Part III: Free
Words have always been my friend. Now they were giving me the cold shoulder.
This may have something to do with my education.
You see, I didn’t go to a highschool in Pakistan. In fact, I didn’t even go to middle or elementary school. Nope, no kindergarten for me either. Back home there were no grades 1 to 12. And students didn’t get A, B, C, D and Fs. Americans may think public education is universal, but there is nothing universal about it.
There is however, nursery, prep, classes 1 through 9, matric, O-levels, A-levels, F.A., F.s.C, and B.A. And students don’t get grades because they get marks. Feeling disconnected? So was I - back when I started my Masters. The vocabulary for Education in America is very specifically American, and this shift in terminology was only the beginning.
I was about to get piled high with entry tickets, exit slips, IEPs, differentiation, rubrics and more. Why are my students getting tickets on leaving the classroom? They didn’t do anything wrong. And what is this differentiation in a math lesson that has nothing to do with numbers?
Words familiar and yet unfamiliar. What’s an Essential question? What’s a prompt? I don’t think I’ve used such words. Could they be the same as a thesis question and instruction? This vocabulary overload was unsettling and it made me feel inadequate. More specifically, it made me feel like maybe my education had been inadequate.
One more thing. There is nothing like hanging out with a cohort of 20 year olds to make you feel like you are certainly not the young 20 something you keep telling yourself you are! Their language was lit, dope and sick, and my dictionary was not helping.
My language bridge was starting to shake (it’s not called cultural shock for nothing). Then my teacher pulled my bridge beneath me - but not before she handed me some fancy new words.
I’m going to be honest, in those early days, pedagogy was a mouthful. But, culturally relevant pedagogy? Yeah, no, can’t say that even now. An essential word tool-kit à la professor to affirm my students’ identities. Never in a million years did I think I would end up using the same tool-kit to mend my own identity crisis.
I didn’t even know I had an identity.
Get to know your student, I had been taught.
Perhaps my teacher misunderstood me because she hadn’t read my world. Can’t blame her, even I wasn’t paying attention.
Who am I? And where do my words come from?
Why I thought you’d never ask.
How does a visibly Muslim immigrant woman come to believe that she is totally (feel free to add vocal fry here) American?
To begin with, at least here in America I can call myself a Muslim. In my native country it is illegal to affirm my faith. Or perhaps it’s because I don’t live in America. I live in a land of sunshine and rainbows. Scratch that. Rain and rainbows. Americans may like to sunbathe but any South Asian can tell you why that is an oxymoron. True bathing only happens when you’re running wild and giddy in the monsoon rain.
Or maybe it’s because I am a middle child and middle children are supposed to be open to the world.
I can’t take all the credit though.
Growing up, my mom would tell me - now, what did she tell me? I can’t quite place the words...but it went something like this: No matter where you find good, that is yours to keep. And my faith told me, what the news will never tell you, to affirm all the good that came before mine. No, not just the big names, but even the beliefs of the very first people of America.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I see a lot of good in the West and my Eastern values give me permission to say, those good things, they belong to me.
My words come from my beliefs.
Americans may not pay much attention to the world, but the world is paying attention to America. Growing up we watched the 9 oclock news together as a family. And there was always at least one snippet from the West. Boring 😬.
What I did enjoy though, were reruns of the “Full House”. To be sure, I have yet to meet a single family where three brothers live together. Wait, I have - my own. My uncles lived with us when we were little. And they were the ones who taught me to sing “Born in the USA” way before I knew what you-esh-ay was.
My words come from popular culture.
Lucky me! As a teenager I got to visit this place from the t.v.! A vast land with never ending roads. We travelled all the way from Niagara Falls to Seattle to L.A. to the Grand Canyon. And then onwards to Disney World! And yet somehow there were even more roads to travel.
When we weren’t in the car we were visiting family. My first impression? Living in America takes a lot of hard work!
My words come from many places.
And then I moved here. It happened like this: girl marries boy, girl moves into boy’s home, boy’s home/apartment happens to be a whopping 12000 kilometres away all the way in the West.
