Friday, January 16, 2015

Breaking out of Bubbles by Jody Casella

I live in a place jokingly referred to by some residents as "The Bubble."

Seven years ago my family moved to this sweet little suburb, a town we chose because it has stellar schools and lovely parks and an awesome library system. The first time I set eyes on the place, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.

I'd been living in a suburban-sprawled, nightmarish commuting city for ten years and basically spent three hours a day driving my weary kids around in our minivan. I was also tired of fighting a losing battle on a school board where the majority of dingdongs thought schools didn't need librarians, so when my husband's job was transferred and I discovered this gem of a place only fifteen miles from his new office, we pounced on it.

People who live here have lived here for generations. The elementary school kids still walk home for lunch. Our neighborhood has block parties. The high school marching band practices marching by marching down our street. There is no traffic. I've gone weeks without driving my car. I can walk ten minutes and depending on which direction I go, I can arrive at a French bakery, a bookstore, a coffee shop, a Whole Foods, a library, a park, or a wine bistro.

It's a nice bubble. It has everything you could possibly want. Everyone here is just like you.

If You are upper middle class. And white.

People joke about the bubbly aspect but sometimes it doesn't feel funny to me.

I know what it's like to be outside a bubble. I grew up poor-ish. My mom was a single parent for a brief time and then she remarried. I was the only person I knew who had a stepfather.

Books were a way out of that bubble. And a way to peek inside other bubbles.

What's it like to live in a little house on the prairie? What's it like to be a Jewish girl at the turn of the last century? What's it like to spend the night in the Metropolitan Museum of Art? What's it like to be a kid in a happy, safe, and stable family?

I was a lower middle class student at an upper middle class private high school. A Northerner at a Southern college, where I majored in English and read lots of books and wondered:

What's it like to be a white man? What's it like to be an African American woman?  What's it like to live in Dublin? Denmark? Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi?

When I was twenty-three, I did a semester of student-teaching at a high performing magnet school in Memphis, Tennessee. My AP English students were reading about the Civil War and I was talking about slavery and it suddenly struck me that I was saying "we," and we meant a white we. There was one African American student in the class and I kept looking over at the girl and stumbling over how to phrase things and wondering how she felt and hating if I was making her feel uncomfortable.

Later I asked my mentor teacher how I could've handled the lesson better, and she said: "Oh! Don't worry about it. She's used to it."

I guess she meant that the girl was used to being in the minority? Used to being different in that particular bubble?

I will never know because I didn't ask the teacher to clarify, and no one in that classroom ever discussed race and all of the stories the students were reading that semester were stories written by dead white men with a sprinkling of dead white women thrown in to brighten things up.

The next year I was teaching in a racially integrated school, and when I taught the same lesson, I worried all over again. I wanted to be inclusive but I wasn't sure how to go about it. I didn't want anyone in my class to feel uncomfortable. To feel left out of the bubble.

I don't know if I succeeded. We read the same Dead White guy books for the most part--those were all pre-decided by the veteran teachers at the school and by the county curriculum. I tried to spend more time on the Harlem Renaissance poetry unit. Langston Hughes and Countee Culleen and Zora Neale Hurston. I assigned free choice reading and handed out a list with books by Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison.

We read A Raisin in the Sun out loud together and the kids acted out scenes, and I burst into tears when one quiet girl played the mother character and disappeared into the role, shaking her fist and raging, and another boy in the class transformed himself into the son character, asking in a trembling voice:

Somebody tell me – tell me, who decides which women is suppose to wear pearls in this world. I tell you I am a man – and I think my wife should wear some pearls in this world!

It's easy to live in a bubble. Race. Class. Gender. Sexual orientation. Sticking to your own group and seeing others as... Other.

Sometimes books are the only way out, to break down barriers, to walk around in other people's shoes.

What's it like to kiss a girl?


What's it like to kiss a boy?


What's it like to be poor and live in Nebraska and love a boy named Park?


What's it like to be a brown girl dreaming?


It's important--essential, really-- for us to see ourselves in stories. Our faces on book covers. Our lives told on the pages.

But it's just as important, if not equally essential, for us to see others--other faces, other lives. Especially when we live in a bubble.

Especially when we don't even know we live inside one. And we're floating along, unaware, that an entire world is being lived on the other side of the filmy surface.










2 comments:

  1. Ahh, well said, Jody! Great post. I love how you described what happened when your students read Raisin in the Sun out loud.

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  2. As Jen mentioned, this is so well said. Thank you for sharing.

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