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Opinion
Families & the Community Commentary

Straddling a Cultural Chasm

By Lisa M. Weinbaum — September 19, 2006 8 min read
Patronizing minority parents, discounting their identities while mainstreaming them into Americana via ‘parent institutes’ and bake sales, will fail our students.

I loathe lock-step rituals. Arms crossed, my back ramrod straight, I endure the obligatory, beginning-of-the-year open house that all “good” parents must attend. To no avail, I try my best to fit in, try my best to disguise my identity, try my best to pass as someone I’m not. I’ve selected my wardrobe with precision, in hopes that my attire is conservative enough to avoid attracting attention. I nod at what appear to be the appropriate times—when other parents nod—and mimic their disapproving looks when they seem disgruntled. Bristling, I give myself away, though, when someone I’ll call Supermom suggests weekly “parent trainings.” Evidently, she is speaking about me. And I have no intention of being “trained.” Not comprehending the canned curriculum my 7-year-old daughter is supposed to “master” this year, I’m sure the canned question is aimed at me: “Do you have any concerns about meeting your daughter’s educational needs?” Dumbstruck, my facade fades. And, having no idea what to ask, I mumble something stupid about how they’ve taken care of everything.

After leaving, I realize I will not attend any parent-teacher conferences this year. Nor will I volunteer. Not because I am apathetic about my daughter’s education, the common misperception when parents are absent from school functions, but because I feel inadequate to the task.

Later, in the privacy of our home, I read our daughter’s final report card from last year. “Although your daughter is sweet and enthusiastic, she has failed to learn the Hebrew alphabet and only recognizes a few sight words. Furthermore, she doesn’t understand the major Jewish holidays.” Again I’m reminded that my attempts at portraying a cultural chameleon have failed miserably. As a minority parent within the temple, I’m unable to straddle two disparate worlds, agnosticism and Judaism, with any success. Nor can I combine the two without compromising either one. Obviously, I lack both the skills and desire necessary to reinforce our daughter’s religious education. And because I am a public school teacher who, until recently, has been working on graduate studies, I have not had the luxury of time to remediate our daughter’s religious training, let alone my own. As Supermom once said to me, “Oh, that’s right; you work.”

My husband is Jewish, so we agreed to raise our daughter in the Jewish faith. Having grown up in rural Alabama, however, he, too, missed the necessary religious education to assist with her Hebrew lessons. Without expertise in Judaic language and culture, we are unable to reinforce her religious education. Our daughter, in all likelihood, will forever lag behind her classmates.

If one views education as a competition (which many do), our daughter did not begin at the starting line along with her friends. She began a full lap behind. And for her to catch up, she’ll have to work much harder than her peers, whose families are steeped in Judaic tradition. Without her father’s or my help, it will be nearly impossible for her to achieve full competence in her Judaic studies. Moreover, others will predict her, as the victim of low expectations, to perform poorly, further aggravating the problem. The accusation-disguised-as-question cuts to the quick: “Is she reading (in English) yet?” Obviously, she has been labeled a slow student. Attending religious school only twice a week, however, our daughter is, in fact, a product of public education, reading in English far above her grade level and excelling in math. So the disparity between her attainment in religious school and public school is glaring. Failing to recognize the home-school culture clash can, it would seem in our case, have deleterious effects. How often does such ignorance of minority students’ true abilities—and their parents’ true intentions—result in lowered expectations and achievement?

Sadly, in public education, confusing diversity with deficiency is commonplace. Too busy kowtowing to Curriculum, my colleagues and I often misjudge our students because we haven’t learned how they straddle two disparate worlds. Admittedly, in comparison to my students’ parents, my discomfort when attending religious school meetings is merely an inconvenience. They must endure the struggle to assimilate daily. Fortunately for our daughter, academic and social success is not predicated in our state on knowing Hebrew. My students, though, are not so fortunate. Their success is dependent on learning academic English.

