Through Another's Eyes

My summer grad course picked up the week school let out, so I went from preparing and grading tests to studying for them.

(Aside: While studying one afternoon, between ice cream trucks, barking dogs and a chanteur husband, I discovered this wonderful site, which boasts three different “shades” of noise designed to block out other noise. Blissful concentration!)

This course, which studies special education law, implementation and categories, is one I thought I’d find hard to swallow.  For one thing, it’s simply not practical for my current job; at a private school, we have very little funding and few resources, and thus very few students with special needs even apply.  For another, I’ve seen a lot of abuse of the system over the years; virtually anyone who is willing to fork over a few grand to an independent testing center can get his daughter diagnosed with a learning disability, entitling her to all sorts of special accommodations she may or may not need.  So I really expected to grit my teeth and eyeroll my way through the textbook.

I’ve been surprised, though.  I think, as I’ve said before, that a lot has to do with the instructor; she is the most organized and well-prepared of any I’ve had in this program.  She’s also very articulate and knows her content area well enough to be able to admirably defend current trends in the field, even if I don’t always agree with the rationale behind them. (More on that later.)  And she paces the class well; though it’s long (nearly three hours) she breaks it up with PowerPoint lectures, group activities, discussion and case studies.

Another strong point is the dynamic of the class.  Unlike most of my previous classes, there isn’t that select few students who dominate discussions unchecked.  Almost everyone contributes and no one monopolizes the floor for too long.  Again, much of the credit for that goes to the professor.

Last week the professor passed out copies of a journal article from American Anthropologist journal, June 1956.  We were instructed to list some adjectives that describe the Nacirema, a tribe under observation by an anthropological expert:

Beneath the charm-box is a small font. Each day every member of the family, in succession, enters the shrine room, bows his head before the charm-box, mingles different sorts of holy water in the font, and proceeds with a brief rite of ablution. The holy waters are secured from the Water Temple of the community, where the priests conduct elaborate ceremonies to make the liquid ritually pure.

In the hierarchy of magical practitioners, and below the medicine men in prestige, are specialists whose designation is best translated as “holy-mouth-men.” The Nacirema have an almost pathological horror of and fascination with the mouth, the condition of which is believed to have a supernatural influence on all social relationships. Were it not for the rituals of the mouth, they believe that their teeth would fall out, their gums bleed, their jaws shrink, their friends desert them, and their lovers reject them. They also believe that a strong relationship exists between oral and moral characteristics. For example, there is a ritual ablution of the mouth for children which is supposed to improve their moral fiber.

The daily body ritual performed by everyone includes a mouth-rite. Despite the fact that these people are so punctilious about care of the mouth, this rite involves a practice which strikes the uninitiated stranger as revolting. It was reported to me that the ritual consists of inserting a small bundle of hog hairs into the mouth, along with certain magical powders, and then moving the bundle in a highly formalized series of gestures.

Think about it for a minute, or read the rest if you want.

Gradually, it became clear that the objective of this exercise was to see ourselves with the horrified disgust that another “tribe” might express when encountering cold medicine, a toothbrush or a mother punishing her impertinent child by washing his mouth out with soap.

So, if I’ve learned anything so far in the class, it’s that I shouldn’t be so quick to make assumptions about a student with a disability.  He might lead an existence that’s foreign to me, but were he to return the analytical favor, I’m sure there’s plenty in my own set of rituals and values that doesn’t make much sense.  And I think, like the Nacirema, I’ve had it pretty easy so far.