A World of Difference: Multicultural Connections in the Public School Classroom
After returning to school from a sick, mental, or just plain deserved, Friday day-off from school, I was accosted by several of my eighth graders just before homeroom.
"Oooh," Mr. Hopkins," one student shook his head eagerly, "You won't believe what that man said about you."
"What man? Melvin, what are you talking about?" I asked in total bewilderment.
"That man who was `subbin' for you the other day," he continued.
"Who was the `sub,' and what did he say?" I asked enthusiastically.
"Well, he said that he was a preacher," Velma said.
"And he said that the stuff that you was teaching was pure trash. And that you shouldn't be teaching in the public schools if you have to bring that`filthy stuff' in the classroom," Robin added.
"Well, what on earth was he talking about?" I asked.
Velma explained. "You know, that book we been reading. The one about the white man who turned Black?"
"Well, he was reading some of it, and he got mad because it had so many cuss words in it. He told us that we shouldn't be reading it. Then he went through the whole book underlining the cuss words."
"Well, thanks for sharing this information with me. And don't worry about it."
Worry is all I could do that day for three periods straight. I even thought this one was good enough to bring up in the teachers' lounge.
"How dare a substitute come into a class and make such remarks about a text that he had not even read," said Ms. Dawson the music teacher.
"Can you believe him?" I asked.
"Well, I think that you should report the guy to Principal Weathers, and refuse to have him sub for you again," offered Ms. Wein, from the sixth-grade team.
"Well, I think that he's right!" exclaimed Ms. Spain, chair of the seventh-grade team. "Our kids don't need to hear all that filthy language, and besides, there are lots of other books that don't have that kind of stuff in it."
"But Ms. Spain," I said, as I explained why I taught Black Like Me ,"the novel is about learning about the oppression of others and sharing in their cultural experiences. The use of language is realistic and accurately expresses certain characters based on their own realities."
"I still don't see why there has to be so much cussing," she said.
Being the new kid on the block, I was hesitant to say anything more about the matter. I decided to just forget about it and just try to get through the remainder of the day. But as students mentioned the same story hour after hour, I became more and more frustrated. The next day in each class, I allowed the students to talk about the incident and express their opinions. The lesson's objective was to reiterate to my students that teachers, students, parents, principals, and substitute teachers alike, should learn to appreciate "difference." In our world there are different environments, cultures, and experiences that can be expressed in a multiplicity of voices. I learned so much from that teaching experience from my students that I have been able to resolve for myself my position on teaching in a world of difference.
Teachers interested in offering a pedagogy encouraging and enabling their students to consider, understand, and appreciate "other" viable cultural perspectives, how these value systems develop, and how they see themselves in relation to others, is recognition of the importance in teaching matters of equity. Because teachers are viewed by parents and students alike as validators of experiences, particular beliefs, attitudes, and lifestyles, it is imperative that we assume a proactive role in helping young minds develop sensitivity and understanding of psychological, sociological, political, and economic issues --such as class, race, gender, sexual orientation, and others. Within the classroom proper, through lectures, syllabi, and podiums, all teachers use the classroom as a platform to impose our self-constructed narratives, that is, our biases, likes and dislikes. Unfortunately, this pedagogical presentation of the self does not reflect a broader perspective of cultures: it is often limited to our own experiences, and oftentimes ignores the individual voices and experiences of our students. Rather, this style of teaching merely reflects the very narrow, individualistic culture of that teacher. Paulo Freire writes:
Instead of creating "alienating verbosity" in the classroom, we should be careful to consider the personal frame from which we teach, and we should be certain to construct a classroom environment reflecting and promoting multicultural and multiethnic learning experiences in which all children can join in the discussion. We must be honest and explain to our students that any approach to teaching reveals some part of our own personal, social, and political agenda.
As teachers, we need to guide students to a consciousness allowing them to break down the barriers of cultural difference. Also, we should encourage them to take a proactive role in development of moral sensibilities. Students should be encouraged not only to question, but to condemn inappropriate treatment of different cultures through the texts they experience, as well as, in society at large. Teachers and students should celebrate diversity by sharing of themselves and providing experiences that help everyone involved become aware of the pervasiveness of sexism, racism, heterosexism, homophobia, able bodiedness, and other issues related to multi-cultural and multi-ethnic groups. Together, teachers and students can celebrate in our one world of many cultures.
