Last Thursday, I gave a series of talks to Claire Yannacones 8th grade students at Riverhead Middle School on Long Island, NY. It was really fun, inspirational, and depressing at the same time.
The fun part was just seeing the kinds of things that students are interested in and getting a glimpse into their worlds. Claire says that 7th and 8th grades are the most difficult because you don't know who you are or what you are going to become. In other words, you lack focus and thus are so easily swayed by bad influences at school (gangs and such) or at home (with neglectful or abusive family members). Yet they are full of so much energy and are at this stage of deep internal searching that is fascinating to be around. They were interested about animals. I had talked about how bipedal locamotion, stereoscopic color vision, opposible thumbs, larynyx that producese vowels, etc. were uniquely human traits. So they asked why cats can move so fast. They were interested in Ethiopia. I wrote out people's names in Amharic. They were interested in the research I had done on male grooming. They kept wondering how we got video tape of people in showers.
It was inspirational to be an inspiration. I had spoken to Claire's 7th grade class last year and she said that it worked. Meaning, a bunch of them said to her that they were now thinking about college when they had not before. The whole role model thing I find fascinating because it is both deep and the superficial.
I'm a role model because I am a young African-American woman, who came out of a quasi-working class background to make good through higher education. The superficial part is that I can better reach African-American students in terms of modeling a path towards "success" because of my gender and color of my skin. The deep part is that this "works" because of the assumed black experiences that I've had concerning racism and low expectations.
I had an interesting conversation with Frank Romagosa about that on Friday. From very early on, it was always assumed that I was going to be "successful." So I never had that much experience with low expectations at home or in school. I encountered racism, but only in the form of not being "black enough" or being "so articulate" because of my scholastic achievements. Everyone was supportive of the "fact" that I was meant to be part of what was considered the "white" world of success and prepared me for it from learning how to walk (finishing school with my sister Tasha from age 5-7 where our Mom worked) and talk (Mr. Selvy grade 8), to making sure I went to museums and the theater (all my Aunts and Uncles, and Grandparents) for living in that world.
But again it was depressing to see how uninterested in learning and education kids are. I loved learning so it is always a shock when I meet kids who are indifferent to their educations. So Claire and I focused on two key messages:
- Don't think that just because you don't find school interesting now, that it will always be boring. I addressed how Anthropology is not a topic even offered in high school. You may have to wait to you get to college to find a subject that you can fall passionately in love with. But if you don't make it through middle school and high school, you may not ever discover it.
- The value of education is to have something to share with people that they may not think they need or want. This is where I talked about the fact that because I am this little black women, people often will at first dismiss me. Then, I will get up and say or will be introduced as, "Dr. Elizabeth Tunstall" and all of the sudden people have to rethink what they thought about me. They perk up with interest in what expertise I have to share with them because I have "Dr." in my title. Who am I? What do I know? Suddenly, knowing and figuring me out on my terms because of value to them. And this is what you want in life, for people to know and learn about you on your terms, to be able to define yourself.
I had not realized how important that last part was about the value of my education. People learn to value me because I have something to share with them that they may need or want. They have to value my knowledge if not me, myself.
Actually, as I write this, I sometimes think that people value my knowledge more than they value me as a person. I cannot count how many times people have taken an idea or concept of mine and said, "thanks now, we no longer need your services." Of course in the end, I am always validated, but it does make me wonder if there is some latent racism or sexism that makes it so easy for people to disassociate the knowledge I possess from me the person. To want what I know (information) but not the full person that comes with that knowledge.