I Was Expecting Epcot
I am not an uneducated person. I had the privilege of attending one of the best elementary schools in Alabama where I was taught reading, writing, and arithmetic, as well as manners and to say yes ma’am (it’s a Southern thing). At home, my parents made us study and expanded on the knowledge we had learned in school. As I grew older, we moved, and I transferred to a good, solid public school that taught me biology, french, algebra, and all the curse words. I came from a liberal arts family, so I was lucky enough that trips to art museums, plays, and concerts were normal weekend activities. I graduated high school with an Advanced Studies diploma and went off to a private liberal arts college. I had part time jobs and worked my way through four years of cultural events, college parties, and sorority functions. I took classes in philosophy, religion, economics, calculus, photography, and LOTS of science courses. I graduated with a B.S. in Chemistry. I am, by standard American definitions, educated and well-rounded, if I do say so myself.
Other people think I’m smart too. What people you ask? All the people! When your degree is in chemistry, people just assume you're intelligent (which is a bad assumption btw). When I was in grad school studying chemistry, we would go to bars after lab. Guys would come up, introduce themselves, then ask what I did. I would respond, “I am in the graduate program for a PhD in chemistry.” They would turn and walk off, no excuses made, like “bye you’re clearly too smart for any of my game to work.” For the record, I left the program without the degree but that's a whole other tale. Now when people ask me what I do, I say, “I teach.” They inevitably ask what I teach, so then I say “Chemistry.” Every time I get the same response: "I HATED chemistry, it was so hard. You must be really smart.” Every. Time.
I will say my sister is far smarter than me. She is incredibly well read and loves history. She is someone who loves learning for the sake of learning. When I was a teenager, she would use big words like unanimous, and I would grouchily say “I don’t know big words.” I was fine with my ignorance on things that didn’t concern me. I unintentionally took my ability to be educated for granted; even worse, I saw it as a tedious burden.
A funny thing happens when you leave school and no longer have to learn. You want to learn because you miss learning. You start reading nonfiction books and watching documentaries. Shallow pointless TV is no longer good enough for your mind (but it is still pretty good for entertainment value and feeling superior to the train wrecks that are reality stars). You start to realize it is good to expand your mind, leave your ivory tower, and educate yourself about the rest of the world. I like to think that post-college I became more worldly, more aware.
I was wrong.
I have been in Senegal for almost a week. The moment I accidentally said, “I speak American” instead of saying I speak English was really the low point for my Americentric dark side. The following are a handful of the worldly facts I have acquired, and misconceptions I have identified.
Realizations made in Senegal, West Africa:
First off, not all restrooms come with toilet paper. In some countries, if you want to have toilet paper, you better bring your own. Second, Casablanca is not an island. It is in Morocco, which is not a part of Spain, and it isn’t in Europe. Third, if you do not speak the language, it is very, very hard to function in society, and I have a best friend walking next to me who does speak the language. I have been here for 5 days and feel incredibly isolated, and I have a personal trilingual tour guide.
The most disturbing misconception I realized I possessed came to me on day three while I was showering (all great ideas come in the shower). I am getting ready to go to Paris in a week. If you have paid attention to the news, union workers are rioting in Paris, specifically transportation workers. Why? Well, some unions are upset about new labor laws being passed in the French parliament. So they strike, and strikes lead to riots. This is bad for me because A) I wanted to use the metro to get around cheaply and B) I worry about safety (okay Mom and Dad worry about safety; I worry about being nagged). Anyways, as I stood showering, I thought, it won’t last. This will kill tourism, and they wouldn’t do anything to hurt tourism; their whole society is about hosting people. Then I thought a moment longer and realized I was under the impression that the only priority Europeans had was to host tourists, make wine, and create Harry Potter books. I really didn’t mean to think such snobby Americentric thoughts, but I did. FYI, I now know that France is the world’s sixth largest exporter of goods and sixth largest importer, so I gotta say they got some goods going on. The citizens of Paris have thoughts other than “Did Anna Scott have a nice stay??” The average citizen probably ignores or is annoyed by the constant stream of tourists, much like New Yorkers say they feel. For the record, I blame Hillary Duff and the Olsen twins for my misconceptions.
