I am sitting here staring at $2.15 in change in a pile on my desk. It might seem like a fairly insignificant thing, but it actually has had me thinking about a great deal of things over the past hour or so. In fact, I still don’t quite know what to do with it. You see, it isn’t mine, but the person who owns it didn’t want it. Let me rewind a bit.
I had just finished my lunch and had decided to wander across the street to the shopping mall directly opposite the school in which I teach. I had a few errands to run and since I have some time between classes, I thought this would be an effective use my time. I wandered into Target hoping to find what I needed, but after a futile search, I gave up and decided to pick up some mints since I had run out this morning.
I was standing in line for the self-check tills and was not very far away from a man in a wheelchair struggling to deal with the not very wheelchair-friendly design of the machine. He wasn’t that old and was wearing some fairly dirty clothes which matched the odor I was now picking up quite distinctly. I thought about offering my help, but I figured he could manage and I didn’t want to come across as seeing him as unable to take care of himself. Shamefully, I think there was another part of me that just didn’t want to bother due to his condition. I’m not sure if that really is the case, but thinking about it after the fact, a part of me wonders if I would have handled things differently if he wasn’t in the state he was in. Also, in my mind, I started to form judgements. “He is probably homeless and has some form of substance abuse.” Part of that may also have come from the fact he was First Nations and there is the pervasive stereotype that has spread like cancer across this country regarding them. No matter the reasons, I didn’t end up moving.
He came to the end of his battle with putting in his $10 bill into the machine before it asked him for $2.85 more. He dug around in his pockets for some loose change for a while before giving up, shoving a $5 bill into the machine. He ripped the bag off of the shelf and started wheeling at top speed to the exit. At that moment, the change started dumping out of the till. I started to call him back.“Sir. Sir!” No response. I grabbed the change and started running after him. “SIR!” I continued to yell. People were now starting to stare. I threw my mints down on the end of the counter since I didn’t want the alarm sensor to go off and to have workers think I was stealing something. I chased him out into the shopping centre. “Sir!” I exclaimed as I caught up with him. “WHAT!” he yelled back at me. That was not the response I was expecting. “You forgot your change,” I said in a much softer tone. “So what!” he yelled before concluding it with “F*** off!!!” I stopped. That went much differently in my head before catching up with him. He continued to wheel off into the shopping centre. I stood there stunned, gazing at the change in my hand. “Now what?” I thought. I started walking and met up with the people who had been behind me in line. They had seen the whole thing unravel before me. They laughed and said, “What can you do?”
Exactly. What could I have done? What did I actually do that made him so angry, or was he just mad in general? These thought along with the whole event bounced around in my mind as I paid for my mints. I wandered into the mall and took a seat in the food court. I looked around at all of the people around me and thought about how I had let stereotypes and judgement creep into my head. Who is to say why this man did what he did? There are so many reasons and for me to guess would be wrong of me.
Ethnography asks observers to be non-judgemental, to park their stereotypes at the door. Something as simple as seeing someone with their eyes closed and stating they are sleeping is to apply judgement to that situation. Unless you are certain through an interview or some quantifiable measurement such as brain activity, you simply write down what you see. In this situation, I didn’t just watch, I judged.
My immediate thought after getting the money was to spend it, but that really didn’t feel right. Then I thought I would be really good and give it to a charity. Easier said than done as it appears charity boxes are too easily stolen nowadays and there are almost none to be found. I got it! I would donate some money to something that could help this man, such as a homeless shelter or addictions counselling service. Oh dear. Here I go again making judgements on what would actually help him. Instead, the money sits here on my desk until I figure out what to do with it.
On the walk back to my office, I thought long and hard about how my preconceptions and stereotypes influence me on a daily basis and how some frustrating it is what someone does that to us. I thought about how non-native English speaking teachers (NNEST) must feel when they are either turned down for a job in favour of a native speaker (NEST) even though the NNEST is far more qualified and comes with loads of positive reviews and experience. I think about my students who have moved to Canada to get out of whatever situation they were in before only to find that their qualifications and experience are not welcomed and they end up taking a low paying, low skill job in order to pay the bills. I thought about the newly graduated teachers who are looked down upon from ‘more seasoned’ (i.e. more jaded) teachers. Or what about students who judge their teacher on their age / dress / gender / culture?
Just a few weeks ago, I came across this article titled Professors’ Pet Peeves. In it, the author went on about what bothers professors about their students. In it, there are a load of judgements made about students regarding their attitude and actions. Some of the comments are valid and shouldn’t be done by students AND teachers (I’m looking at you #5 and #9), but many are simply made from the position of power teachers hold onto without giving students valid reasons to follow them. The final comment about looking ‘too cool’ for school demonstrates what I have been discussing here about making judgements based on actions, not facts.
It is sad really. I wish I was so good to say that I haven’t contributed to any of the above, but that would probably be a lie. Sadly, I am human and if there is one thing I took out my experience this afternoon, it is this: I form stereotypes and judgments even when I don’t want to. What really matters is what I do with that information. In the case of this man, I need to be making a conscious effort to break through my initial thoughts and see people for who they are and not who I think they are. Also, I need to be more active in helping break down the stereotypes as mentioned above and work on voicing the truth in the face of judgement.
As for the $2.15, I think I will keep it at the ready over the next few days, waiting for an opportunity to make someone’s day. If anything, I hope it causes them to think as much as it has for me.
Note: If you are interested in finding out more about the struggle regarding stereotypes of NNEST, I highly suggest reading Marek Kiczkowiak’s article on the TESOL International website along with the accompanying websites mentioned in the text of the post. Finally, read over the position statement put together by the BC TEAL Policy and Action Advisory Committee regarding our local organization’s position on NNEST and hiring practices. We voted unanimously in favour of this statement at our last AGM meeting.