I was not fazed. I had seen this place on t.v. I had read about it in books. I had visited it in person.
But mostly, it was the language. My native English, L1, and American English, L2.
The words were similar. And because the words were similar, everything else felt similar too.
Besides, as far as I was concerned, I had moved from my parents’ home to my husband’s home. And that was all there was to it. So when I would hear words such as immigrant it would take a little while to say, “Who, me?” I was also perhaps greedy in that I didn’t want to give up my parent’s home either. That’s mine too, I declared. And whenever I had the chance to go back I made sure no one had moved the furniture (yeah, I can be obnoxious like that).
This travel back and forth felt like moving between two homes.
First and second home. It’s settled.
Slowly, though, and sometime after the birth of my second son I distinctly remember noticing that somewhere along the way my second home had become my first.
And so it has been. Two homes.
One in the East, and one in the West.
They are far apart and the journey is long and perilous. After all there is always the chance of lost baggage. So mostly my idea of travelling includes facetiming, or watching a desi drama, or cooking my mom’s favourite recipe or wearing a tunic...I have myself my own personalized footbridge of sorts to take me from here to there and back again.
Some parts of this journey may seem odd. What does it mean that when I say “let’s go grab a Big Mac” I’m feeling nostalgic for Pakistan? Or that when I say “family” I mean people right here in America? Maybe my two homes aren’t that far apart...
And even though many on either side of my footbridge might not be able to see it, for me at least, the grass is just as green on either side.
My words come from a sense of place.
I would love to tell you that I carefully consider which home to live in but I don’t. Sure, there are bouts of angst that experts tell me I should be feeling, but mostly there is this sense of, today I feel like __________ .
See the other day I called up my mom in a panic, “Mama, quick! A guest’s coming in one hour! What should I cook?! ”
Mama, “There is no need for panic. Just take it super easy. Make two curries, one rice and one chicken karahi. And you’re done.”
Me: *blink blink*
Mama, “And if you are worried about dessert, just pick it up from the bazaar. That should be it.”
Me, “Uhh, I think I’m going to go with pizza.”
Mama “What has become of you? Have you forgotten your values?!”
Me, “Hey, Papa Ginos...”
I try not to forget all of my values though. I honour my culture by keeping up with the time honoured and sacred tradition of napping during midday.
This feeling of being here, there, and then somewhere in between is pretty neat. It reminds me of an older time.
Growing up my favourite spot in the t.v. lounge was smack dab in the middle. The men on my right and the women on my left. I deliberately chose this spot because from here I could easily listen to the women talk about all things family and to the men talk about all things politics (which is really just talk about families with power). I chose this literal middle ground because even as a young child I understood FOMO - way way before the word was coined.
I didn’t want to miss out on the best conversations on either side.
The living room gave me early practice in hanging out in the middle. Part of the experience of hanging out on a bridge. Being able to go back and forth. Pick and choose. Mix and match.
But at its foundation a bridge only works if the people on it see the value of the two lands it connects. I mean, I wouldn’t want to be building a bridge between a lush vibrant forest and some bare deserted island - unless, of course, a desert is your kind of thing, in which case, build away!
My words come from my disposition.
And how does it feel to be in the middle? A friend described it once as ‘hanging in mid air’.
Yeah, there is definitely that. That too reminds me of an older time.
Growing up I wanted to run with the boys and then run back home to put on some glitter and nail polish. Amongst my fun loving friends I was the nerd who took her books way too seriously. In my family, I was the spirited daughter whose parents were much concerned as to why she couldn’t be more like the two boys sitting in the dining room, doing their homework, right this instant! Even with my children, these beings who are of me and from me, even with them, I hold parts of myself back - just tryin’ to make a good impression.
My words come from my experiences.
And yet, throughout my life, because I have felt an enormous amount of love, not despite my differences, but in part because of them, that I do this curious illogical thing that only humans are capable of. I tell myself: I don’t belong anywhere. And so, it must be that I belong everywhere.
