I finally realized it had to do with the microwave. It took almost ten minutes of awkward phrases and uncomfortable squinting and confused pursing of lips, but I finally got it. “Mi’ja no has rotten lunch. You have wrong words at her.”
Prompted by a guilt I wasn’t sure I deserved, a lump filled my throat. I felt my chest prickle and redden.
Trapped between walls of condescension, I resisted the urge to defend myself against this mother’s fury. Hands on hips, then crossed over her chest, the angry mother glared up at me in defense of her daughter’s lunch. I didn’t have the words to explain the misunderstanding, and the fluent Spanish-speaking teacher wouldn’t be back to the Deans’ office for 45 minutes. My obvious discomfort equaled guilt in everyone’s eyes. I looked over at another teacher who just raised her eyebrows and looked away, relieved it was my turn.
Don’t put your hands on your hips, I hissed silently to myself. Don’t roll your eyes. Don’t laugh it off. I had learned a few things in the years spent as a teacher in the NYC high schools. Rule #1: Don’t minimize anything; let people vent. And so I did.
Unable to resist, I explained, in half-formed sentences, that when I had wrinkled my nose and waved my hand in front of my face – it wasn’t about the smell of the roll. It was that the store-bought bun, wrapped in wax paper and folded into a brown bag, was crisping and toasting. It was an attempt to explain to a teenaged girl with special needs and a delicate ego that her lunch was burning in the microwave.
I should have followed Rule #1. My explanation didn’t matter. No amount of desperate, fumbling, self-deprecating apologies could explain away the girl’s hurt that had grown and twisted itself into a mother’s self-righteous anger over the last week. It didn’t matter that it had sprung from a misunderstanding. It didn’t matter that I had become nothing more than “that white lady” to this family. Some truths take time to emerge, and some never do.
I made a choice out of privilege that day, and it feels dirty to admit it. That mother needed to defend her daughter against me, and I should have just let her rail against an imagined slight. And then I should have apologized. Sometimes privilege means swallowing your pride.
This was just one time that working with scores of different nationalities and cultures and classes and languages and abilities put a notch in my ego. It was just one time that I learned that sometimes a shut mouth is the most effective form of communication – the best way to help. The best way to be a teacher. It was just one time that taught me that humility is truly a precious and awesome trait to nurture.
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