07 October 2010

History and Diversity. Globally, and in your School

"On Christmas Eve 1806, two decades after [St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church in New York City] was built, the building was surrounded by Protestants incensed at a celebration going on inside  —  a religious observance then viewed in the United States as an exercise in “popish superstition,” more commonly referred to as Christmas. Protesters tried to disrupt the service. In the melee that ensued, dozens of people were injured and a policeman was killed." - The New York Times, 7 October 2010

Unlike New York's Catholic Archbishop Timothy Dolan, Father Kevin Madigan knows all about "9/11" and the attacks on the World Trade Center:
'"Father Madigan returned to St. Peter's Church to make sure the staff got out safely and could get back to their homes. Then he went back outside. On the street, he met a priest who was an assistant fire chaplain and went along with him. "He and I were walking south on Church Street, which is the eastern boundary of the World Trade Center.

'"All of a sudden we heard this BIG RUMBLE! The South Tower was collapsing first—even though it was the second tower hit. ‘Go down here!' I yelled to the priest, pointing to the stairs leading into a subway station. I figured that if we could get down into the station—and nothing collapsed on top of us—we could walk along the subway platform and emerge about four blocks north of the World Trade Center.

'"Transit cops were also nearby and they ran down the steps behind us. ‘Huddle against the wall!' they shouted. We huddled there for about 15 minutes. Dust came pouring in and we began choking. The dust finally settled. We all linked arms. One of the cops had a flashlight so we just walked along the subway platform and emerged again into the open air after about four blocks."

"Father Madigan is still counting his blessings. If he and the fire chaplain had been walking a block or two farther down Church Street, he believes the falling debris of the collapsing tower might have easily killed them."
St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church, Barclay at Church Streets, New York
And unlike Archbishop Dolan, Father Madigan knows something more. His church is almost exactly as far away from the World Trade Center site as the proposed Park51 Islamic Cultural Center which has inspired such angst, especially among the ignorant and the easily misled.

And when his church began building, 225 years ago, certain "American crazies" opposed this building too. Claiming it was funded by anti-democratic foreign powers (in this case, accurately, King Charles III of Spain made a very significant contribution), claiming this church would be a center of anti-American activity.  In fact, the "powers-that-were" pushed successfully to have the church moved from the original Broad Street site which was deemed too provocative. But the acceptance of that move meant nothing, as the quote atop this post makes clear. The opposition was not patriotic or concerned with security, or troubled by memory - they despised difference, and they were not willing to accept anyone who acted so bizarrely "foreign" that they'd pray without books in their hands or celebrate a dangerous holiday, like Christmas.

"But [Madigan] said Catholic New Yorkers had a special obligation. The discrimination suffered by their forebears, he said, “ought to be an incentive for us to ensure that similar indignities not be inflicted on more recent arrivals."'

I'm not a big fan of the word "tolerance." Who wants to be "tolerated"? But I am a big fan of acceptance. And I am a big fan of adapting our culture and society in ways which make acceptance seem, and actually be, real.

Rendering of proposed cultural center in lower Manhattan,
two blocks from the World Trade Center, two blocks from St. Peter's
There are, of course, the obvious hate groups which abound globally - often funded by the world's wealthiest people - or backed by mainstream political parties. But the world of non-acceptance is much more pervasive than that, and it goes beyond those who are actively against groups, whether Islamic, Catholic, Jewish, African-American, Latino, etc. And that pervasiveness not only allows the hate groups too exist beyond the fringes, but it allows a hierarchy to dominate our societies, and specifically, our schools.

The problem at the core of the 1780s battle over St. Peter's, or the 2010 battle over Park51, is a belief in "normal," and that belief is an insidious destroyer.

Normal: synonyms: conventional, ordinary, standard, usual. antonyms: unconventional, nonstandard, unusual - abnormal.

In America, whites are "normal," heterosexuals are "normal," Protestants are "normal," people who speak English are "normal," people with a certain amount of money are "normal," people who read a certain way are "normal," people who hear, see, move, walk, pay attention... you understand.

You do understand, right? Because many, obviously, do not.

The same belief structure which allowed a mob to attack Catholics celebrating Christmas in 1806 (at least Christmas was not actually illegal in New York, it was in a number of other states), which allows Republican candidates to win voters over by attacking a Sufi cultural center, allows educators to insist that kids "read" a certain way, sit a certain way, "write" a certain way, take tests a certain way" - it is a belief in the 'absolute truth' of "normality."

Oh sure, these arguments are often couched in codewords. It will be "easier" if students behave "normally," if they "read normally," if they pay attention "normally." It will make them "more competitive," give then a "better" chance to succeed.

Fix 'em all, as we might say. It would be "easier" if all Americans were white, Protestant, English speaking, heterosexuals, right? So many fewer points of conflict and debate. No pesky need to worry that you've scheduled homecoming for Yom Kippur, or that your football schedule creates problems during Ramadan, or that you need to create accessible texts, or alternative tests, or flexible furniture.

But who, exactly, gets to decide what is "normal"? A lot of people who think its fine to expect to speak English when they visit French or Spanish speaking nations are adamant that we only speak English in the U.S. The so-called "Anti-Defamation League" which insisted on the "normality" of Judaism at a Houston high school,  decided that Muslims are not normal. A church which may argue strongly for the "normality" of minority religious practice may argue equally strongly against minority love. And a guy who thinks his racial status should be "normal" is willing to lead a group which actively discriminates against all kinds of students - including those unable to maintain "proper" eye contact, and those struggling to read ink-on-paper.

In schools across America, "normal" is described as being like the schoolboard, or like the principal, or like the teacher. The kids whose behavior, religion, background, skills, and personalities are closest to that of these 'power models' are both "normal" and, of course, successful. The further you differ, the more "abnormal" you are. Eventually, one standard deviation? you get pathologized. You are "at risk," or "disabled."

So I have this wish. I wish to do away with the word "normal," the concept of "normal." I think this has become the ultimate "hate speech" idea. "Normal" allows those who hold power to imagine that they are there by virtue of their innate superiority. It allows them to declare that those who are unlike them are - to use the best literary description - "children of a lesser god."

We are human, we are different. We all need to be respected and understood as the individuals that we are.


- Ira Socol


Wm Chamberlain said...

Ira, normal is boring. My favorite students are the ones on the fringe. They like me to, probably because they know I accept them. I forget the names and faces of the normal students very quickly.

Kristin Key said...

I can only remember my really abnormal students. It makes me think of this bumper sticker I've seen that reads "women who behave rarely make history". Neither do most "normal" people.

pam moran said...

I believe the fabric of a community, a state, a nation is made stronger when created from the strengths of difference rather than sameness among the people. Frans Johansson speaks to the idea that teams composed of diverse people are more likely to generate new ideas and ways of thinking than those that are not. We should do better than to try to create a monoculture. In the plant kingdom we learn that monocultures are the weakest- the least resilient. Rather than looking at people who differ through a deficit lens, let's capitalize upon the strengths of people who look, think, talk, walk, play, worship, love in different ways.