Not so much hanging in mid air as hanging out on mid bridge. Up in the air, a little distant, and yet somehow securely attached.
Walking on a bridge can be a exhilarating experience. You get to see both sides.
But it can also be exhausting. After all, there is always the danger of high wind. People in the East are direct in their disapproval. “You have forgotten your values.” But with time my bridge doesn’t sag so much. Of course no bridge is as strong as land. Land is firmly on the ground (redundant, maybe?). Land knows exactly what it is and so does everyone else.
But the thing is, I don’t want to be land. Land can be rigid.
My words come from my perspective.
And so I go up on my bridge. And there, as I walk, I wonder, isn’t everyone on a bridge?
Most children are on their bridge when they witness their parents arguing. They understand that somehow, two rights can be right at the same time.
Most adults are on their bridge when they are mending their old words with new ones (hello hashtags, emojis and ...i don't know - technology is not my thing).
Parents are definitely on their bridge (and holding on for dear life) when they try to get from their way of speaking to their teenage child’s. That’s why they bring with them their thermometer when they hear the word ‘sick’.
All these language differences, all the distances we walk to cross them, are built into our everyday lives. And because we all do this walk, which can be challenging at times, and yet so so worth it, that we all, on some level, understand this human condition of belonging and not belonging. That they are both just different sides of the same coin.
We certainly have the words for it. Na, not delusional. It’s words like:
Yin and Yang.
Push and pull.
Walking a thin line. Balancing a tightrope...or a bridge.
It’s phrases like the glass is 1/2 empty. The glass is 1/2 full.
Or in my case: the pail that can be seen as empty or full.
So here I was, on top of my language bridge and the glass was quite full. Trip trap, trip trap, I went. And my bridge grew stronger with time.
And that's pretty much how I waltzed into university too. I wasn’t paying much attention to the ways I was different, because the way I see it, it’s all good. University felt exactly like all the other times when I felt a little bit uncomfortable and out of place.
No problem. This is my place. And I have arrived.
But I hadn’t arrived. I had a long way to go and someone was standing in my way. When I got closer to her, she told me I was different. And it didn’t sound like the times when my friends had said that word to me. When she favoured my two classmates, it didn’t feel like the times when my parents praised my brothers (At least with them it was okay to disagree.) And when she told me you’re not right, I too started paying attention to how I might be all wrong.
When she picked at my words, it felt like she was picking at my bridge. Removing and dismissing parts that had started out in the East. Telling me that those parts were not good enough. Then she wouldn’t give me any new words on the Western edge either, to replace my older ones. I felt stuck.
This was not the usual huffing and puffing and trying to blow my bridge down. Here was someone with an axe.
“You are not right for this programme.”
Every one of such words felt like a cut. *Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.*
My bridge came undone. And I f
Usually when things fall off bridges, they fall into water. Rivers, streams, the ocean.
Not me. The water had withdrawn.
I fell into an empty space. It was dark and I was alone.
I had fallen into a pail (A really REALLLY giant pail).
I got thrown off in a year when no student should have been thrown out. Eeks, I must have been a really bad student!
My teacher disagreed. She told me so:
“You are not a bad person.”
“You are not a bad person.”
“You are not a bad person.”
Maybe it was because I had a background in mathematics, that I recognized that two negatives do not add up to a positive.
But I didn’t know what to say to that. By the end of a summer of education, I had become wordless.
I asked my teacher for help. Hey Teach, can you teach me your word moves? (Note to self: Never ask the person who put you in, for a helping hand out). She declined. You will have to learn words on your own. You should read some books.
And so I did - although I may have gone off the teacher recommended book list.
I restarted my Masters. And that first semester, we read a book about a young girl who wanted blue eyes. I chided her. Until I looked in the mirror. What did education mean to me if I had been willing to give up my language for it?...Maybe I shouldn’t be judging others for the mistakes I make myself.