Bristol Middle School
Until recently, few authors of young adult novels have depicted a social world that easily accepts people with differences. While some novels describe other cultures from a variety of viewpoints, and others portray characters whose identities bridge two cultures, few have modeled a community where cultural differences are equally valued. In her young adult novels, Francesca Lia Block does exactly that. Weetzie Bat (1989) depicts a "live and let live" world where diversities are not only tolerated but welcomed. In Witch Baby (1991) the characters find that tolerance is not enough; they must actively strive to understand and share the problems of people who suffer because of their differences.
The Bat books are set in the Hollywood district of Los Angeles, a place where diverse cultures mingle easily and often. In Weetzie Bat Block creates a community representative of this diversity centered on the punk Weetzie Bat, "a skinny girl with a bleach-blonde flat top,...pink Harlequin sunglasses, strawberry lipstick." She is the daughter of Charlie Bat, a Jewish writer from New York City who looks "like a cigarette," and Brandy-Lynn, a Los Angeles B-movie starlet who drinks cocktails and relaxes with Valium. The marriage does not work because Charlie needs New York but Brandy Lynn loves LA and neither will compromise. The clash between these North American cultures -- East Coast versus West Coast -- leads to the Bats' angry separation. In contrast to her parents' intolerance, Weetzie embraces cultural diversity.
It is her mother's Los Angeles, full of differences, that Weetzie prefers; she feels alienated from her high school because no one understands the wonder of a city where "you could buy tomahawks...plastic palm tree wallets...cheese and bean and hot dog and pastrami burritos...and all night potato knishes" (pp.3-4). She loves this city's diversity "where it was hot and cool, glam and slam, rich and trashy, devils and angels, Los Angeles" (p. 19), but she loves it alone until she meets Dirk, "the best-looking guy at school" (p. 4). They become best friends, and enjoy the city together, but this is not a regular romance:
"What were you going to tell me?" Weetzie asked.
"I'm gay," Dirk said.
"Who, what, when, where, how..well not how," Weetzie said. "It doesn't matter one bit, honey-honey," she said, giving him a hug.
Dirk took a swig of his drink. "But you know I'll always love you best and think you are a beautiful sexy girl," he said.
"Now we can Duck hunt together, Weetzie said, taking his hand" (p. 9).
Dirk falls in love with Duck Drake, a blond-haired blue-eyed surfer, and Weetzie meets My Secret Agent Lover Man, the man she has been longing for. They all live together, visited by a host of acquaintances: the Rastifarian Valentine Jah-Love, his Chinese wife Ping Chong, their son Raphael, and Coyote, a Native American shaman. My Secret Agent Lover Man makes movies, enlisting these new friends as extras and they all become successful.
These diverse cultures are mirrored in their parties, where they eat "Weetzie's Vegetable Love-Rice, My Secret Agent Lover Man's guacamole, Dirk's homemade pizza, Duck's fig and berry salad and Surfer Surprise Protein Punch, Brandy-Lyn's pink macaroni, Coyote's cornmeal cakes, Ping's mushu plum crepes and Valentine's Jamaican plantain pie" ( Witch Baby , p. 5 ). These gatherings, like the community itself, mix these different cultural ingredients into a excitingly spicy blend of fun and friendship.
However, this feast of personalities is not enough for Weetzie; she wants a baby. "The world's a mess," My Secret Agent Lover Man says, "And there's no way I feel okay about bringing a baby into it" ( Weetzie Bat , p. 48 ). But Weetzie is determined and gets pregnant by sleeping with Dirk, Duck, and My Secret Agent Lover Man. She had thought that once she was pregnant, mere love would change her husband's mind. She is wrong. My Secret Agent Lover Man, hurt and angry, leaves. When he finally returns nine months later, Weetzie has suffered from his absence, but is joyous at his return. All seems resolved. The baby that has brought them together is lovely; and oddly enough, she seems to have physical characteristics of all her fathers. They name her Cherokee.
