Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Social Acceptance and Tattoo

I have reflected before on my own expectations for my service learning experience, and   I thought I would be able to walk into the classroom and immediately have an effect on the students.  This was foolish of me, because as I began my service a few weeks into the school year (Villa Maria starts the new school year in August), I entered the classroom as a foreigner.  I was new, and did not know the way things worked.  To some students, my presence was distracting, to others I was bothersome, and I'm pretty sure that the rest just plain ignored me at first.  I offered my help quite a bit, but it was mostly turned down.  I had to undergo some sort of change in order to be viewed as a valuable member of my classroom community.  The students needed to respect my opinion, relate to me, or at least find me interesting before they would allow me to be an effective aide in the classroom.

I found my initiation into the classroom in befriending one particular student.  Montrell is the class clown.  The teacher I work with calls him "The Mouth of the class."  He has an opinion on everything, and he is not at all afraid to share it.  I think that he really could talk for hours if he was allowed to.  Montell's role in the classroom is very interesting.  At Villa, the students' emotional and behavioral disorders effect their social lives in a profound way.  They do form friendships, but at times these are very fragile.  They really do have a hard time getting along, even in a class of just nine students.  To further complicate things, bullying is a huge problem at the school.  The students as a whole have extremely low self esteems, largely as a result of their low academic achievement.  They are frequently teasing each other and putting each other down in order to compensate for their own low self concepts.  Despite all this, Montrell has emerged as a sort of class leader.  He can at times command the attention of the group far better than the teacher ever has.  The class really follows his lead.  Because he is so outgoing and friendly, it was a lot easier to get to know him than some of the other, more introverted, students.  I really got to know him by talking about non-academic subjects, and especially by telling him about myself first.  He was particularly fascinated by Loyola, and the idea of going away to school.  Once I had a relationship with him, my role in the classroom changed a lot.  No longer a foreign observer, the students began to call on me for help, rather than just waiting for their teacher to come to them.  They saw how Montrell and I were getting along, and began to follow suit.  It was almost as if once I had Montrell's stamp (or tattoo) of approval, I could go about as an active member of the students' community.  

I might be stretching this a little bit, but I do relate this experience to role of the tattoo in some cultures.  Tattooing the World, particularly in the Introduction chapter, discusses how James O'Connell's tattoo made him a complete member in the Pacific culture he was visiting:  "O'Connell had to receive the Pohnpeian tattoo, the pelipel, before he could enter into the life of the community" (Ellis 3).  Before receiving the tattoo, O'Connell has a "lack of awareness" as to what is going on, and what the islanders are asking of him.  He travelled to live with a culture completely unlike his own, and had to undergo some type of conversion or experience before he was able to live there as a full or complete citizen.  The traditional tattoo converted O'Connell from a foreigner to a member of the Pohnpeian community.  The tattoo gave him the approval of the community, therefore giving him a place and a role in the community.

The Introduction to Tattooing the World also talks briefly about the experience of the English missionary George Vason, who "failed to convert a single Tongan but obtained a full tatatau" (26).  Vason was accepted into Tongan society, but let go completely of his purpose for traveling there.  Whether his purpose, as a missionary, was right or wrong, I think there is a fine line between how much we should hold on to and how much we should let go of.  Ellis writes, "while Vason converted to Tongan ways, he and his colleagues failed so signally in their mission that they did no even manage to communicate their purpose" (26).  I would like to stretch these concepts a little, and relate back to my service learning again, in order to complicate things.  In my case, I am not forcing my own thoughts or religion on a group of people who may not want it.  I am, however, making my help available, and the students at first did not want it.  Now that I have earned their trust, I can see how easy it would be to forget my purpose for being at Villa Maria, and simple enjoy my inclusion in the community.  It is tempting to just chat with the students, get to know them, and enjoy our new friendships.  I think that if I did this, however, I would lose my purpose for being there.  I wouldn't accomplish much academically.  This comparison presents an interesting dilemma that I am not sure I can really answer.  When we travel to new places, how much of our old culture or lifestyle do we hang onto?  I think it is clear that there needs to be some sort of compromise, for lack of a better word, between the old and the new, or the familiar and the foreign.  Just how to create or manage this compromise is difficult to figure out.

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