Tag: language

Why love? Some reflections on splitting and healing

I would be remiss if I pretended that my interest in “love” (as in my previous post) was merely philosophical and scholarly. In fact, my decision to center love in my work has been a deeply personal one, propelled by life experiences: facing my own mortality with a cancer diagnosis ten years ago, while simultaneously seeing my life unravel in divorce; seeing others lose loved ones or have their lives fall apart in unexpected and confusing ways; grappling with just how small we are in the grand scheme of things; turning to spiritual teachings from diverse traditions as a way to find new meaning and purpose in life; and re-affirming that I want to use my “one precious life” (Mary Oliver’s term) not just to study the world, but to participate as best I can in making it a more positive, uplifting, equitable and just experience for more people on the planet. I’m inspired by bell hooks, who wrote that she was determined to talk about love wherever she goes, even though it may “challenge, disturb, and at times even frighten or enrage readers.” (https://plumvillage.org/thich-nhat-hanh-interviews/interview-with-bell-hooks-january-1-2000/)

Part of my own post-cancer, post-divorce, post-life-falling-apart healing process has involved looking deeply at the psychodynamics of my own life decisions – trying to make more conscious things that were not fully so.  This feels important to explicate in relation to the matter of “splitting” that I discussed in the previous blog post.

For some time, I have struggled to understand what it was that drew me to cross linguistic and cultural borders in my own life, as I moved from a homogeneous, English speaking, white working class, mostly Catholic community to an elite institution of higher education and then ran fast and furiously from that world of privilege into community organizing and teaching. What is my own confusing relationship to my class origins, my whiteness and privilege – especially the privilege that I speak from today, as a white, English-speaking, U.S. full professor at an elite institution?

What I have been seeking are not explanations for my own border crossing that allow me to feel good about myself, or superior to others (e.g. to those members of my family and community who have not chosen to cross cultural or linguistic borders very much in their lives). Rather, I have been trying to understand what I was pushing away from, differentiating myself from, or “splitting” from myself – and what it would mean to reconcile those aspects with other parts of myself that I have more consciously chosen.  My aim has been to understand something about the kind of healing work we have to do as individuals, as a nation, as a world, if we ever hope to get past the things that are dividing and killing us.

I have come to see that in pushing away from the seemingly myopic, limited, homogeneous, monocultural, working class town I was raised in – by learning Spanish, marrying an immigrant (refugee) from Guatemala, moving to California, becoming a bilingual teacher, and working in immigrant and refugee issues for my entire adult life – I was not just embracing new communities, I was running away from something in myself.

This is the kind of psychological splitting that I discussed here. Essentially, I created an “other” – the people from my family or community that I left behind. In “othering” them, I didn’t have to see things in myself that I did not want to see.  This involved some unspoken shame for whiteness of a working-class variety.

In fact, I carry the “limited, myopic, provincial, monocultural” community that I came from in me; it is not something I can run away from or leave behind.  I need to look at how it shaped me and own parts of myself for which I feel no pride.

But that community is perhaps not the things I have labeled it as, or certainly not just those things.  It is filled with loving, humble, good, if imperfect (like all of us) people, who have been shaped by their experiences in the world.  I carry them in me as well. Most importantly, I can choose the values I want to live by, not be bound by these aspects of my identity, and try to hold myself accountable to my values. This is the kind of healing work we need to do as individuals, as well as in the world.

I am attempting to name my experiences in this way, and connect more fully with all aspects of myself, not in order to “confess,” nor to elevate myself or my own experiences, but to seek lessons for healing in the larger body politics. I recognize that I have more work to do, as we do on the planet as well.

 

Why do I write?

Welcome to the 2016-17 academic year!search-1

I’m making a “new school year” resolution to write regularly in this blog. This is my  commitment to public scholarship and to being as transparent as I can about the work I do, why I do it, and what I learn from it.  I also want to face the hard question of what possible good this work (and writing about it) may do in the world.

I haven’t written in a while. Losing my earlier blogposts stymied me. (See Lessons on Impermanence.) I couldn’t really see reposting old writing. Blogs at their best should be fresh and alive and current.

