.
My first thought was envious: I’ve never had a job at which we greeted each other with such friendship. But after a few minutes, I started speculating. They’re just co-workers. They probably don’t even know each other that well. Who knows, maybe a few of them don’t even like each other that much. They’re part of a community, a culture, in which this is the appropriate greeting. I was struck by how different this is from American norms.
And I thought of my students. I thought about how frequently students walk into the room well after the tardy bell has rung, after the on-time students have settled into their warm-up activity, and disrupt the tenuous beginnings of focus by extending handshakes among the boys, pecks on the cheeks among the girls, personally greeting everyone in the room.
This behavior has been the bane of my existence for two years.
I cannot tell you how many one-on-one conversations I’ve had, how often I’ve insisted that students re-enter the room silently, given warnings, incentives, and detentions, and repeated myself like a broken record, trying hopelessly to access some seemingly non-existent well of shame at their tardiness, or at least instill in them a sense of respect for their already-hard-at-work classmates.
Watching the Ethiopian employees arrive, it dawned on me that my students’ behavior is not because they’re children – rude and disruptive – but because they’re children of a particular, non-American, culture. A culture, like my own, that highly values interpersonal relationships and community. It dawned on me that many of these children will never associate “respect” with silently entering a room.
Not unless we change the conversation.
Immigrant teens are perfectly positioned to understand that “disrespect” is a cultural construct. But for us American-born-and-bred teachers, it’s harder to remember. An annual presentation on “intercultural competencies” is a nice reminder that newcomer students might not look us in the eye because they have been taught that that shows disrespect. But rarely will such a presentation go beyond the surface. It’s on us as teachers to take it one step further and realize that our internal list of “disrespectful behaviors,” is not intuitive to someone raised in another cultural context. And then, to make this list explicit, and to have the conversation with our classes – to talk about the ways these expectations are different in the US, the fact that following rules is a choice, and the reasons why choosing to follow rules that run counter to your previous experience is sometimes important.
Previously, I have addressed the issue of tardiness and its associated disruptions as discipline problems. As obvious failures of respect for me, for the other students, and for the classroom. This year, I am going to try addressing this issue within the broader framework of cultural relativity, with the goal of guiding my students to make thoughtful decisions about why – not just how – to follow rules.