Monday, November 15, 2010

Crossing the threshold

There's a 1/4 inch gap in the floor between the cork and marmoleum, exposing concrete slab and creating a border between the bathroom and the office.  Our contractor says we need a threshold - a strip of wood or metal - a physical marker placed on the floor designating two spaces as unique and different.  It is in this moment that I understand for the first-time what a threshold actually is and what it therefore means to "cross a threshold." 

At every threshold, there exists something tangible and visible, telling me that I am indeed moving into new territory, perhaps for the first time or for a return visit.  Each territory has landmarks and purpose, like my kitchen, with the stainless steel box in the corner slowing the process of decay.  The refrigerator signifies where I am and what I am here to do - cook, eat or browse the selection of foods.  Or perhaps, by crossing the threshold, I may ecounter someone new.  Feelings are evoked - fear of the unknown, discomfort, negative emotions  - mingled with excitement and a sense of possibility.

Each day, I easily cross a 100 thresholds.  Effortlessly, at times.  Unknowingly, most of the time.  But at some times, the presence of a threshold screams to my conscious attention, warning me of the what I am about to encounter.  Flashback to the age of seven, I crossed the threshold into my own home with trepidation, staring down the long, cold tile path through the kitchen.  At the end of my view, my mother sat amidst work in the dining room with afternoon sun angling in, illuminating part of her face and casting shadows over the rest.  I paused before entering; with a hand in my pocket, I felt for the edge of the note, feeling the paper press sharply into my fingertips.  At that tender age, I knew I had committed the cardinal sin of not doing my homework and knew that I had to get her signature on that note.

Fast forward to 1998, I stand quietly before another entrance, the threshold into a high school classroom.  I take several deep breaths.  I am unaware of whether there is a physical piece of wood or metal on the floor to mark the border, but I am acutely aware that I am on the outside about to step into a place foreign to me - a public school classroom in the United States.  Despite eighteen years of formal education, I am a stranger to publicly funded education.  For this reason of my privileged upbringing, I am here, hoping to be a teacher in this new place, somehow intending to redistribute my privilege.  And for the reason of its unfamiliarity, I am scared about where I am about to step foot.  Who are these black and brown youth in their third year of high school in New York City?  Will they accept me?  Will they learn from me?  Can I make a home in this foreign land?

I pretended to be in control.  I used phrases like, "If you give respect, you get respect."  I searched for authority in my own voice.  Determination masked the trembles and other hints of my fragile confidence.  If someone had barked, I would have surely jumped.  But I got through the first days.  I calmed down enough to see my students. 

Who are they?  For some of them, the journey to that classroom spans a much longer distance than my own.  The fabric of those journeys are woven with spiritual, emotional, cultural, and political complications.  Angelica spent five years in Honduras with an alcoholic father while her mother was trying to establish herself in the United States.  She shrugs it off, smiles, and tells me, "Mr. Young Whan, it doesn't bother me."  Kika is a light-skinned Dominican girl with reddish-brown hair, creating a wide frame for the narrow features of her face.  Her subway ride to school is a welcome escape from an abusive father, but she struggles in school to memorize the names and dates for her U.S. history exams.

It dawns on me that each of them is crossing a threshold by coming to school, and I may, in fact, be the one most comfortable with school culture.  I'm the one who did well in school.  I'm the one whose ego felt good as teachers gave me praise.  I'm the one now who is writing the tests that they need to study for.  So even as I face my fear at the threshold each morning, I know that they too are afraid.  It becomes increasingly clear that it is my responsibility to make this classroom into a place they can cross into without fear.

Thresholds aren't just a warning sign, indicating that you are entering into another space.  They have yet another purpose.  While delineating the distinct border between two spaces, a threshold can also unify those spaces.  When our remodel project is done, instead of the gap that presently exists in the floor of our office, there will be a bridge connecting the distance.  In choosing the threshold, we have to decide on the color and material that will best reference the style, or culture if you will, of the two spaces.

So, for the first time, I am contemplating buying a threshold, but as a teacher I have been the one in control of the threshold to my classroom for many years.  Certainly, district policies and school administrators dictate much of what we must do, but I set the tone for our space in many ways - how do we talk to one another, how we listen or not, which cultures and experiences are valid.  When I consider how scary it can be to cross a threshold into the unknown, I can remember that this is the meaning of coming to school each day for each of my students.  My first and most important task may be that they can make a home in this foreign land.

1 comment:

  1. very moving, especially that last few sentences. thank you for sharing.