I have also been suffering from writer’s block in the face of all that is going on in the world right now. What do my words matter, search-2when people are being shot by police at traffic stops, wars are raging, madmen are terrorizing people all around the world, refugees are drowning, the climate is going to hell, and income inequality, racism and xenophobia are at an all-time high…. What can I say in the face of all this?  What difference can my words possibly make?

And then there’s just general writer’s block stuff: the voices in our heads that keep so many of us from putting our ideas into the world: “Who cares what you have to say?”

At a writing workshop this summer, in response to the prompt, “Why do you write?” I scribbled this:

I want to say it comes from a noble place, an enlightened space, a transcendent higher self whose pure and perspicacious aim is to breathe wisdom, light and consciousness into the world. I want to believe it comes from an egoless space, a wise and intentional voice of compassion and humility.

But really it comes from a little girl who long ago was lost in the middle of eight, a child who learned take her place and wait her turn and be careful what she wished for lest she blow her precious wishes, and then she’d be sorry. Three rides at Paragon Park each summer: which ones to choose? She wanted to feel her body soar on them all! One box of candy passed around the dinner table at Christmas, with no pictures on the bottom: what if she chose one with nuts or raisins, not the silky caramel or soft whipped chocolate she craved?

When people ask me what life was like growing up with seven siblings, they seem to assume there must have been a lot of chaos at home. We were ten bodies sharing four bedrooms and one and a half baths. But I search my memory and find no fight scenes. No whining or complaints. My mother reined us in with her unspoken rules:

Children should be seen but not heard.

Children should just do what they are told.

Do your share.*

Wait your turn.*

Don’t ask for attention.

Don’t take more than you need.*

What you have is good enough.

Don’t even WANT any more.

So I write for little Mahgie, who thought she took up too much space. I write for the girl who stenciled Margie the Magnificent! in bold capital letters on the half sheets of scrap paper that were rationed out at home, only to crumble under her mother’s stern glare. I shout back at the same glare that Ginny the Genius received when she pronounced herself by that name. I scream with my sister Ginny, who was locked in the “Screaming Room” by herself, at age two, and for my sister Nancy, whose face turned blue when she locked her own screams deep inside. My words are a dance for my mother, who at age three spun around her kitchen gaily in a bright yellow dress only to receive the same shaming look from her mother, and to wake up the next day to learn that her father had suffered the first of a series of strokes that would take his life. I write for little Anna and for the repressed, rationing and self-denying mother she grew up to be. “That’s good enough,” my mother would always say, “That’s all I need; I don’t want anything more.”

I write for my mother, my grandmother, my sisters, and our daughters, for all the people who were told suffer in silence, shut up and take it, be seen but not heard, or not seen at all. For everyone who was ever told not even to WANT any more.

*Note: There is much of value in these unspoken family rules…The world could do with less greediness and more sharing.  But when we repress desires, where do they go? They may come screaming out…and it’s really only when we let them out that we can have any chance of reaching to that higher place of wisdom and perspective.

Perhaps my hesitation about putting words out into the world comes precisely from a recognition of the power words really do have. Words allow us to sing, dance, desire, love…or hate. Words can build bridges, or walls. They can release old pains and bring about healing…or cause new wounds. They can invite people in, or close people out.  They can open hearts and minds, or polarize and divide.

I want my words to heal my own psychic pain as well as the pain that permeates the world. I want to find words that transform suffering, not perpetuate it, pass it on, or simply translate it into new forms. I want to build bridges, not walls.

This means getting past the two-year-old in me who wants just to rant and rave.  (Finally letting her out might allow me to leave her behind.)  It also means writing not just to people who will approve of what I say, who already agree with me, who are poised to like anything I pen.  It means finding words that will surprise, or give pause, and help people -including myself –  to consider things in new ways. Writing can help the writer to grow, as well as those who read.

