From Awkward to Awesome
I guess because I love words, I remember where I heard a lot of them for the first time. I remember hearing the word eviscerate (to disembowel) in fourth grade. Two questions bother me about this word. #1) Why would a word like this stick with me this long since I obviously don’t use it often? And #2) Why on earth would a teacher be teaching 4th graders a word like this?
Another phrase I remember hearing was “the elephant in the room.” That one seemed a little crazy to me till my mom explained it. It’s such a perfect phrase. There’s something so big we can’t avoid it in the middle of the room, and yet we focus on anywhere and everywhere except on that pachyderm right in front of us.
We’ve all been taught that in polite society, we don’t mention it, whatever it is. Enter Paul Marks. If there’s an elephant in the room, he not only greets said elephant, he usually tries to teach it a circus trick.
It used to drive me nuts, and then I started really watching the end result. The situation was usually diffused, and everyone in any proximity was more comfortable because of it.
Once Paul was playing basketball with a friend, and a woman in a wheelchair came up and asked if she could join them. After shooting around for a while, they were resting, and Paul asked her if she minded him asking the following question. Why was she in the wheelchair? I think within 10 minutes she had told him her life story.
On Friday, Paul and I went to Duke University where he was speaking to the masters of engineering department. We’ve been there many times before, and after the speech, a lot of kids want to hang out. We usually find a space where we sit around and talk. 95% of the students are from foreign countries and sometimes it’s difficult to communicate because of language barriers and simply the vast differences in our lives, but we all manage.
On this Friday though, a gal who had attended the speech previously wanted to meet us for coffee. She had news. She was waiting patiently for us even though we were running late. We talked for a little while and then she told us she had landed a job. We were happy for her, and then something she said prompted another question. She explained that when you come from another country to the US for education, you must secure employment in your field within 90 days of graduating to avoid deportation.
This led to another question and another. This young woman had refused an arranged marriage, much to the fury of her father; she traveled to the US by herself, never having been outside of India previously, and completed her degree in half the time it usually takes. This conversation led us to ask questions about Indian culture in general.
Several years ago, Denmark started a program called the Human Library where the reader checks out a person instead of a book. Each person is labeled with a title like “unemployed,” “refugee,” “bipolar.” It’s fighting prejudice by allowing people to hear individual stories instead of making assumptions in general about people and places we don’t know much about.
There are so many differences between cultures, and when we don’t ask about them we tend to make those assumptions that may or may not be true, and to be honest, probably aren’t true. We need to ask the questions, even though in the beginning it may look like an elephant in the middle of the room.