Monday, February 16, 2009

Did I just really...?

I think I just had my strangest moment in teaching: I, the Jew, stood frozen in front of my class, which is composed of students representing a cornucopia of world religions, but is primarily Hindus and Muslims. The whole class had just cheerfully and in unison yelled out, "the resurrection of Jesus Christ!"

And I had to say out loud- "This is so weird." I had to give a little giggle at the utter absurdity of it all. And then I looked over at my own lone Catholic student. He was totally in his element and was radiating happiness, finally knowing all the answers in French class. He glowed, "This is just like Sunday school!" And in fact, it did seem that way- minus the fact that there were only a spattering of Christians or quasi-Christians in the Hindu/ Muslim mix and it was being lead by me, the Jew.

How did I get to this point of multi-religious students expressing a seemingly overwhelming enthusiasm for the resurrection of Jesus Christ?

First of all, my French class had earned a party. I'm not one of those teachers that just hand out parties willy-nilly. You have to work for it in my class. And each student had taken on the challenge of speaking only in French for an entire class period (and the additional challenge of wearing an absolutely ridiculous hat. The two options are: 1)shaped like the Eiffel Tower and says "Super Français" or 2) a satin black top hat with a silver map of Africa that says "Super Africain". It is amazing what you can have made here in Dhaka.) So they earned their party and I promised to bring the pizza. (I am not above bribing my students with food to encourage their use of the French language.) Then the before mentioned Catholic boy said, "Hey, it's almost Mardi Gras! Can we have a Mardi Gras party?!" And I gave in to the facts. I'm supposed to teach culture with the language and the unit we had just finished was all about fĂȘtes and they had earned a party. And what was so seemingly innocent and didactically sound slowly turned into the episode mentioned above.

You see, I still can't just have a party. I need the students to be exposed to the underlying ideas of the cultural celebration. I'm so appalled when, as in previous years, students who claimed to be Christians couldn't tell me why they celebrated Christmas. (Language curricula tend encompass holiday units.) In fact, one self-identifying christian student didn't even know it had anything to do with Christ. (Santa was the big man of the moment in his mind.) So much of what is taught- to me at least- seems to be the superficial outward acts and paraphernalia associated with any given religious holiday- the candles or trees or sacrifice or food or presents- and lost is the reason and beliefs that inspired the Holy Day.

So before I would allow the reveling to commence, I needed the students to be able to give one sentence definitions for such words as Lent, Ash Wednesday, Fat Tuesday and Easter. I wanted them to know that this is indeed a Catholic holiday, which is attached to the lunar calendar because it is based on Jesus, who was indeed a practicing Jew and thus following the lunar based Jewish Holy Days. I wanted them to at least start to put it together. And I told them what I find to be so fundamentally true- to understand a people, you must speak their language; to understand a language you must, in essence, speak their culture; and the fundamental basis of so many cultures is religion. So, here I found myself, the Jew, teaching Catholicism, in Bangladesh, the Muslim country.

Of course, I couldn't just tell the students everything. I wanted them to engage. Thus I put my key terms on the board, and started reviewing for our favorite game that involves competition, speed, fast thinking and putting ideas together- and requires two fly swatters. (Really, don't ask.) And to prepare for the game we were reviewing the terms in unison- and that's how I managed to have "the resurrection of Jesus Christ" ring throughout my classroom carried on my student's enthusiastic voices.

I have to admit, though, I have been thinking quite a bit about how fluid culture is. I think about this a lot as a Jew, a member the people who are notorious for clinging to their own identity and culture and refusing, as a group, to adopt other culture's celebrations. We have refused to integrate and dilute, disperse and dissipate. I watch in amazement how Christian/ Catholic holidays are readily adapted by the world- Saint Valentine is world renowned, Mardi Gras (and closely linked to it, Carnival) are widely feted with much spirit (internal and distilled) and I've personally seen the Christmas done up by Buddhists in Thailand and now, in Communist China. And the cultural fluidity comes back into Christianity from Pagan rituals lending some of the most recognizable symbols- the Christmas tree is much more iconic than the original manger birth scene. Ask someone to draw an image of Easter and you'll most likely get a fertility celebration decked with cute bunnies and painted eggs in lieu of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But I guess this is what happens when a Jew goes to teach French language and culture (and thus Catholicism). The instruction is founded in a deep need to scrap away the superficial, dig into the origin and meaning and remember and recognize the roots of the traditions.

1 comment:

lulu said...

Of course Christian/Catholic holidays are celebrated the world over, A, they had lots of missionaries, and B, the food is usually good.