(Reflecting back on what I’ve written here, I fear my  characterizations of the world going to hell are the kinds of words that can polarize: with some aligning with me, and others seeing the world through very different lenses…Still, I’m just calling it as I see it, and I  invite people who see things differently into dialogue…)

My colleague, Mike Rose, provides inspiration. Mike’s small book, Why School (https://www.amazon.com/Why-School-Reclaiming-Education-All/dp/1595584676), was the “book of the year” read by all incoming students to the Graduate School of Education this fall. Mike writes with reverence about everyday people, doing everyday things, revealing their dignity and humanity. His words go straight to the heart of big issues, with nuance and complexity, but also crystal clarity, and hopefulness. He stakes a clear stance on controversial social and educational matters, but does so in ways that invite people in rather than close them out. (See his blog: http://mikerosebooks.blogspot.com.)

So this is my renewed commitment to write: to face my own demons who think being good means being quiet, showing them instead the power that words can have to help make the world, not “good” or “good enough,” but much better than it is.  Or at least, this is my commitment to try to use my words that way.

I invite you to face your own demons as well, and to write, speak, scream, sing, or dance your own words.  Responses to this blog are most welcome.  You can leave a reply in the space below.

 

 

Minding the “word gap”

I’m re-posting my “word gap” essay that appeared on the Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marjorie-faulstich-orellana/a-different-kind-of-word-_b_10030876.html here, as part of an effort to get alternative perspectives on this “gap” out into the world.  Google the term “word gap” and you get a slew of websites that treat the concept unproblematically, assuming and reinforcing deficit views.

At the same time, there’s something problematic about challenging deficit perspectives just by flipping the script.  So I include an addendum below.

A different kind of word gap

The supposed “word gap” between children growing up in white middle class homes, and those growing up poor, immigrant or otherwise culturally “non-dominant” families has received a great deal of attention in recent months. Intervention programs in poor and immigrant communities aimed at increasing the number of words parents speak to their children have offered easy fixes to entrenched social problems. If parents would just feed their children more words, these children would grow cognitively, achieve in school, succeed in life and all would be well in the world.

 

I refer to this word gap as a “supposed” one, because claims that poor and immigrant parents do not adequately talk with their children have been soundly rebuked by anthropologists (See here.)
The study that initiated attention to this supposed gap (Hart and Risely, 2003) rests on uncertain foundations. Did Betty Hart and Todd Risley count all of the words in children’s environments? Or only those that were directed specifically to the child? By all parties (siblings, aunts, neighbors, friends) or just parents to children? Or just mothers?

Never mind the fact that these words were counted by researchers who had stepped into homes — without all the work that ethnographers do to build relations and rapport so that people are comfortable with our presence as we “study” them. If I were a poor, minority or immigrant parent, I would likely shut my mouth and count the time until the researcher left.

 

Contradictory evidence is emerging as researchers attempt to replicate Hart and Risely’s study. In short, there seems to be tremendous variation in the number of words that children in different households and communities are exposed to, as well as in their quality. These differences do not fall into a neat pattern that reveals a word gap between poor and middle class, white and non-white or any other binary.

 

But if we are going to focus on word gaps between groups, we might consider what gaps call our attention, and what ones escape our notice. Why are some the cause of great anxiety, and others not considered a problem at all? Why are words seen and heard — and treated as valuable resources — in some spaces, while other “word wealth” goes unnoticed and unappreciated?

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Urban communities in globalized cities like Los Angeles are filled with words. There is an abundance of word wealth alive for the taking by children who walk through the streets of Los Angeles every day on their way to and from school. This is a much more print-rich environment than any suburban neighborhood I’ve seen.

 

Store windows are filled with product labels and announcements in multiple languages other languages. There are advertisements and announcements on buses, trucks and vans — large and small billboards selling a revolving global marketplace of items such as the new Volkswagon Jetta, Tequila from Jalisco, Samsung phone service and Direct TV. There are street and parking signs of different shapes, sizes and coloring. There is print on traffic signs, parking meters, gum ball machines, pavement and walls. Words and images referencing contemporary popular culture are stamped on the backpacks and T-shirts of the people walking by. The print is encoded in a huge array of styles, fonts, layouts and arrangements, conveying meaning in the words themselves as well as through their juxtaposition with other images, texts and signs.

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Just as words spoken in homes are not all directed at children, children walking these streets do not directly decode all the signs, of course. But as I learned when I conducted a community literacy walk with first graders in central Los Angeles (Orellana and Hernández, 1999) young children have a great deal to say about the print that is of interest to them. And even if they do not read every word, they are regularly exposed to the rich variety of ways that adults use texts to express ideas and make meaning in the world.

