by Mark Lewis
“Three of your students are in the office,” an IA tells me. “They were giving each other the middle finger.”

I am a first year teacher. I teach second grade. It is spring, 2011. Easter is almost as late as it is possible for Easter to be, so spring break is too. It’s only 12:09, but I am tired.

I ask, “Which students?” and find out. “Anything else?”

“Well, Theresa said, ‘I’m from a different country, and this isn’t bad, so it’s okay.’”

That’s interesting. I pause, look around at the noisy, crowded, diverse cafeteria. Many students are first-generation or 1.5 generation immigrants to the US. The families of two of the students in question are from Korea. The family of the third is from Kuwait and Jordan. My own classroom reflects the school: families from the Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Somalia, Ethiopia, Mexico, El Salvador, Bolivia, China, Egypt. “I’m from a different country, and this isn’t bad, so it’s okay.” Interesting! But my class (all but three students) is waiting by the door, and we need to start word study.

After a week, I’ve retold the story a few times. After eight months, I still like to think and talk about that day in the cafeteria. I was initially quite struck by what was, to my white US-born mind, the sheer out-of-the-mouths-of-babes strangeness of Theresa’s statement.  Naturally, as are many excuses from second graders, it is far from sturdy, not too far from “my dog ate it.” In genre of excuses for violating a rule, it does not excel. However, I have come to see Theresa’s remark as a rich emblem of her personality, ideologies, and experiences. It is one of those rare gems I’ve come to treasure as a teacher. The story of Theresa’s middle finger is funny, and at the same time it offered a view on her emergent concepts of culture, taboos, and language.

In teaching there are many opportunities to exercise methodological belief. (A digging in memory, assisted by a google search, tells me I am citing Peter Elbow here.) I believe we must seek these opportunities out to teach well. To understand Theresa, I need to believe what she says and know where and why it is true. Doubt and critique are not enough. Inquiry here has helped me better understand how some of my students are thinking about the diversity and cultural transplantation all around them. Anyone spending time around children knows that they say some odd things. In the classroom, I always benefit from considering rather than dismissing unusual remarks, whether an answer to a math problem, a response to a readaloud, or a complex excuse for a rude gesture.

In this case, I am considering the following: What are Theresa’s premises–what must she know or believe? Which ideologies does she move forward, and which does her comment carry?

I’m from a different country: Culture and the body
I’m light on analysis here because, yikes, by the hammer of Edward Parrish, the use of the word from in a culturally affiliative sense is probably worth a blog all by itself. (“No, like, where are you FROM?”) There’s a remarkable amount of affiliation work that I see my students do, and another time I’d like to describe it further.  For now, I note that Theresa’s statement belied a particular understanding of affiliation, at least in that moment. Seemingly, according to Theresa, her culture is in her body, in the sense that her middle finger itself is Korean, so it only needs to follow Korean rules of conduct. Theresa’s family is Korean, and she speaks Korean at home. I do not know if she is US-born or immigrated at an early age. However, it seems that in the ideology of her comment, the concept of origin is essential. Again, the meanings behind Theresa’s “from” are potentially many, but at the very least, we can see the value of listening well and deeply to what students are saying. An excuse to flip off her friend involves her emergent theories of the nature of culture and race. Blink, and we miss it.

and this isn’t bad: The arbitrariness of the sign
Theresa’s understanding of culture may be that it is bodily inscribed, yet when comes to words and rudeness, she is more flexible. I think of Saussure, and the arbitrariness of the sign. This is one of those theories you might learn in college and think, “Oh yeah, that makes total sense. I think I knew that already. Why is this person famous, and do people really have to cite them in French?” (I can’t have been the only one who thought that, right?) Basically, the arbitrariness of the sign is this: Words, sounds, script, symbols (with the marginal exception of onomatopoeia) bear no relationship to the meaning that they carry. Red means stop, but only because of social convention, not because red is a stoppy color. In Saussure’s terminology the color red is the sign, and stop! is the signified. (I’m fudging and glossing the history and internal debates of linguistics a bit here–these are deep waters).

