Each One Unique

Uzbek and American students
American and Uzbekistani students with their teachers at McCutcheon: November 1, 2001.

Throwback Thursday, I guess. This post is about an event that occurred in 2001 when exchange students from Uzbekistan visited my high school. I recently found this story on an old CD of Word files, and the pictures, in a box full of those I’d removed from the bulletin board when I left the classroom. I’d forgotten this story about Jason (His name has been changed), but reading it again evoked the same response I had in 2001. 

The events of 9/11 were fresh in everyone’s mind. My senior English students, mostly boys, discussed the subject whenever they could turn instruction that way.

The trouble was, only a few had had a geography course. Some had taken world history, but they couldn’t keep the stan countries straight. Who was on whose side?  What did Israel and Palestine have to do with Osama bin Laden? Was this or wasn’t this a war about religion?  My students were confused, and sometimes so was I. What disturbed me most, however, was that they were beginning to think in stereotypes.  Everyone from the Middle East and Central Asia was a mystery to them, and they lumped everyone together.

I learned that a delegation of students from Uzbekistan, traveling with their principal and teacher of English, would be visiting the nearby city high school for three weeks. I thought that a face-to-face encounter with students from that part of the world would help  students at my high school understand the rapidly unfolding world events. I hoped, too, that meeting the students from Uzbekistan would help the American students I knew to see people from other countries as individuals. Eagerly, I arranged for the group to visit my school for one day.

There were seven Uzbek students, so a fellow teacher and I chose seven American students to guide them from class to class.  They’d tour the school in the morning, visit social studies and English classes all day, eat lunch in the cafeteria, and attend a reception in the library after school.

My seniors would meet the Uzbeks in their government classes. They were excited—but they definitely had preconceived ideas, and I was dismayed by some of them. Jason, a burly giant who rarely restrained his actions or his mouth, told me flat out: “They won’t speak English, you know.  And the girls will all wear burqas.”  I tried to explain that I had met these students already.  They all spoke English very well, and none of these particular girls even wore head scarves. But Jason wouldn’t listen. He knew everything there was to know.

A traditional hat from Uzbekistan
A traditional hat from Uzbekistan

I wondered if I was making a mistake.

The morning came—November 1—and our guests arrived, dropped off by their host families. Suddenly shy, the students didn’t want to split up. We rearranged the schedule right there in the lobby. Then Zafar was late. Could he be in a traffic snarl?  That seemed impossible here in central Indiana. Lost?  Everyone knows where our high school is located. Forty-five minutes went by. My principal called the other high school.  Zafar was in class.  He’d forgotten—which made him no different than any other teenage boy.  His American “sister” was excused from class to bring him across town to us.

The Uzbeks said little in the beginning, and our guide students were quiet, too.  We had enlisted our two Russian-speaking exchange students—from Bulgaria and Georgia—to accompany us on the tour and help us over any language barriers that did emerge.  My colleague led the way, pointing out the library, Internet labs, auditorium and stage, the gym facilities. Were the Uzbeks listening? They seemed to be hanging on what Veronika and Nodar were saying in Russian, and we weren’t sure it was just what the teacher was telling them in English.

Uzbek students in my classroom
Students from Uzbekistan attend my 9th grade class.

Two Uzbek girls and Dimitryi, a tennis player with Olympic aspirations, visited one of my 9th grade classes. The girls were shy, but we eventually drew them out. One was a model. One could speak five languages. Dimitryi practiced tennis for four hours after school. School in Uzbekistan is dismissed at 1:30, so they eat lunch at home.  They explained the symbolism of  the Uzbek flag. Uzbekistan, Dimitryi told us, had designed its flag just a decade before when it became one of the Newly Independent States of the former Soviet Union.

Seventh hour, Jason and the boys came into senior English bearing tales. Someone in one of his classes had been rude to a couple of the Uzbek girls, he said, questioning them pointedly about life “over there” and “in that place.”  I had a sinking feeling I knew who that someone was.

But the hour had epiphanies, too. Kyle said, “You know, Tashkent is a modern city. TV makes us think all those places are just deserts where everyone rides camels.”

And Rick, already enlisted in the Air Force, had seen the West Wing special that likened Muslim extremists to the KKK. We were talking about Israel and Palestine and connecting the conflict there to the apparent motives of the Al Queda. He had met several of the Uzbek students and realized that Uzbekistan was an ally of the United States. Suddenly he stood up and thrust a fist into the air. “I get it!” he burst out. “It’s all coming together!” Abruptly, he sat back down. “I learned something today,” he said with satisfaction.

Ludmila, the lead teacher, presents State Representative Sheila Klinker with a shawl from Uzbekistan.
Ludmila, the lead teacher, presents State Representative Sheila Klinker with a scarf from Uzbekistan.

I felt good, too, and the reception after school was a perfect ending. My 9th graders had assembled gift bags for our guests, decorated the library tables, and baked enough cookies to feed the whole town. Our Superintendent attended the event and so did our State Representative. Formal expressions of friendship and understanding were exchanged, and gifts were given. The icing on the cake was literally that. Our cook had prepared a sheet cake and iced it to look like the flag of Uzbekistan. Our guests were awed; they stood on chairs and photographed the cake from above before we served it to the crowd.

When the host families arrived to pick up their Uzbek teenagers, we found that several of them had left the party to attend play rehearsal in the auditorium. The next day I learned what other unscripted events had occurred. Apparently our visitors had been listening during the tour. Dimitryi had found the gymnasium. He had challenged one of the physical education teachers to a pickle ball match—and won. Several of the students had made a beeline for the Internet lab and sent messages to their friends in Uzbekistan. One had found the guidance office and gathered information on American colleges. None of them—Uzbeks or their American guides—had attended classes during the three 5th hour lunch periods.  They’d all stayed in the cafeteria to socialize. The lunch hour, one of the American students told me, was the Uzbeks’ favorite “class.”  Of course. They had never experienced the noon time social life of American students!  I had to laugh at their typical teenage behavior.  We hadn’t been able to “program” them because they were, after all, individuals.  They had their own impulses, interests, and charms—each one unique.

Obviously, the visit had been a success, but when Jason came to class the next day, I knew beyond a doubt that it had been not only a good thing, but the right thing.

“I wish I could apologize to those girls,” he said. “That was me that was rude to them.” He paused for a minute to reflect.  Then he said, without a trace of irony, “You know, they turned out to be just like us.”

That was a generalization we could live with.

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