In another class I read about practising ‘culturally relevant pedagogy’ with bilingual students.
*Exasperated sigh* What does culture have to do with curriculum?
But I read on, and something about the way bilingual students spoke, spoke to me. A seamless blending of languages. Wait a minute, you can do that? You can blend your old words with new ones?
But the way I had been taught to keep my languages separate. In their lanes and on their sides. And yet here were students who spoke like me. And here were experts who legitimized this kind of blending. (Ah! The drawbacks of being a nerd! Unless you read it in a textbook you almost don’t believe yourself).
And when I would read of some young middle-school student and how he had been made fun of for his accent or grammar I would start to get this uneasy feeling. How sad that this happened. But thank goodness this will never happen to me. Middle school is over. And we’re all grown up. I’m a grad student. And my teachers have become professors. Surely, all this education counts for something.
Words came first as a trickle. *Drip. Drip. Drip.*
Until I could no longer ignore them. I had to admit, bad words had happened to me. And had I not read about myself in other peoples’ stories I would have continued to believe that they only happened to me, and so I must be to blame. Or that they only happened in the year 2020. And that they will never happen again.
You mean ba-ba-bad words might happen again?? *Pull hair. Run in crazy circles*
I was supposed to be reading about my students, but the words on the pages kept pulling me into myself. I also noticed how international students at American universities share the same experiences as bilingual students at American public schools. Only the vocabulary evolves. Becomes a little bit more sophisticated. A little bit more subtle. But in essence things don’t change at all. And the reason we don’t hear more such stories is because international students have to pack up and go home - their visas revoked.
Now, we may not speak their language, but not everything needs translation.
More words came through my course work. They taught me why some get to use all of their words, and others do not.
Some words came too late:
And so I began to ask. And I started to question - something I had been too afraid to do at school. I decided to look at all the things I felt ashamed of and all the ways I was shamed. I had already been to this empty space that was like water. Might as well go all in...right?
*Deep inhale* Let’s go.
V e r y s l o w l y
I put my head in. I let my eyes adjust to the dark space. The place I had been trying to get away from all this time.
And to my shock and utter delight, this place that I had thought to be empty turned out to be not so empty after all. It was full. Full of words by students who had been put there before me. Words bobbing up and down in the emptiness that was like water. All shades of word planks.
This place that was supposed to be dark was lit with words.
This place that was supposed to be silent, was LOUD. The words had an energy. And the labels that were stuck on them slipped right off.
I started collecting the words that spoke to me and held on tight. I was afraid I might lose them. In this place that was vast and where it was easy to get lost.
I looked down,
Na-ah. NO WAY.
Never do I ever! want to go down there. That place was still SCARRRY. But the words that rose from the depths, those were the brightest words of all. They were positively on fire. And they emanated a kind of heat that was comforting. They said, “Hey, it’s okay.”
And in the way they floated up, they seemed to say that from the depths words can only rise up.Those were the word planks I hung onto to resurface.
Drop by drop. This place that was empty turned back into water.
And just like water, this time the emptiness was reflective, clarifying, and sustaining.
I used the words I had collected to build a scaffold upto my bridge. And there I laid them out again to see if they would fit onto it. I used water to glue the planks together. But
some words were too big.
And some words were too small.
And so every morning I came down to grab more words, and every night I tried putting them together on my bridge.
Some words felt just right. Funny thing, they were the exact words I would have said before my bridge fell.
The bridge was good to go again. I also decided to put some words back in the pail.
Thank you, words. I couldn’t have done it without you. But I’m going to put you back in the emptiness. More students will fall in there. And when they do, it will only be a matter of time when they will find you too.
Restarting grad school after having failed once, allowed me to reflect on my educational experience. Not exactly the kind of learning I had in mind but learning just the same. An understanding. Somebody should add ‘set free from shame’ to Bloom’s Taxonomy. Sadly though, this place is no Nirvana. Sometimes it’s easier to say I fell. It hurts more to say someone I trusted made me fall.