 

Shouldn’t we pity the poor suburban kids who have to rely on their parents to put magnetic alphabet letters on their refrigerators to get a little bit of exposure to environmental print? Shouldn’t we worry that that print they are exposed to is likely only in English? Perhaps we should stage an intervention, force-feeding multi-lingual signage into suburban communities as a quick fix for the multi-lingual word gap that middle-class parents don’t seem to see. Then we can count the number of times people look at the words when they are out walking in their community — if indeed they walk at all.

On gaps, deficits…and potentialities

In my “word gap” blog (above), I suggested that middle-class children living in monolingual English-speaking suburban communities are limited by their lack of exposure to the multi-lingual print-rich environments of urban immigrant communities. I named this gap between urban and suburban print environments as a way of countering dominant discourses about deficits, for rhetorical effect: to raise questions about why some presumed deficits call our attention while others escape notice. I also questioned the research surveillance that is brought to bear on certain communities and not on others.

There is much more that I could say about problems in privileged communities that go unseen. But really, I want to make the rhetorically-harder-but-ultimately-more-transformative move of challenging all deficit-oriented thinking. Flipping scripts may help us see in certain new ways, but it still keeps us locked in binaries that I seek to disrupt. As Lao Tzu expressed in the Tao te Ching:

When people see some things as beautiful

other things become ugly.

When people see some things as good,

other things become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.

Difficult and easy support each other.

Long and short define each other.

High and low depend on each other.

Before and after follow each other.

 

(retrieved from http://genius.com/2139346)

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Flipping scripts can be fun, and may help us to see things we take for granted in new ways. But it tends to keep us locked in binaries of good and bad, right and wrong, deficits and assets. This just perpetuates a much more entrenched problem in educational research and practice: the emphasis on naming problems, identifying gaps, circling errors, pointing out what’s missing or misguided or wrong….rather than seeing potential and possibility.

Do our efforts to counter deficit perspectives unwittingly reinforce their power, as George Lakoff suggests?  (See for example his analysis of the discourse around Donald Trump: https://georgelakoff.com/blog/.)

What if educators regularly and consistently simply asserted an assets-based perspective about all people, pointing to buds of development, and nurturing them, rather than focusing on what is missing, misguided, or wrong?

From deficit- to asset-based perspectives

In Teacher Education programs, including the one I work in at UCLA imgres-1(https://centerx.gseis.ucla.edu/teacher-education), much attention goes to countering “deficit discourses” about students from non-dominant cultural groups. We ask pre-service teachers to identify the cultural competencies that all children bring to school from their everyday lives. An assets-based perspective may help us to see the print that abounds in urban communities as a resource, as I noted in my last two blogs. It orients us to hear multi-lingualism as wealth, not a limitation. It points us to possibilities and potentialities, not problems.

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This is very important as teachers work with families and communities from non-dominant cultural groups, whose skills and experiences are so often not seen, valued, or understood.

At the same time, a deficit orientation is not uniquely an issue for our work in underserved communities. Really, our entire educational system – and larger culture – tends toward critique. We are good at judging, evaluating, and circling errors – pointing out what’s missing, misguided, or wrong. We sometimes do all right at praising things that meet our pre-determined norms. But we are not very good at seeing potential in things that we don’t already agree with: seeing what is there, in nascent form, ready to be built upon. We are also not so good at seeing different kinds of competencies. Comparing to idealized, socially constructed, singular, and often impossible standards, we find most things and people (including ourselves) lacking.

Many of us have deeply internalized the critiques that abound in the larger culture and that were reinforced from our many days in school. We are more aware of our faults and weaknesses than we are of our strengths. A deep sense of “not being good enough” pervades our psyches, whether we know it or not. This may lead us to project our fears and insecurities onto others, bury them in food, drink, consumerism or other addictions, or avoid judgment by not taking risks, doing only what others tell us to do, and keeping ourselves small.