Then another more troublesome addition arrives: Witch Baby, alias Lily. Fathered by My Secret Agent Lover Man while he was away, the infant is left on their doorstep by her witch mother, Vixanne Wigg. My Secret Agent Lover Man wants to return the baby to Vixanne, but Weetzie replies, "If you can accept Cherokee as yours without being sure, then I can accept Lily, even though I know she's not mine; I can accept her because you are her daddy-o" ( Weetzie Bat , pp. 62-63 ). Again Weetzie proposes unquestioning acceptance, but others in the group are not so sure. "I hope she is not a voodoo queen already," Dirk says. "I hope she is not going to hex me if I don't give her her favorite kind of Gerbers," Duck adds ( Weetzie Bat , p. 63 ).
Soon after Witch Baby's arrival, two other upheavals threaten the family. Duck, distraught with fear because a former friend is sick with AIDS, runs away, and Weetzie, saddened by her father's suicide, crumbles. However, in the end, love prevails. Dirk persuades Duck to return home, and My Secret Agent Lover Man nurses Weetzie back to her former cheerful self: "love and disease are both like electricity, Weetzie thought. They are always there.... We can choose to plug into the love current instead. I don't know about happily ever after..., but I know about happily" ( Weetzie Bat , p. 88 ).
Weetzie Bat (1989) is a novel that's "mostly wild and sometimes woozy, but it's full of life and the author cares for her characters. So will many readers.... Some readers may be offended by Dirk's homosexuality and by offhand references to different kinds of passion, but the book is funny and reads beautifully aloud.... Weetzie Bat probably isn't like anything else you're going to read this year, but you owe it to yourself to try a few pages" ( Nilsen and Donelson, 1990, p. 78 ). These reviewers are talking to English teachers and scholars, readers of the English Journal . We have underlined the "buts," and that's the way most public school teachers feel about these novels.
" Francesca Lia Block's books are wonderful to read, but I wouldn't teach them in high school," declared Brad when we first started discussing these novels, and Suzanne agreed. So did most of her college students, who read the novels in a first-year class, and a few of Brad's former middle school students who read the novels during the summer, outside of school. Almost all of our students felt that the struggles of a gay couple or of teens with drug addiction or easy sex were realistic, describing experiences readily available even to younger teens. But many of our students also felt that these novels were not appropriate for in-school reading. While the issues of homosexuality, interracial dating, and sex outside of marriage are common in the movies, novels, and TV shows they watch outside of class, they shied away from addressing these volatile subjects in school, especially in printed texts, which seemed to lend them some moral authority: "like when you sign a contract to make [a promise] real, when you read a book you make your own realities because you use your own imagination." Dealing with "real" issues in high school seems dangerous to about half our students, and attractive to the other half: "You shouldn't teach these books to students below the eleventh or twelfth grade because they wouldn't be mature enough to accept the topics discussed," vs. "Why didn't you give me these books in the eighth grade? They deal with real life issues I need to know about."
Easy sex, reckless experimentation with drugs and alcohol, automatic and unquestioning acceptance of ethnic and social differences: in its opening chapters, the book seems to encourage the kind of indulgent lifestyles so attractive to teenagers anyway. The style mirrors MTV -- technically impressive; superficially glitzy, sensual and attractive; portraying the exciting side of sex and experimentation. Yet soon, Weetzie and her friends find that "Love is a dangerous angel" (p. 14), and as the novel continues, they experience the deep pain of separation from loved ones and the fear of that loss.
Because of its facile tone, the book also seems to fulfill its characters' dreams through magical chance more than through personal effort. Weetzie wants a boyfriend for her, a lover for Duck, and a place to live; she rubs an old lantern and presto! a genie literally appears, and soon she has them all. Her ingenuous optimism is familiar to teachers of young adolescents who feel that most of the problems in the world could be solved if people would "just be happy"..."just do it!" At the end of the first of these novels, Weetzie's ethic seems like this simplistic happy-face kind of love. Like most of us, she would rather ignore the reality of painful effort, hiding her fears under smiles. She fails to remember that love came to her and Dirk only after long lonely waiting, and that the house was left to her and Dirk because they generously befriended an older relative.
Perhaps this simplistic faith in luck is analogous to our early efforts at multi-cultural teaching. Many of us use books and stories about other cultures to introduce our students to "politically correct" attitudes, assuming (or perhaps just hoping) that exposure to different cultures will breed tolerance and acceptance. One of Suzanne's students admitted, "Yeah, we all say the right words in class and we're nice and everything, but socially we don't hang around with "them" because then we might be considered, you know, ...people would think we were...." In the same class were two international students who had written briefly but poignantly about their desperate loneliness. Tolerating and"being nice" is obviously not enough, yet we are reluctant to discuss the changes we would have to make in our personal lives to form genuine friendships with people who are culturally different.