And what if I hadn’t failed? I’m sure I would have eventually learned to speak like my teacher. Maybe that would have been a good thing too. Afterall, her’s is the language of power. And I am all for learning the tools that the powerful wield against us. But in hindsight, I am almost relieved that she turned me away. I had to fall into an empty space. And the thing to remember about empty spaces is that they don’t stay empty for too long. They tend to fill up.
Water and words filled up my pail. They gave me a new perspective. And a language that is all my own.
My pail is back at ½ full. As it should be for any student. Always room for more learning, more work. A little space for making mistakes. But a perspective that is positive.
Lesson #1: Culturally Relevant Pedagogy Objective: Student will develop a phantom tongue. Vocabulary Word: Funds of Knowledge. Teacher, “We are all learning a new language… We all make mistakes… Knowledge is constructed… Race is a social construct…” Step 1: Teacher will correct spelling mistakes: y = mx + c b gradient slope Simultaneous equations systems of equations Step 2: Teacher will correct vocabulary mistakes: It is NOT minority! I stopped. Did I say a bad word? That’s not a full word. I checked on my tongue. I had turned into a pretzel. So I couldn’t tell her that that not full word is the word I have used proudly for myself my entire life. I couldn’t explain to her why People of Colour may not explain the experience of a people who are on a full spectrum of colours. I couldn’t explain to her that those were not the words we had used for ourselves before. That it was only here in America that we had to become Asians and People of Colour. I did have a question though. I wanted to ask her if it was because I was a first generation American, and therefore much too young, to say the words or talk about the things that the adults in the room got to talk about. I didn’t say any of those things. Instead I did the math. My teachers: 3, a majority. Me: 1, a minority. Hmm, maybe she was right, maybe minority really was a bad word. Step 3: Teacher will correct comprehension mistakes: When my teacher asked me why it wasn’t obvious to me that inequality has always been about race, I racked my brain. Why hadn’t four years of a college degree in Economics taught me the basics? All that forgetting had gotten to me. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t understand, it was because my vocabulary for it was so different. Words came too late: the Global North and the Global South. Developed and Developing. First and Third World. Not that I needed any such deficit words to see how my teachers looked at me. Funds of Knowledge.
I wish my teachers understood…
I wish my teachers understood that I had not meant to be insensitive or rude. That I didn’t mean any harm.
In my embarrassment I kept things to myself. Either I’d be told that my words had it coming. Or I’d be told that the onus of crossing my bridge rests squarely on me. That no one is going to come up and meet me there. But along the way, from the books that I read, or the students that I met, I saw that others did talk like me. Open and unguarded.
I got told, “You should learn to be politically correct.” Yeah, if only there was a place where I could have learned to do that. A place where I could have argued that my words were right because they came from a good place. But in the silences that were created, my words only echoed back to me. In those silences, if I listened hard enough I would have heard the gods of language chuckling, “What is good and right except in how they are defined by the powerful?”
*Big sigh* Can’t argue with that.
Or can I? I was at a university after all, a place where students get D’s. Discourse. Debate. Dialogue. Discussion.
Me? I would’ve been happy with a C. Conversation.
My university took me in, in part because I was different.
But then it said, “Stop, you shall not pass! First: the magic words.”
I tried the passwords I had learned in my childhood, “Open sesame!”
But that didn’t work. “You have to say it exactly like we do.”
How do you say it?
So I stayed silent too. I knew I wasn’t going anywhere.
I wish my teacher understood...
My teacher does understand.
She is the one who introduced me to Langston Hughes' poem. She taught me that people can be invited to the table but not to the conversation.
She taught me that even the most persuasive words are opinion.
She taught me that even math, this supposed language of precision, can be approached in multiple ways.
Everything I know I learned from her. I told you, she was generous.
But maybe my teacher just talked the big talk.
Maybe she didn’t walk the walk.
Madame, would you like to take a stroll with me on my language bridge?