Today, I was shown some history I had chosen to glaze over in school. In the past, I have tended to ignore sad history because I don’t like to be sad. I don’t like to feel guilty for the sins of my Father’s Father’s Father. Disclaimer: This is not a winning strategy. This is a bad strategy. This is what leads to ignorance, which leads to hate, which is the cause of racism and bigotry. Anyway, today we went to Goree Island, a former slave port. According to our tour guide, 20 million men, women, and children were shipped from this port to the United States, Haiti, and Cuba. 6 million more died there. They had tiny rooms they filled to standing room and kept these men like cattle until they shipped. They weighed the men when they arrived, and if they were less than 60kg, they went to the nice room where they were fed extra until they were full weight so that they could be worth more. The children were put 100 to a room, where 50% would die. The women’s room was bigger, but not by much. Our tour guide said that he thought they had it the worst because they worried for themselves and their children. The young girls had a separate room; the men in charge left their wives at home, so at night they would come select a girl to have sex with. If they got pregnant, they got a house on the island to have the child in and were then free to go. When the ships arrived, the people were brought to a door. This door is now called “The Door of No Return.” Single file, they would leave Africa and their families. Men went to Louisiana, women to Cuba, and children to Haiti. President Obama visited this site a few years ago, and the tour guide said he cried at the door for five minutes. In moments and places like these, there are no words.
Disclaimer about the tour guide facts, specifically his numbers: these are likely inaccurate. After my tour, I came home and did some research. The Washington Post did an article back in 2013, immediately following President Obama’s visit, about the disputed history of the “Door of No Return.” According to The Post, historians do not believe that it is likely Goree played a significant role in the slave trade. There is not a consensus on the number of slaves that passed through this island, but it is agreed that slaves were traded at Goree. You might be wondering at this point,“Why do they not shut this fraudulent information spouting down?” Well, based on my reading, I have two possible answers. First, this is a well preserved site because it is an island. Second, it is a clear symbol of 300 years of inhuman acts, and it is a memorial. Standing in “The Door of No Return,” your heart breaks and you weep inside and out, because what happened was wrong. And in that space, you can see the horrors of slavery, so it doesn’t matter how many went through THAT door, and it doesn’t matter it was over a hundred years ago. I saw for the first time a root of slavery in America, the root of hatred that stems from that long ago sin. And I understand a little bit more.
There is this teaching exercise I have seen on Pinterest about privilege. You have all the students sit in rows and give everyone paper balls to shoot into a basket at the front of the room. Everyone has the same shot of making it in, so it's fair right? But the thing is that the people in the front have an easier shot than the others. But there's a guy on the back row destined for the NBA and he makes the shot, so it can be done, so it's all good right? Again, no, just because the guy in the back row can do it doesn’t mean he is being treated equally. Hopefully you can see the obvious analogy here. But what I really like about this exercise is that the person in the front can't see the inequality unless he turns around and looks back at his fellow classmates.
There is a Tim McGraw song, “Humble and Kind,” that I listened to every morning on the way to work before having to teach the monsters that are second semester seniors. The lyrics go, “Don’t take for granted the love this life gives you/ When you get where you’re goin/ Don’t forget turn back around/ And help the next one in line/ Always stay humble and kind.” McGraw's words are one of my mantras. I am incredibly blessed. I have been given so much love and opportunity. It is important I turn back around to see and help those next in line.
If you're in the front, you don’t need to feel guilty because that helps no one and fixes nothing. You need to turn around and look. Then, if you have made your shot, maybe duck down and help the next guy.
Feature photo by Jeff Attaway/ VIA Flickr.