Friday, April 10, 2015

Parenting Feminism

Three times a week I teach adult ESL/Parenting classes at Tulsa Public Schools, and it is often my favorite part of the week. I love teaching English and watching these amazing parents become empowered and confident in their daily life. I've developed a great rapport with my students and consider some of them to be my good friends. Many of us have shared very personal stories and have created a little community of support around each other. It's the best.

Last night as I was trying to fall asleep, I realized that all of my materials for class were on my desk at a different school. I jumped out of bed, paced the hallway for a few minutes whispering a couple four-letter words and then made a list of as many activities that required no preparation or materials. My students are exceptionally flexible and forgiving, but I consider it disrespectful to show up to class with no direction, no plan and no grammar points. And half of my duty is to show them respect and let them know that they are valued members of society, not illegals who jump the border to steal our jobs and infect us with measles.

When I arrived to class, my students were organizing all of their casserole dishes on the library table, and it dawned on me: it's Raul's birthday! (All names have been changed, by the way. This shit is confidential!) On birthdays or holidays or when the wind blows in the right direction, we organize - or more accurately, they organize - a party. I attempt to make the party educational, and we play vocabulary games or have discussions about birthday traditions in their respective countries which are mostly Mexico, but also Colombia, Puerto Rico, and El Salvador in this class alone.

Today I was saved by enchiladas verdes and rojos. Also, by chocolate nut cake and arroz con leche. All of my last minute preparation was perfect for one of our party days, and they didn't bat an eye at the lack of worksheets or materials.

While we shoved our faces full of comida, I presented the class with a question, let them discuss it in their small groups and then worked through them as a class. The first couple questions were easy. "What do you like/dislike about your culture?" and "What do you consider to be rude in your country?" The question about rudeness resulted in me trying to help the upper-class Colombia couple understand that context is everything, and even though they believe everyone who lives on the coast in Colombia to be rude and uneducated, they might just be living in two separate cultures (which they are). I can't help myself with power and privilege. It is in my bones. I have to talk about it.

And then I dropped the bomb.

"In your culture, are responsibilities the same for mothers and fathers?" As soon as I started writing fathers on the board, a collective "oooh!" filled the room. My SalvadoreƱa mom who is a single parent, works two jobs and got residency because she was running away from an abusive husband in her country was raring to talk with her group about the question. The Evangelical Colombian woman asked me how to translate the word machista into English (misogynist or chauvinist, if you're so inclined).

I expected a subject like this between a raging feminist and somewhat traditional, conservative Latin@s to be rather tense. I expected to have to grit my teeth and nod. But it was beautiful. It was my dream class!

We discussed generational sexism, cultural differences and perspectives on gender roles, and the difficulty and stigma of attempting to overcome those traditional gender expectations. We shook our heads as we listened to each other share stories of oppression. We tsk-tsked as some of the women talked of their ex-husbands or fathers or mothers who told them that their whole purpose in life was to be a wife or caretaker. We confessed of the unfair responsibilities we felt that we had to bear in order to be a good wife or a full woman in society's eyes. And we did it all in the library of an elementary school in the middle of Tulsa in their second language.

Never was I prouder.

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