First Person

Culture Clash

Why some otherwise concerned parents stay away from school.

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I loathe lockstep rituals. Arms crossed, back ramrod straight, I endured the obligatory beginning-of-the-year open house that all “good” parents must attend. I tried my best to fit in, to disguise my identity, to pass as someone I wasn’t. I’d selected my wardrobe with precision, hoping my attire was conservative enough for the after-school religious-class crowd. I nodded at what appeared to be the appropriate times and mimicked other parents’ disapproving looks when they seemed disgruntled.

I gave myself away, however, when I bristled at Supermom’s suggestion of weekly “parent trainings” for those who can’t read Hebrew. Although I couldn’t comprehend the canned curriculum my 7-year-old daughter is supposed to “master” this year, I had no intention of being “trained.” Still, this question was aimed at me: “Do you have any concerns about meeting your daughter’s educational needs?” I was dumbstruck. The façade crumbled. Having no idea what to say, I mumbled something stupid about how they’d taken care of everything.

After leaving, I realized I wouldn’t be attending any parent-teacher conferences this year. Nor will I volunteer. Not because I’m apathetic about my daughter’s religious education—the common misperception when parents are absent from school functions—but because I felt, and still feel, inadequate to the task.

What’s become clear to me is that failing to recognize a home/school culture clash can have deleterious effects. And, as someone who happens to be a longtime public school educator, I’m faced with an even bigger question: How often does ignorance of minority students’ true abilities—and their parents’ true intentions—result in lowered expectations and achievement?

At home that evening, I read my daughter’s final report card from last year: “Although [she] is sweet and enthusiastic, she has failed to learn the Hebrew alphabet and only recognizes a few sight words. Furthermore, shedoesn’t understand the major Jewish holidays.” I was reminded that my attempts at portraying a cultural chameleon had failed. 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. My husband is Jewish, so we agreed to raise our daughter Jewish. Having grown up in rural Alabama, however, he missed the necessary training to assist with her Hebrew lessons. And because I’m a full-time teacher who, until recently, was pursuing graduate studies, I haven’t had the time to help remediate. As Supermom once said to me, “Oh, that’s right; you work.”

If one views education as a competition (as 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 harder than her peers whose families are steeped in Judaic tradition. Without our help, it’ll be nearly impossible for her to achieve full competence in her studies, and she may, therefore, be the victim of low expectations—labeled a “slow” student. But our daughter attends religious school only twice a week. She’s actually the product of public education, reading in English far above her grade level and excelling in math. The disparity between her attainment in religious and public school is glaring.

Sadly, in public education, confusing diversity with deficiency is common. Too busy kowtowing to Curriculum, my colleagues and I often misjudge our students be- cause 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 every day. Fortunately for our daughter, in New Mexico, academic and social success is not predicated upon knowing Hebrew. My students, though, are not so fortunate. Their success does dependon learning English.

As a Title I reading teacher, 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 don’t have the academic education necessary to assist their children with studying. Even those well educated in their native language are likely to work multiple jobs at odd hours to provide for their families. Yet when parents miss conferences, thoughtlessly scheduled during workdays, my colleagues complain, “Those parents just don’t care!” In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. In some cases, they’ve already risked life and limb to secure a solid education for their children.

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

As Sonia Nieto, professor emerita at the School of Education, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, states in her book Affirming Diversity, parents from many Latin American countries generally trustteachers. Unaccustomed to advocating for their children, they do not question our authority. Doing so would show disrespect. Nieto also cautions that once immigrant children become more fluent in English than their parents and are designated Official Family Translator, the adults often relinquish control to their kids. And many students work to help sustain the family’s income. With kids taking on additional responsibilities both inside and outside the home, parents may feel unneeded or unwanted at school. They become resigned to their subordinate status and paralysis sets 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 them. 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 withinhouseholds. Anything less undermines the family unit and our success as educators.

In his autobiography Hunger of Memory, author, editor, and essayist Richard Rod- riguez writes poignantly about his assimilation into American society. A son of Mexican immigrants, he describes himself as a “scholarship boy,” excelling in school, graduating from Stanford and Columbia, then attending Berkeley. His academic success, however, did not come without a price. As an elementary school student regressing in Spanish while mastering English, he was unable to communicate his love of learning to his parents. Because they were powerless to appreciate their son’s thoughts and words, silence dominated the dinner table. Conversations became shallow; a cultural chasm enveloped the home.

In college, Rodriguez reflects, “What could I tell them of the term paper I had just finished on the ‘universality of Shakespeare’s appeal’?”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 to watch her grow distant from me. About a year ago, I told her that I’m not Jewish. She cried, 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 parents are absent from school functions. To assume it’s because they don’t care destroys and demoralizes teachers, students, and families alike. But perhaps the ultimate reason many parents avoid school is because, having little in common with their kids, they have no reason to attend. After all, their children have become strangers—strangers in a strange land. Wanting the best for their kids, yet 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.

Vol. 18, Issue 04, Pages 50-51, 53

Published in Print: January 1, 2007, as Culture Clash
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