In her second novel, Witch Baby , Block addresses Weetzie's facile solution: tolerance of everything. By now, the irritable, irritating baby has grown into an adolescent who is jealous of Cherokee's and Weetzie's cheerful nature. Witch Baby insists on covering her walls with newspaper stories about the tragedies of the world, stories of poverty and suffering. Like My Secret Agent Lover Man, she feels that she wants "something strong." She avoids the parties and the easy starlit loving of the people that surround her, insisting on her anger and her sorrow, though she also yearns for their acceptance and love. She recognizes herself as an outsider, a disrupting force to their easy happiness. But when she runs away to find her mother, Vixanne Wigg, she finds that escaping pain is not an answer. Vixanne and her other witch friends live in a creepy mansion where they watch Jayne Mansfield movies and eat candy, lulling themselves and Witch Baby into apathetic anomie. Dissatisfied with this mere half-life, Witch Baby renews her search for a home: "Where do I belong?" she asks. "At home in the globe" (Witch Witch Baby , p. 17), says the man who sells her the globe-shaped lamp which she furtively gives to My Secret Agent Lover Man, who mistakenly attributes this thoughtful gift to Weetzie. And Weetzie, distracted by his new hope and cheerfulness, never gets around to telling him otherwise.
When Duck decides to confront his parents with the truth about his sexual preference, Witch Baby accompanies him. She can and does express anger when Duck's mother refuses to accept his message. She sees the mother's selfish motives and forces her to probe into the truth about herself. When Witch Baby returns from her odyssey to help Duck and to discover her true identity, Weetzie has taken the time to reflect on Witch Baby's nature and her own response to it. Like Weetzie, whose "hair is really dark, you know, beneath all this bleach," Witch Baby is a black lamb,
Weetzie recognizes that she "gets so caught up in being good and sweet and taking care of everyone that sometimes I don't admit when people are really in pain" (p. 108). In this book Weetzie and her friends realize that love and concern entail active attention to the problems caused by a non-inclusive society.
Block's books, like other utopian visions of mutual friendship among individuals with diverse backgrounds and values, illustrate the kind of acceptance of differences that we foresee in our schools:
Maxine Greene's vision sounds good to most of us who have been raised to believe in our country's democratic principles and in teaching as a benevolent profession. She is articulating a goal of "multicultural education," a generic term that includes global awareness, cultural plurality, and democratic education. These concepts embrace the need for understanding and respecting cultural differences in an effort to build a world where all people interact harmoniously while enjoying the freedom to maintain their cultural uniqueness( Banks, 1986 ; Garcia, 1982 ; Tiedt, 1990 ).
But how do we create such an environment? Like Weetzie and her multicultural family in Witch Baby , we realize that it is no longer enough to mouth polite wishes for toleration and universal love. Like Witch Baby, we must face the deeper issues of multicultural ethics, doing more than introducing our students to the various foods, costumes, music, and dialects of other cultures. If we believe in the principles of multicultural community, we must acknowledge the worth of people with different values, even when they threaten our traditional habits of thinking and living. But how?
When Suzanne introduced these books to first-year college students, they voiced strong reactions against the discomfort that these issues caused. Several students described their impatience with the efforts of their high schools "to shove multiculturalism down our throats.... I mean, what about `our' [mainstream middle-class] culture?" Perhaps their reaction confirms the need for assigning books like these where the connection among multicultural lifestyles is made real and possible in print, and where the painful questions raised by meeting different lifestyles are given authority by their inclusion in school discussions. After all, one source of learning is cognitive dissonance, an uncomfortable recognition that what we believe to be true no longer fits our definition of truth. If we are serious about participating in a democratic society, perhaps we must undertake the responsibility of acting as ethical guides, encouraging our students not only to tolerate but to welcome and assist people of different cultures to participate equally in the life of the classroom.
