Points In Between: Introduction
It’s time for a little listening comprehension quiz. I’m going to play you clips of three people speaking. Your job is to figure out what they have in common. Okay?
Here’s the first one.
“In Spain we actually went home for lunch so I never had eaten at school...”
Maybe that wasn’t enough. Let me play a little bit more from her.
“ … Salisbury steaks and mashed potatoes with gravy which I had never seen. I had also had never seen peanut butter and they would make these like big peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. All of it was completely foreign and interesting to me. And I remember being the only kid who was eating it like looking around to be like this and look around and everybody else is like sticking their nose up at it. But I loved it!”
Okay. Now, the second one.
“I didn't even know like what a water fountain was or how to use one and no one told me [sound of water fountain in background] I just kind of like hung out in the hallway when I was thirsty and try to like watch other kids and which button they pushed.”
And the third.
“One time I get off the class and needed to go to a different class in the third floor, but I was just lost and I'm looking at my schedule. They just give it to me but I can't even read it. It's not even in Arabic.”
This isn’t a short-answer quiz – it’s multiple choice. Here are your options:
Option A: All of the speakers spent part of their childhood outside the US.
Option B: All of the speakers – at some point – attended school in the US.
Option C: All of the speakers faced puzzles and had to figure out how things work.
Or Option D: All of the above.
Are you ready to check your answer? It’s D, all of the above. You just heard from Cat, who began her schooling in Spain, Selena, who started out in Bosnia, and Ra’ouf, who grew up in Yemen. They all got to know the US, and American culture, by going to school here.
Why focus on the school experience?
You know that feeling of being in a classroom on the last day of school, right before the last bell, waiting for summer break to begin? [Classroom noises, children yelling] You could be playing a game, or taking an exam, maybe cleaning out your desk – whatever. The point is, you know the feeling. You can recall that moment.
[Sound of class bell ringing]
That moment, with all of its cultural associations, is part of our shared national experience.
In the United States, in 2017, over 57 million kids experienced that moment. 57 million bodies each had the feeling of folding into a classroom chair. That’s 57 million people, give or take, navigating hallways, figuring out whether to go to the cafeteria and [sound of crowded cafeteria] – if they go – where to sit, trying to recall an answer on a test. [sound of pencil on paper]
That’s a lot of shared experiences. And I’m not even counting the 20 million people who attended American colleges that same year.
This is why schools are sites of conflict over everything from history curriculum to dress code to sex ed. The stakes are high. If you can dictate what happens in schools, in a very real sense you’re choosing which shared experiences will make up the building blocks of our cultural identity.
I spent 18 years teaching high school social studies, so daily conversations about education were a part of my life for a long time. I’m interested in those high-stakes choices. But I’m also interested in what our more subtle day-to-day school activities and interactions say about us. I think we can learn a lot by looking at ourselves through fresh eyes.
That’s why I reached out to Cat, Selena, Ra’ouf, and 20 other people who first got introduced to America through school. Those 23 individuals come from different economic backgrounds, they have different first languages, and different paths to the US. They ranged in age from 14 to just over 40, but they have one thing in common: they all attended American schools.
I wanted to know what a regular day of school was like back in their country of origin and how it felt to leave home. I asked them about their expectations before they came, and if the reality stacked up to their imagined America. They told me about their first day of school in the US and compared schools here to the ones they left behind. They talked about learning English, navigating American culture, and missing home. Finally, I asked them if – after all their shared American experiences - they feel American.
This wasn’t just about understanding these 23 individuals. School is our biggest, most formative shared institution. Newcomers see things in school that those of us born here take for granted and ask questions we don’t think to ask. They can teach us about who we are and what we value. And if you are, right now, going through this transition – if you are a newcomer whose introduction to the US is happening through school – I hope you find it interesting to compare your own experiences to the ones offered here.
I owe my 23 interviewees a tremendous debt of gratitude for sharing their thoughtful – and often very personal – accounts with me. To preserve their privacy, some of them opted to use a pseudonym, rather than their real name. I tried to represent them fairly and accurately. I hope I did.
So. The next ten episodes will give you a chance to get to know the people I met and, in the process, better understand all of us - the people living here together in the US.
I hope you’ll stick with me. The show is called Points In Between.
I’m Shane Carter.