My language bridge is full. It starts out in the East, where it touches a rich and vibrant land whose people and language changes every few hundred kilometres. A land whose history and culture extends far beyond the modern physical borders of a nation-state created by its colonial masters. In my native English, the word liberal is used for someone who is modern and worldly and who creates space for others. In that sense of the word my values might just be liberal enough for a liberal arts institute.
My bridge extends all the way to the West, where it touches a land whose culture promotes individuality. Here my bridge rests on some foundational words: Freedom of Speech. In that sense of the word, my words have permission to be free. Free of shame.
The floorboards of my bridge are a composite. Words that come from and affirm both my homes. My words create space for other words.
(Talk is cheap though, so onwards to the hard task of walking.)
Whilst working on my bridge, I started to see it for what it was. You want to know the best part?
The best part is the view. The view is spectacular! I catch glimpses of other bridges. So many! Some are complex. Each is unique. All are interesting.
As I gaze at more bridges, I don’t feel alone anymore. Things that only happened to me last year, it turned out, weren't just happening to me. And so this one thing I have to believe others are thinking of too. That there are immigrants in America today who don’t think of themselves as outsiders. They are America, and this is their home. And in this home, there is space for the homes they had before.
I have met some immigrants who came before. They had to forget their languages from before.
No more. Today, those who have walked over want to walk the full length of their bridge. And not a walking on eggshells kind of walking. They be running!
And just like their accents carry an echo of the past, their words will carry a memory of their words from before. There is no need to forget.
Surely there is enough space for all bridges to exist without having to pull someone else’s down.
Some bridges can be brought down though. Like the ones that are a cross between arrogance and ignorance.
Some pedagogies can be rejected too. Like the pedagogy of shame.
Because words come from all sorts of places, but they do not come from empty spaces.
(Erm, turns out, words spring forth from silent empty spaces, but boy does that take a lot of work!)
And so a year later, in the spirit of always be building bridges: I will format my words. Not to make them better - they were always valid and whole, but to tweak them in the way I have done with others before. Composites. It’ll take some time but I’ll get there eventually. And if at times I ‘step into it’, which I am sure I will, I ask the adults who are reading my world to, just for a moment, expand theirs. I know I may look like a grad student but really there are times when I feel so very small.
And my words lived happily ever after…
Not quite. This much I will give: my bridge feels connected in ways it never did before. (Somebody hand me a tissue. *sniffle*)
And yet I am even more aware of how frail a bridge can be. And as much as I may want to be educated and raise its level, I also don’t want to lose, in that process, any more of its basic building blocks. Words that don’t require changing, or tweaking or updating. Words that are only trying to get to that one word that we all feel, because we are all that word itself.
I told you. Words come from people.
I didn’t set out to write this story. I had wanted to write about different people using different words to say the exact same thing. But along the way I met some characters that I had previously not gotten to know that well. Word crumbs became my guide.
In the tradition of Eastern storytelling, I was perfectly at home with imperfect endings. But since American stories (much like its people) have a tendency towards optimism, I wrote a positive little snippet at the end - to indulge my audience. And guess what? Written words became self-fulfilling (wait, we already knew words could do that, didn’t we?).
Here are my take-aways: that I wish I had remembered the stories from my childhood. Except this time not disguise them with monsters and wolves. They don’t exist, and even if they did we would know to stand on guard. I wish I had understood that in real life, there are only flawed people and their monstrous words. That when we meet such words, they may come in the guise of trusting relationships, in polite conversations and calm demeanours, all the whilst making us feel like we are coming apart at the seams.
Bad words will appear as the words we want to become, more educated. And so we may, out of hunger, eat them up, but the way to recognize them is in the bitter aftertaste and in how they make us sick.
In such moments it’s important to take a step back, gain some critical distance and say, “My, what big words you have.” Then the masks of 2020 will fully come off.
...to the four boys in my life for piling my laundry up so high that there were no empty spaces to sink into
...to my teachers whose nods of encouragement meant a little bit more to me than I may have let on.
...and to the countless word carvers whose words I borrowed to make sense of my own.