Does this mean that we should sanction every uniqueness, encouraging everyone to "do his or her own thing?" In the third novel of this series, Cherokee and the Goat Guys (1992) , Block describes what happens when individuals focus on self-fulfillment, ignoring the needs of others. Cherokee and her friends Raphael, Angel Juan, and Witch Baby are at that stage in adolescence when they yearn to test and taste the power of their newly acquired selves. Witch Baby at first meets this urge by burrowing into the mud like "a seed in the slippery, silent, blind, breathless dark..., a secret green dream deep inside" (p. 11). Worried about her stepsister's retreat from life, Cherokee seeks help from Coyote, the adult in charge while the rest of the family is away shooting a movie. Sensing the depth of Cherokee's concern, he helps her fashion a pair of wings for Witch Baby, which raise her from the mud. Then the four friends decide to pool their talents and form a band, The Goat Guys. They work together in wonderful harmony until, venturing into the nightclub scene, they freeze, unable to cope with the tawdry worldliness of the public. Because Cherokee has urged them to perform, she feels responsible for their failure. With the help of Coyote's magic, she obtains a costume for each member: haunches for Raphael, horns for Angel Baby, hooves for herself, and the wings for Witch Baby. These talismans exaggerate the qualities that each member of this rock and roll quartet brings from his or her cultural background, intensifying their individual differences in similar fashion to the costumes or social masks many adolescents use to help define their separate identities. But focusing on their differences engenders self-centered pride and even jealousy which begin to drive these adolescents apart. They begin to think more about immediate self-gratification than the future of their mutual friendship. Only when Coyote resumes his responsibility for guiding his young charges toward spiritual community does this group of four resume their healing circle of mutual appreciation and support.
This novel illustrates the inevitable constraints of a democratic society on individual development, where the actions "of the people" must be balanced by a concern "for the people." This tension forms the crux of the multi-cultural debate. While tolerating and even celebrating individual differences, we as teachers might remember that our responsibility is to encourage mutual care and cooperation.
Yet we are also concerned that individuals are allowed the freedom to develop and practice their unique identities even while sharing in a community of mutual concern. The fourth novel in the series, Missing Angel Juan (1993), describes Witch Baby's realization that she must develop her own gifts to become whole rather than depend on her friend Angel Juan or any other soul for sustenance. Lonely for her beloved Angel Juan who has gone off to New York to find himself as a musician, Witch Baby convinces Weetzie Bat to let her stay in Charlie Bat's old apartment. There she meets his spirit, a Chaplines que ghost who guides her through the streets and smells of the city and helps her learn not only to be herself but to like and respect herself. As she admits her own strengths, redefining her identity as an agent for change rather than victim of circumstance, Witch Baby recognizes the need for Angel Juan to be free to define an identity of his own to love and respect. With a new confidence that their friendship is more than her dependent need for his presence, she lets him start his own journey.
As teachers we can help our students recognize that balance between genuine friendship and dependence, between embracing new people and ideas and allowing them and ourselves freedom to define and express individual identities.
We hesitate to hand these and similar books to our younger adolescents who might see only the facile glitzy surface, the excitement of tasting different adventures, and the glamor of knowing colorful unusual individuals without recognizing the complexity of that kind of lifestyle. Already our students are exposed to the language and the images of easy sex and drugs, attractively packaged with only glibly worded tags warning them of the risks. The media our students watch is immediate and flashy; they can comprehend the excitement and the intensity viscerally, from the rhythm and the beat. But grief and pain, illness and death take time to convey.
Block's language enchants her audience in the same way, capturing the flashy rhythms and the glamorous speed of teenage TV. But with this major difference: she also portrays the consequences, capturing the loneliness, the fear, and they earning of young people who live in a fast-paced world of fascinating ventures. She moves her readers beyond the easy thrills and the superficial excitement toward reflections about the complex nature of love and friendship. For the young adults in our charge who already know the dangers of easy superficial love, we might introduce Block's books as a metaphoric manual for the kind of living where so many choices are available. We might use her books to elucidate the complexities of living in a world where the multi-cultural ethic dominates. Perhaps it is because our younger students might miss Block's message that we should teach these and similar books.
If we intend to create the kind of community Maxine Greene describes, we must grapple with the difficult issues of living "multiculturally," not only appreciating each others' foods and music and fun, but also listening to each others' stories, hearing the troubles and pain along with the strength and celebration. Hearing these stories, we begin to conceive of friendships where no one is dominant because of their cultural background, where members of a community offer each other both the support and freedom to develop individual identities which can work and play in harmony.