Is The United States a Bad Place to Live: Questions from High Schoolers

Authored by:
Cecily M.

Cecily M.

How can I explain both the heartbreak and joy I experienced after my first week of teaching High Schoolers in the quaint but lovely town of Colmenar Viejo. Students seemed both enamored and bored by my presence in the classroom. I don't think they quite get it. "Why would I want to come here?" was the most popular question I got asked. Everything is old, high-schoolers are rowdy, there is nothing to do in Colmenar, they would say. That's not the point... Colmenar Viejo is familiar to me, a small town with nothing to do, a place where people tend to stay their whole lives in, wanting and hoping to one day leave it all behind. It is so easy to begin to hate what we know best. I felt the very same way in High School when someone came to my school from somewhere far away, more exciting maybe, why here I would ask myself? 

However, despite this familiarity that I feel towards these small-town teenagers, there is a new sense of obscurity. IES Rosa Chacel school is not like Richmond High School. From what I can see, there are no stadiums that fill up every Friday night. Boys don't walk around in football jerseys and varsity jackets. Teachers don't give special treatment to the star-athletes who bring in the gold medals. There is a sense of deeper honesty here, but also nonchalance. Teachers admit when they do not know the names of their students. They are addressed by students as "teacher" or even by their first names. There is no dress code limiting female students from expressing themselves and the overall attitude to students from teachers is "no preocupes" or "no pasa nada" (don't you worry). Although it might seem disrespectful to be in a room full of students who seem to command control over the teacher, I wonder if I would have enjoyed school more if this nonchalance existed for me...

In addition, breaks are longer and days are shorter, there is less homework and projects, and students seem far less stressed about their grades. Since my school is not bilingual, meaning English and Spanish are taught simultaneously, every student is required to take an English class every year. Although I can definitely notice a divide between the fearful English speakers and the confident English speakers, it is still heavily embodied in the curriculum. They seem to know a lot about the United States: our culture and our politics. They laugh at the idea that Americans don't know anything about them. According to some students, the typical American will group them as sharing the same culture as Mexican people and do not even bother to learn the geographical location of their country. It gets worse from there...

In my first week, I have had several students ask me about guns: "is it true Americans can buy guns from Walmart?" "Are school shootings common?" "Does your family own a gun?" A particularly painful question came from a male student who asked me if my state was a racist state and why Americans like Chinese food so much but not the Chinese people. 

How do I respond to questions such as these, questions that I don't know the answers to? Of course, I believe in the good and opportunity that exists in the United States, but I also am well aware of the fact that other countries are noticing a general ignorance that also exists in the USA, an American pride that can maybe grow too strongly into something else, something that may appear to these young people as racism and cruelty. I want to change these perceptions. I have a lot of time here, a lot of time to try to help these students gain a broader perspective about the United States and American people. I want to help them see the grey area in politics and to understand the hurt that can come from generalizing a culture based on what appears in the media. I believe that if we try, we as people have the power to all get along, to vanquish ignorance, and spread a love for our diverse and multicultural world, but the media, which has more power than all of us combined, likes to make us enemies. I want to make it a goal of mine to set the table straight, reconfigure the mindsets of at least a couple of these students so they no longer have to hold these cliched perceptions, but can judge each situation with their own intellect and intuition. I think that's why I am ultimately here, not only to help spread change amongst my students but to help spread change amongst my own culture, to fall in love with my country again. Through culture shock, I grow to understand all I miss about home and all I have taken for granted. I miss nature, long walks through the woods as the leaves begin to change, streets filled with Halloween decorations, and cider mills. How can I show these students the abundant and beautiful culture that exists in the United States without them connotating Americans as ignorant and greedy people? Maybe the best way is simply to talk to them, get to know them, let them into my life, and prove that we aren't all these racist, crazy rioters they see on the news. All of the other beautiful American auxiliaries that I have met, all want to help, all want to learn and grow. Maybe between us all, we can accomplish at least a little bit of that mission. 

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