Is That What They Would Say?: Home Knowledge vs. School Knowledge

Two incidents from my school years illustrate the clash between home experience and school assumptions.

In second grade, I was drawing in my Alice and Jerry book, a lovely book about the foreign country of the middle class where kids got surprise playhouses for their birthdays— built, painted, and transported by Dad and Grandpa who’d set aside their suits and fedoras for the weekend. On the day I remember, I had the enjoyable task of drawing (with nice crayons, more than eight to a package, and all still with sharp points and paper wrappings) a response to this prompt: “Mother told Alice to put her toys away. Alice did not put her toys away. What will happen next?”

I drew the outcome in strong colors. My teacher came around and asked questions. “Who is this?” she asked, pointing at one figure, and I was disappointed that my drawing skills had not made it clear.

“Alice’s mother,” I said.

“What’s in her hand?” asked the teacher.

“A belt.” I had drawn it in bold black, folded in half and raised in the mother’s hand.

“What is she doing?”

The answer seemed so obvious. “She’s giving Alice a lickin’ for not picking up her toys,” I explained. What else could follow open defiance of a parental command?

To this day, the only other possible answer I can’t think of is that possibly someone could have tripped on the toys (though in my experience, toys can stay on a floor for months without incident), but, having raised a child without corporal punishment, I still don’t know for sure what outcome the workbook writer had in mind.

School life was sprinkled with such mysteries and assumptions.

A second instance occurred in high school when we were taking an IQ test. I reached a question that left me in a quandary and raised my hand. My history teacher came by. “I can’t give you any help with the answers,” he said.

“No, I know that,” I whispered. “But should I answer what I think or what I think they think?”

“Answer what you think,” he replied. That incident may not be the reason, but my IQ supposedly increased eight points after that test.

Neither of these incidents was especially painful, but each has stayed with me vividly, perhaps as an indicator of the self-questioning that can happen when home culture clashes with school culture. One can never be sure when an occasion calls for one’s own truth and when the right answer resides on culturally dominant ground. I was fortunate to have sensitive and aware teachers who helped me feel that school was a place I belonged.

It occurs to me that when home culture is not only unknown, but despised, as is too often the case with immigrants, particularly poor immigrants, we can predict what will happen next: alienation not only from oneself but from school and the world that school represents.


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