On Being Where You Don’t Belong

“¿Qué quiere (What do you want)?”

“¿Lo que ellos están comiendo (what everyone else is eating)?” I said, as I nodded my head in the direction of several beautifully colored plates of yellow rice and black bean sofrito with slow-cooked pork shoulder and fried plantains.

The waitress let out a sigh, rolled her eyes, and walked away. I had had to aggressively flag her down in order to get her to come to my table and I was now thinking that she wouldn’t come back with any food. She whispered to someone behind the counter while looking at me, the person she was talking to also rolled her eyes and gave a disapproving look in my direction before disappearing into the kitchen. Others also looked at me strangely, wondering why I just wouldn’t get the message, “You don’t belong here.”

My wife and I had just moved to New York where she had a post-doc position in Westchester and I found a job as an adjunct faculty member at The Bronx Community College. I had just finished teaching for the day and was walking around town through neighborhoods that I had no business walking through until I found my way to a Puerto Rican restaurant. I was lost because we still didn’t have smart phones in those days. In fact I had just gotten my first cell phone, it looked like a little black pill with an antenna that eventually broke off. It was simple, like my life at the time.

Several more customers came in, ordered, and were served their food.I thought about getting up and leaving but had walked a long way after being lost and hungry, and it smelled so damn delicious. She finally did come back, and handed me a plate of grey looking pinto beans, plain white rice, and a few chunks of dried-out pork. No plantains. I was the only one in the restaurant with a different meal. I looked around nervously, ate it, left some money on the table, and left.

This was the first time I had felt something like discrimination and it was confusing maybe, but really had no impact on my life as an educated white male citizen of the United States. There were plenty of other places to eat in New York.

The following semester, I was given a class to teach at Lehman College in the Bronx. It was a joint effort from the two schools to give low-income minority students from the Bronx a chance to go to a four-year school without having to go to the community college first. They also had scored low on their mathematics entrance exam and this class was to help them get up to speed so that they could retake the exam and then have full status as students at the college. All of the students in the class were latino, most spoke English as a second language.

I was given the information about the math that they would be tested on but no curriculum (You know that might not be right, they may have given me a textbook, but I just can’t remember that at all so I am going to go with what I do remember, which is that I made a ton of crap up). I started the class off by teaching about Mayan numbers. They learned how to write them and do arithmetic with them, and we had some discussions about some of the mathematical discoveries of the Mayans. After that we talked about our own number system and abstracted all of these concepts to polynomials and polynomial functions. It was fun and a great way to teach to a test.

One day I walked into class and noticed a huge stack of brochures for a credit card company. I opened up one of them and noticed a ton of math. In fact, it fit right in with exponential functions which was also on the test. It was as if the credit card company wanted to help me out. I passed out the brochures to the class and asked them to take some time to read through it. We talked about credit cards in general for a while and the students already had a lot to say about them. Some of them were well aware of the trouble these high-interest loans could land you in. They talked about the loan-shark lending companies that would give you an advance on your paycheck to pay off your credit card and then charge you even higher interest. We learned about exponential functions and then developed a function we could use with our graphing calculators that had the number of months as the input, and the balance on the card as the output, given a principal and an interest rate. They got to see just how bad credit cards could be for them, using real math. One student took her graphing calculator to work to show her coworkers the function and to help them analyze their own debt (again, before smart phones). She told me, “This is the only time math has ever been useful in my life, where I really wanted to learn it.”

So the class was great. I loved the students and the stuff we were doing and about three quarters into the semester, I put the fun stuff away and started using a test generator that I had bought online to generate multiple choice tests that I thought would look like their entrance exam. Normally I hate to do this but this was one test that would possibly make a huge difference in their lives and I wanted to do everything I could to help them. They appreciated it and worked hard. We would take each test, then analyze it as a class. Nothing complicated in this because they really wanted to learn. As we took more tests, they scored better and better. We got to a point where we really felt like they were ready.

One week before the test, I came to class and less than half of the students were there. I was surprised but tried to not panic. I taught the class as usual. The next day, the same thing happened. When it happened again, I freaked out. When you have students in college who are 18 or over, you aren’t allowed to call their parents. Since a lot of teachers are really introverts, this sounds like a dream come true. I however, needed to do something to get them to that test so I started calling all the numbers on my roster. Sure enough, most of them were numbers for their parents or aunties or someone else in their family, so I used the best Spanish I could, and asked them to please convince their student to come to school and take the test.

This kind of thing happens a lot when I teach kids whose parents didn’t go to college. In high school, their senior year, many of the students who you think are college-bound end up changing course and sabotaging their own lives. I’ve been told over and over again that “College isn’t for me,” or “I just don’t belong there.” For them, the idea of success in college can sometimes be terrifying, like they have no business being there because of their background, or that they will be seen as thinking of themselves as better than their friends and family who don’t go. It’s a real fear and it grips them tightly.

In the end, these were probably kids with supportive families who had teachers who believed in them. They may have gone through this fear of not belonging, but they needed someone to reach out. Me calling home made a huge difference, even though I was breaking a law. All but two of the students showed up for the test and all the ones that did passed. Hopefully they got the message, “You belong here.”

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4 thoughts on “On Being Where You Don’t Belong

    1. Plenty of gluttony that year, don’t worry. I can never compete with someone who brought his students from zero to calculus in just 90 minutes.

  1. Very inspirational. I remember the time I felt more uncomfortable for being in a place a do not belong to. A Sunday service in a Baptist church in Harlem. And the people, all them black, were all very welcoming to us. I wonder how it must be to leave permanently in such a felling. Not a surprise that if a lot of them simply give up.

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