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Experience not Appearance

January, ten years ago, I was shifting uncomfortably in my chair. I sat with eleven Guatemalan teachers. We worked in one of the elementary schools I had been assigned to as an Environmental Education Peace Corps volunteer. Of the three areas in my technical program, disaster mitigation was where I felt I had the least to add to our conversation. I had never shivered in an earthquake nor waded through landslide mud until a year ago. These teachers had a lifetime more of experiences.

I had to speak anyway. That was my role one assigned, if not always invited, in the school. “An evacuation plan and committees. That is really all that we need. And a drill.”

“We have a safety committee already. That will work just fine,” the principal offered.

“The soccer field by the lake. That’s the only space to evacuate to,” a teacher added.

“Okay. But how will we evacuate? Who goes first? You know. A plan.” I had tried to temper the perhaps totally unrelated memories of fire drills in elementary school in Wisconsin.

“The kids won’t do it. It’s not their culture,” came a comment and many teachers in the semicircle of chairs nodded in agreement. “They won’t stay in line.”

My grad school nightmares of “education” in the school system as oppression rushed back. Yes, “they”. How could I, mismatched as I was to the people and surroundings in a Kaqchikel village, dare? I knew my voice was in danger of being sucked through the floor through my stomach. My hands and face were on fire. Quick! I had to evacuate! “Culture” that was one of those words. The ones that named. The ones that defined. And I, the white girl, did not belong, much less anything I had to say.

Practice attempted to trump theory in my mind.

“What was my objective?”


“Surely we can create a culture of safety that would not intrude and was an intersection of what already existed in the community.”

A young male teacher from the community answered my own question for me. “This does not have to do with our culture. The children should learn to follow those instructions and be safe when they exit the building.”

If felt saved, as if my problem with “culture” had been solved. It wasn’t a matter of faces and places. It was more than appearance.

Flash forward ten years to January of last year and a temporary outreach position I held at the public library. From the curved, wooden desk, I swiveled my chair and saw the wind’s force push through unweighted tree branches. Maybe, it would be a slow day. I had a book in front of Rene recommended I located in the stacks before my shift, "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian."

“Have you read that?” Kari, a fellow sub and first year teacher, asked. “It’s on my list.”

“No, but I’m trying to make time.”

I pulled the book towards me. The main character, a boy, was struggling with identity, like me. After ten years of teaching out of traditional classroom context, somehow again I did not belong. Only this time it was to the “culture” assigned to me. The one I was supposed to match, “teacher”. When I flipped through the pages, a list towards the end stuck out. The main character listed fifteen different tribes to which he belonged including Spokane Indian, poverty and cartoonists.

“I realized I might be a lonely Indian boy, but I was not alone in my loneliness,” he wrote ahead of the list. “And that’s when I knew that I was going to be okay,” he concluded after.

I made this teenager my new role model. I saw “teachers” with no community, and communities that did not identify as “teachers”. Mostly I saw a world full of teachers who matched more than they didn’t, but who weren’t communicating with one another. Experience more than appearance mattered, but without structured conversation around definitions in common I hadn’t come that far from disaster mitigation.

Fast forward again to this January, and the problem of naming that continues to dominate the political world and my own in the same way it did in that cement block classroom ten years ago. During the past few months, the library had experienced a string of run-ins with children and teenagers. These encounters were made up of disrespect, and a failure to work through actions and reactions with the understanding of a reality in which both sides were on the same side. What color, what race, what socioeconomic status, what anything (insert your own term here), etc., the list of key terms grew longer.

My former high school English teacher offered a vocabulary lesson on his Facebook page in the days before the presidential inauguration that at first glance seemed helpful for that kind of conversation. Racist, bigot, misogamy, among many others. Those were powerful words, I could not deny it. Still the words from the newly inaugurated president that I felt compelled to include on my list were ones less obvious, shorter, and easier to spell. They could have been in the children’s books I am recommending below, but there was nothing simple about them. YOU. US. THEM. OURS. AMERICAN. This was a list of words that always made me feel like everything was going great until I was named. I was on the list. Or, I wasn’t.

Adults in the community “named” as a part of that “culture” were invited into the conversation with youth. Their words hit me the same way the young male Guatemalan teacher’s had.

“Our” coming together is about the objective we find in common. It is about the experiences around that objective and not appearances nor assumptions about a particular experience. What is in a name when it comes to “culture”? Everything. But only when it is the name I give myself, and the community in which I actively take part. I determine, and define, how to be a part, not apart.

Instead of a dictionary or academic article, for further consideration of this topic I offer two great children’s books. I hope you read them and define yourself by what you have seen (experience) and not what others see in you (appearance).

Looking Like Me by Walter Dean Myers

Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie

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