As a public school educator in southern New Mexico, I’m reminded daily of the struggles of many minority students, poor and speaking Spanish in an alien culture. They, too, attend school with little help from parents. But their parents’ seeming negligence isn’t caused by apathy, as many teachers assume. Often our students’ families need the academic education necessary to assist their children with studying. Even when they are well educated in their native language, they are likely to work multiple jobs at odd hours to provide for their families. Yet their realities remain disregarded. When parents miss school conferences, thoughtlessly scheduled during workdays, my colleagues complain that they “just don’t care.” In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. In some cases, they have already risked life and limb to secure a solid education for their children.

As a public school educator in southern New Mexico, I’m reminded daily of the struggles of many minority students, poor and speaking Spanish in an alien culture.

Unlike me, these parents do not have the luxury of coordinating their expensive wardrobes, deciding between Liz Claiborne or Calvin Klein, hoping to integrate unnoticed. And, unlike me, a veteran teacher with plenty of connections, adept at maneuvering through an educational labyrinth, they are unfamiliar with the bureaucracy that can impede or enhance a child’s success in school. If I am intimidated by an unknown culture, how must they feel?

As Sonia Nieto states in Affirming Diversity, parents from many Latin American countries generally trust teachers. Unaccustomed to advocating for their children, they do not question educators’ authority. Doing so would show disrespect. Furthermore, Nieto cautions that once immigrant children become more English-fluent than their parents, and are elevated to “official family translators,” their parents often relinquish control to the children. Many students also work to help sustain the family’s income. As such, it is reasonable for minority parents to assume that their children are accountable for their education. With children taking on additional responsibility both in and outside the home, parents may feel unneeded or unwanted at school. Resigned to their subordinated status, they feel paralysis set in, making parental involvement difficult to accomplish.

It is insufficient to chant our well-intentioned but misguided mantra like bobbleheads: YOU MUST WORK HARDER! YOU MUST MAKE BETTER CHOICES! Patronizing parents, discounting their identities while mainstreaming them into Americana via “parent institutes” and bake sales, will fail our students.

Viewing education from an ethnocentric standpoint, insisting that parents are impervious to cultural, psychological, and sociological factors, will also fail our students. And implanting information inside their heads that contradicts rather than complements their culture only creates dysfunctional families, and, in turn, dysfunctional communities. It is our obligation, instead, to foster empowering relationships within households. Anything less undermines the family unit. Anything less undermines our success as educators.

In his autobiography Hunger of Memory, Richard Rodriguez writes poignantly about his assimilation into American society. A son of immigrant parents, he describes himself as a “scholarship boy,” excelling in school, graduating from Stanford and Columbia, then going to Berkeley. His academic success, however, was not without a price. As an elementary student regressing in Spanish as he progressed in English, he was unable to communicate his love of learning to his parents. With them powerless to appreciate their son’s thoughts and words, silence dominated the dinner table. Conversations became shallow; a cultural chasm enveloped the home.

There are countless reasons why parents are absent from school functions. To assume it is because they don’t care destroys and demoralizes teachers, students, and families alike.

In college, Rodriguez reflects, “What could I tell them of the term paper I had just finished on the ‘universality of Shakespeare’s appeal’?” Clearly, he could tell them nothing. Lost long ago to Dante and Descartes, he no longer spoke his parents’ language, no longer shared their ideals. His metamorphosis was complete.

Perhaps that is why I will not attend events at our daughter’s religious school this year—it is too painful watching her grow distant from me. About a year ago, I told her that I wasn’t Jewish. She began to cry, and for the first time I felt a rift between us. I know her continued religious training will only widen the gulf if I do not embark on her educational journey with her. This is, after all, what education does, regardless of language or culture. It changes people. But the question remains: What am I willing to change, to sacrifice, in order to sustain our relationship?

There are countless reasons why parents are absent from school functions. To assume it is because they don’t care destroys and demoralizes teachers, students, and families alike. But perhaps the ultimate reason why many parents avoid school is that, having little in common with their children, they have no reason to attend. After all, their children have become strangers. Strangers in a strange land. Wedged between wanting the best for their kids, and yet being incapable of appreciating their transformation, parents can no longer participate in their children’s lives. They cannot bear to watch their families drift apart. They cannot bear to witness their children grow up.

I know. I am one of those parents.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 20, 2006 edition of Education Week as Straddling a Cultural Chasm

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