It's A Small World After All

[This is an excerpt from a "personal statement" I had to write as part of an application for a seminar on teaching about Asia. I wasn't really prepared to write it and had to take advantage of naptime, so it's just what came to me in the moment.]

My first foods were rice and dhal, and my first bedtime stories came from the Ramayana. I spent half of my childhood overseas, in India, Kenya, and Sri Lanka, and have since traveled to more than 30 countries. My experiences define a strong undercurrent in my teaching: I want to expand the horizons of my students and introduce them to the world they live in. It's a little simplistic to say I think this is the way to saving the world, but I kind of believe it. So many of the problems we face stem from a lack of understanding and awareness - it's easy to destroy or ignore something (or someone) you know nothing about.

When the tsunami hit in 2004, I was living in Santa Fe and teaching 7th grade Social Studies. We were studying New Mexico history that year. My students didn't usually pay too much attention to the news if it wasn't an assignment, but of course they heard about the disaster and were horrified in an abstract way. However, it didn't really mean anything to them; some of them couldn't even locate it on a world map. One day I brought in pictures of myself at their age in Sri Lanka, and suddenly it became real. These were real people who had died, lost their families, their homes, their livelihoods. We looked at maps and followed the news. Students who had never left town were engaged in the lives of people half a world away.

That kind of cultural crossover, of making someplace abstract and exotic into a reality, is powerful. I want my students to be interested, to care, to believe in the possibility that these are places they can go and people they can know. The world these kids are growing up in is changing so fast and getting smaller all the time. They can hop online and watch video taken from a cellphone in Beijing. They can follow instant updates from a kid their age in Korea. It's easier than ever to travel. While growth and technology blur borders, stereotypes and insularity are growing too.

I want to teach kids to be fascinated by other cultures, not scared of them.


Milking the Signs

I've been signing more and more with the boy, not just baby books and songs, but reviving my college ASL days and signing what I can, when I can. I pulled out my sign language dictionaries to help, since it's been a lot of years and although I'm surprised at how much has come back naturally, I am far from fluent or even really conversant. When I was looking up the sign for "milk" to see if it was different than what they teach in baby sign (it's not), I happened to notice the sign for menstruation on the same page. This particular dictionary has little memory aid descriptions for each sign. Here's the entry:

"Menstruation, Period: Tap the right cheek twice with the palm side of the right "A" hand.
Memory Aid:
The cheek can suggest the cavity of the uterus and the action can suggest the loosening of material for the discharge of the menses."

Really, Perigee Visual Dictionary? Really? Because, yuck. I'm all for oneness with our bodies and finding joy and power in the natural womanly cycle, but come on now. That seems unnecessary.

Cheek uteri aside, it's really fun to get back into ASL and think back to the good times we had at school. It's such a good way to express yourself, and so often feels totally intuitive to me. For years I've used a handful of signs in my everyday life and at school - yes, no, I don't know, who, all done - things like that. I always eavesdrop when I see people signing, but have never been very good at keeping up with signs at speed, just like with any new language. But it's so pretty to watch, and it makes me feel good when I recognize a sign in the flurry. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival incorporates ASL into their productions frequently - most recently a deaf actor played the ghost in Hamlet, so those interactions were all in sign. That worked really well, but sometimes it seems more forced. I like watching it anyway.

It's one of those forking paths on the timeline of my alternate lives. I was thinking pretty seriously about getting involved with the National Theatre of the Deaf, which was just down the road in Hartford and put on some beautiful productions. I loved watching the synergy between voice and sign and body - it was a beautiful dance, and I wanted to be a part of it. (another one of those alternate forks was doing light design for dance - I was going to go work at Jacob's Pillow the summer after graduating, but took a road trip across the country instead. Which is a whole 'nother blog post or several. Did I already write about the hairy pits? I"ll have to check.)

Alrighty, then. Signing off.