In rebelling against this system, is it enough to turn the critiques around? Should we just point to different problems, find other people lacking, and cast judgments in a new way? This is what I did when I “flipped the script” in my word gap blog. I stand by this for its rhetorical value, as a way of hearing the scripts that dominate our thinking.

In this same blog I made another common rhetorical move: I pointed my finger at a faceless, nameless, categorical “other” group. In this case, this “generalized other” were middle class people living in suburban communities, whom I presumed to be white, and monolingual.

Let me personalize this. I am or have been part of that categorical other for much of my life.

I grew up in a seemingly homogeneous, mostly monolingual, middle/working class suburb of Boston. In this safe and relatively privileged world, I was limited in my exposure to and understanding of cultural and linguistic diversity. At a time when the label “LEP” (Limited English Proficient) was being tagged on other children, I was, as Luis Moll once suggested, “LTEP:” “Limited TO English Proficiency.”

Even so, I did have experiences that became foundational to my later study of cultural diversity or “transculturality.” I was a middle child of eight. Being in the middle helped me to see the world from different perspectives and to recognize that there are different ways of seeing the world.

And the seemingly homogeneous suburban community I grew up in really wasn’t homogeneous at all, because there was much variation within the “white suburban” experience. I observed it, wondered about it, and tried to figure out my own values and beliefs in relation to the various ways I saw modeled all around me.

These were experiences that provided a foundation for the work I have done as an adult in trying to understand, appreciate, and cultivate transculturality.

This is true for all people, in all areas of learning and of life. We all have experiences that can be built upon. We all have wealth that goes unrecognized, undervalued, and untapped.

I am not saying we should close our eyes to inequities in resources. Problems in resource allocation are real and must be named and addressed. But let’s notice what problems we see and what ones escape notice.

And then, let’s not just name problems, not just flip scrips, not just perpetuate the same old problems in some new form.

Let’s find places of possibility that may help us build the world we want to live in.

My personal commitment

So more than just flipping scripts, I am trying to write new ones. I am doing this by:

  • Eliminating the “nots” and the “don’ts.” When I find myself noticing what anyone is not doing, or what she or he doesn’t seem to know, I ask myself, “What are they doing?” “What do they know?” And – what does the negative framing reveal about what I assumed they should know or do? What does it keep me from seeing?
  • Over-writing the grammar of my own thinking. The tiny words that connect our thoughts can the reveal what we think of as normative, correct, right, wrong or true. “I like what you wrote, but….” implies that I didn’t really like it that much at all, or at least, that I’m more focused on what I don’t like than what I do. Switching the “but” for “and” keeps me oriented to what is there, and could be built upon with whatever ideas I might have to offer.
  • Un-comparability: When I find myself comparing people (including myself), on any measure I ask myself, “Would I ever do this with a tree?” Would I ever expect all flowers to be the same size, shape and color? This doesn’t mean I forgo all criteria: some plants are healthier than others, because they have the benefits of soil and sun. But would I want a garden full of flowers that all looked just the same?
  • Embracing imperfection: This is the hardest one for me, as it for so many of us who have been trained in the Western world’s elusive quest for perfection (on impossible, socially constructed standards). In contrast, the Japanese aesthetic tradition of “Wabi-sabi” celeimagesbrates “flawed beauty.” (See http://www.utne.com/mind-and-body/wabi-sabi.aspx and http://nobleharbor.com/tea/chado/WhatIsWabi-Sabi.htm). Quirks and “errors” in construction ensure uniqueness in an object. Rust, cracks, and fading colors remind us that there is no impermeable standard of beauty that is not changed by the march of time.

I still have a lot of un-learning to do as I try to embrace and enact these new ways. I tend to focus on where I fall short. After all, I have 16 years of training in Western schooling that oriented me to do just that (plus thirty more years working in its machinations – ten as an elementary school teacher and twenty as a college professor). But then I just get to ask myself, “falling short by what measure?” and start all over again.

 

*Please note that there is a rather irrelevant photo attached to the word gap essay on the Huffington Post:  a multilingual “thank you” sign.  I certainly value multilingualism, and gratitude, but the image doesn’t fit with the piece. I tried to get the Huffington Post to remove it, but to no avail. So I just have to embrace this imperfection!