Sunday, September 22, 2013

Although I am a teacher,I am the one who is learning from my students

My class of college freshmen and sophomores are extremely diverse.  My students' ages range between 17 to mid 50's.  Some of them have only been in America for two years, others claim Cherokee and Taino  heritage.  A few can barely read English, but they know how to solve an algebraic equation with two unknown quantities. One young man, who was persecuted for his Ba Hai faith in Iran, told me of his harrowing escape through mountain passes during many dangerous nights, while another told me how she and her family were threatened by the Tonton Moucoutes in Haiti. Despite their disparate backgrounds and lack of the cultural and educational opportunities people who belong to the upper middle class take for granted, they have insights many of the privileged do not have.  One girl broke down in class when she analyzed the poem "The Black Snake" by Mary Oliver because the poet compares the snake to "a beautiful dead brother" and her brother had just died.  Another boy analyzed "Dulce et Decorum Est" by Wilfred Owen  because he had returned from Afghanistan and saw the horrors of war.  Now he will be redeployed to that forsaken land the day before his wife is due to give birth to his first child.

Despite their lack of knowledge of English grammar and vocabulary they have an immense hunger to learn.  They are amazed that "gh" in the word "enough" and "ph" in the word "physician" and "f" in the word "farm" all have the same sound.  Why does " a part of" mean "belong" when the words are written separately, but "apart" when written as one word means "separate?  The word  which completely confuses them is "sanction" since it has 2 completely opposite meanings.  If one plays in a sanctioned tournament, the match is approved by a  board, and one acquires a ranking.  If the United States applies sanctions to another country, we do not approve of that country's actions.

I was born in a very homogeneous town, went to colleges whose student bodies also were very homogeneous in the Northeast, and lived in a community where everyone was my race and religion. To read about other cultures or see them portrayed in movies or on television is not the same as interacting with people of different races in a very intimate setting..  Until I began to teach in Florida, I was not aware of the myriad linguistic, cultural, racial, and religious difficulties that our diverse populations confront every day. These problems are major obstacles to getting an education, a job, even an apartment. 

The most wonderful moment, however, happened this week.  I did not teach my class last Saturday because it was the holiest day in my religion, and a professor who is not Jewish covered for me.  On Tuesday, a concerned Haitian student inquired why I did not come to class.
"Were you sick?" she asked.
  I told her I did not come because it was the most sacred holiday in my religion. 
 "You're Jewish?" she exclaimed.. 
 I nodded, and she gave me a big hug and yelled out to the rest of the class, "Hey, everybody wish Professor Didner  La Shanah Tovah." 
"How did you know how to say "Happy New Year" in Hebrew?" I asked her in astonishment.
"I work for Jewish people" she  replied. "Boy, Jews have great food on their holidays."
I told her that my definition of a Jew is someone who feeds you before you sit down to eat, and the entire class roared with laughter.
"Is that why you always bring us Dunkin Donuts if we answer a hard question?" someone asked.  (I always ask a difficult question at least once a month and bring the donuts if someone finds the answer).
"No, I bring you donuts, blueberries, grapes, and strawberries because I want you  to know that learning is sweet," I smiled.
The class applauded in appreciation, and then we settled down to analyzing Langston Hughes poem "A Dream Deferred."  

I hope their dreams will not be deferred.

By the way, my book The Conspiracies of Dreams will be featured on the web site  It is available until December 31 at the discounted price of $2.99.  Also, look at the other books featured on this site.  They all are good reads.