The best belonging allows us to fit in with others while living true to our value and values. Navigating the ins and outs of belonging takes a little bit of bungling and a lot of courage. I know. Once, I lost a chunk of my tongue while trying to belong on the big kids’ playground.
Our family lived in Canada when I was young and, as a child, I became accustomed to translating for my parents, especially my mom. I didn’t translate from English into French, but from one variety of English into another.
My parents speak with regional New England accents—my Dad’s from New Hampshire and my mom’s from near Boston. People notice my Mom’s “r’s”, or lack of them. She says words like pak instead of park and pizzer instead of pizza. Sometimes, the Canadians didn’t understand her Bostonian accent.
Often, my friends would hear my mother call my brother Mark and ask, “Why does your mother call your brother Mak?”
Once, I was in a small convenience store with my mom and she asked the proprietor for popcawn. The proprietor said emphatically that the store didn’t carry that item, in fact, he’d never heard of such a thing.
Mom insisted that he had heard of popcawn and proved her point by instructing me, “Tell him what I want.”
He did, in fact, sell popcorn. In a variety of types.
Even though I became accustomed to interpreting my parents words so their messages were not confused, I was puzzled a few years ago, when a friend said to me, that she used my Dad’s words of advice (from last week’s blog) with her sons. “I tell them all the time that Pastor Jack says: Remember whose yard you are in.”
If you read last week’s blog, you may recall the words my dad used to say to remind my brothers of their value (Remember who you are) and be as bewildered my friends interpretation as I was.
How could Dad’s message could be misconstrued and morphed into: Remember whose yard you are in?
“That doesn’t even make sense. What do your kids think you mean?” I asked.
“I think it’s wisdom,” she said and explained the meaning the statement she’d repeated: Kids go out into the world and they learn that life doesn’t operate the same in every context. Each context includes different people, promotes different values, and expects, sometimes pressures, different behaviors. Our kids must figure out the rules of belonging in different contexts or “yards” and learn to fit in while protecting their values. If they can’t, they should flee the dangers.
She felt that the advice to remember whose yard you are in meant: be aware and cautious. Recognize the threats and make good decisions.
Huh. Remember whose yard you’re in. It’s good advice.
Some of us learn through experience the dangers of setting out to belong in new yards. When I was 8 and earned the opportunity to enjoy recess on the big kid playground, I stood in line to go down the slide. It was a cold, Canadian winter day and I wore a snow-suit, mittens, hat and scarf—with just a triangle of face (eyes and nose) sticking out. The kid in line behind me said, “On a cold day like this, the slide tastes really good. You should lick it. We all did.” He motioned to his buddies who nodded in agreement.
I felt a little important that he’d shared their tasty secret. I pulled my tightly tied scarf down so my tongue could reach out and touch the metal slide.
In an instant, I learned that some yards hold bullies who laugh heartily with their friends when they prompt the look of alarm in the eyes of an 8-year-old who has left part of her tongue on the slide.
Laughter at our expense forces us to adjust promptly to norms in yards of different cultures. At least that’s what I learned when I moved to the States for my senior year of high school.
From Kindergarten to the end of eleventh grade, I had been educated in a formal Canadian school system. It differed from the American school system I entered in many ways. One was the manner in which students greeted teachers and other adults. In the Canadian schools I attended, when an adult entered the classroom, students were required to stand beside their desks and address that adult in the following format: adult’s name followed by the appropriate sir or ma’am, greeting or answer to question, adult’s name punctuated with sir or ma’am. Students stood until the adult invited them to sit.
My first day of twelfth grade, in the new-to-me American school, the first period teacher looked up from his class list, identified me with his gaze, and said, “I see we have a new student. What’s your name?”
As I had been taught, I stood by my desk, and I said, “Mr. Pense, Sir, my name is Faith Tibbetts, Mr. Pense, Sir.”
The class erupted in laughter. Mr. Pense, Sir got a little red in the face and he welcomed me to the class. But he didn’t give me permission to sit. So I stood.
He continued with first day of class business. I became uncomfortable standing, and wondered why he required me to stand, and finally worked up the courage to speak, “Mr. Pense, Sir, may I be seated, Mr. Pense, Sir.”
I very quickly learned that to belong in this yard, I had to dial back the formality and mute the manners I’d been required to use my entire life.
Like the saying goes, when you’re in Rome, do as the Romans…
But sometimes, fear of bullies and fear of not fitting in prompts us to overcompensate and conform to extremes.
A few years ago, I worked with a young woman who was from South Korea and was studying in a Pennsylvania yard: a graduate program at Penn State. One day she told me that she was upset because her father had given her brother’s fiance a watch. “In our culture, a watch is a significant gift,” she said.
“Does your father know that you want a watch?”
“Yes. I told him I did, but he said, ‘You have education.'”
From the way she mimicked his curtness. I was pretty sure he had his mind made up. There would be no watch for my friend.
She seemed forlorn.
I wanted to console her, and I had never, ever seen her wear a piece of jewelry. Not an earring or a necklace or a bracelet. Not even a hair pin. So I reminded her, “You don’t wear jewelry anyway.”
She looked aghast at my lack of understanding,“You can’t wear jewelry in America! You will get mugged.”
And then she looked me up and down. Realization dawned slowly. “You have jewelry on. Have you ever been mugged?”
In an attempt to belong and keep her valuables safe, she never wore them.
We have this task: to belong while protecting our value and valuables. And all the while, we are in yards where fear rules. If fear is the only evil we face (I don’t think it is) on the way to belonging, sometimes, it’s enough to keep us hiding our value and values.
Here’s this week’s challenge: overcome fear one time by living true to your value and values in a yard where you’ve been silenced or intimidated.