Here, the sign is the finger, and the signified is Fuck You. The sign is arbitrary, ascribed to the signified by context and convention, which can vary by location. Theresa knows this. She was having some fun with her friends. Collectively they made a claim on their context, wrested themselves into another place where the middle finger was a meaningless sign or a friendly one. Either that, or this claim on context was a quickthinking excuse to get out of trouble once caught. Either way, an impressive bit of thinking for a 7 year old. So Theresa knows some semiotics. She’s thinking about symbols, meanings, and contexts. What else does she know?

and this isn’t bad: Rudeness
I’m convinced Theresa has some understanding that taboos shift. She knows this at least about gestures. She may also have a tacit understanding of the arbitrariness of taboos and rudeness in words and speech acts. In anthropological linguistic perspective, rudeness is a socially and institutionally constructed judgement on a word or speech act. All linguistic choices signal particular stances, positions, and affiliations, and these choices nudge (or maybe contest) the context of a choice in a particular direction.

Rude words would include, for some and at some times, shitbird, fuck, and damn. Rude speech acts would include, for some and at some times, inquiring about someone’s age, or asking someone how much they get paid. Certainly curse words and other taboo expressions are only taboo if you speak the language they come from. Merde isn’t shit unless you know some French (or a related enough language). The rudeness of some speech acts probably has far greater variation within the speakers of a language. In other words, just because two people speak English doesn’t mean they agree on whether or not it’s acceptable to share their salary with their friends, but they would almost certainly agree that “fuck you” is not generally kind.

Theresa made an argument that the arbitrariness of rudeness excuses her from the prohibition on middle fingering. What is her basis for this principle? Perhaps it is broadly experiential and operational, or perhaps it is more direct. Perhaps a family member once told her, “some things are rude here that are not rude in Korea.” Perhaps the basis is more oblique, perhaps she saw other students or teachers who were not raised in Korean culture do something she knew would have been rude at her house. In any case, her argument is sophisticated. At the not-so-tender age of 7, Theresa has long been analyzing her surroundings, drawing conclusions, and finding her place in the sociolinguistic community.

so it’s okay: Joy
With her comment, Theresa was telling the lunch aide that there was nothing to worry about. Everything was okay. When I found out more information about the original incident, I was told that the three students were “playing around,” not gesturing aggressively or as in a fight. From a bit of speculation and a lot of time spent with Theresa, I feel certain that up until she and her friends were caught, she was having lots of fun. Very probably, she was having a joyous time. We can learn or guess something about Theresa’s world by considering just why she had so much fun.

The world of school is full of rules. Whatever adult perception of these rules might be, a child’s experience of their ruledness may make them feel less than carefree. What a joy it must have been to step over a rule and to do so purposefully, knowing that the rule had basis in convention only, knowing of and having dwelt in spaces where the rule did not exist. I imagine it may have been almost akin to the joy of having a secret, which the very young can certainly enjoy. Thinking of Theresa’s joy makes me wonder at her comment in still other ways. Might it have a shade of explanation in it? Generosity? Pity for the adult enforcers who deny themselves the joy of transgression? Through “it’s okay,” Theresa performs some measure of rebellion, part of any argument that the rules do not apply. In believing this joy, I help myself to see school through Theresa’s eyes.

Learning to teach
My consideration of Theresa’s remark is work of listening, speculating, and believing. I value these acts in my teaching. Forgetting them is dangerous. Telling, concluding, and doubting are their equally valuable companions, but we cannot teach with these alone.

Every day, I attempt to step into the perspective of my students. When it comes to their work in decoding text or summing numbers, I am very proficient. I step into their perspective, find out why they would say that 78 plus 79 equals 80, step back out, and then hopefully some magic happens, and they know how to use a number line.

Because it will help me know my students better, because their sophistication deserves to be noted, and because I am curious, I have been trying to more clearly understand how the students at my school tend to understand the ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity around them. At this I am far less practiced. Theresa’s middle finger is one data point. I’m still figuring out where this work will take me, and especially how to share it and share in it at my workplace. As I quickly learned last year, learning to be a good teacher is slow work. But sometimes, in the middle of a long day in the longest part of a long year, you get to hear a 7-year-old tell why it’s okay to flip off her friends. And it’s a pretty fun day when you can laugh, frown, and analyze all at the same time.


One Comment to “Belief”

  1. Just reread this, and I’m impressed all over again – I always love reading about a concept that feels thought through from every angle, almost to completion. Looking forward to more data points.

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