It was my first year of teaching at Lawrence High School in Cedarhurst, New York and I was finishing my first master’s degree. I would drive into the City to meet my advisor and this particular trip was to discuss my thesis on Ernest Hemingway titled “Hemingway Mystic.”
We met at a restaurant and got down to business. We discussed this, that and all the other things about Hemingway and I showed the professor point by point and line by line why I thought Hemingway had a strong mystic streak in his writing. When we were done my professor said, “Frank, is it true that every Italian has someone in his family in the Mafia?”
“I heard that all Italians have at least one member of their family in the mob,” he said. “I just want you to confirm that.”
“No, no, my family doesn’t and none of the Italian families I know have Mafia guys in them,” I said.
“Ah,” he said. “But you really don’t know about them do you? You only know what you think you know or what people lead you to believe.”
“Doctor Carlson, I’m sorry, but give it some thought. There are so many Italians in America that if every family had at least one person in the mob, and maybe even more, there would be hundreds of thousands or a few million Mafia in America. It just isn’t so.”
“So you don’t know about the ones in your own family? You are not a good representative of your people” he laughed.
I shook my head. This guy was dense. Obviously I couldn’t change his mind, but the fact that his information was wrong, that I knew I didn’t have Mafia members in my family, didn’t seem to sway him in the least.
And what was this idea about me being a “representative” of my “people”? I didn’t speak for the Italians in America, nor the Germans nor Irish who also made up my heritage. I didn’t actually speak for anyone but myself.
“Italians get really offended when people make jokes about them don’t they?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Come on, you’re Italian, you should know.”
I learned something from this guy. No one represents his or her group, especially in the classroom. Yes, you might want to have fun with students, crack jokes at a kid’s expense as kids will cracks jokes at your expense; you do have to have a sense of humor about yourself, after all.
I realize that I can crack jokes about Jim and June and Bob and Jaime as Jim and June and Bob and Jaime – but not on what race, ethnicity, or religion they are.
Sometimes a stereotypical trait exists in the person with whom you are dealing. Fine. But that stereotype does not dictate all the traits of such an individual. And that stereotype is not that individual and, worse, that individual will feel slighted if he or she is made to feel you are stereotyping him or her. (“You people are all alike.”)
I am a man but I don’t represent men. (“All men are alike,” she says.)
Because she is a woman she does not represent women. (”All women are alike,” he says.)
Because a kid is Italian, he doesn’t represent Italians.
Because a kid is Jewish, she doesn’t represent Jews.
Because a kid is black, he doesn’t represent blacks.
And so on.
In the classroom; in the school; in professional or personal contact, then, it is just me and the other person, no matter who that person is.
Stand in front of your classroom; look at each and every student and say, “Only you.”
Frank Scoblete’s latest books are I Am a Dice Controller: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Craps, Confessions of a Wayward Catholic and I Am a Card Counter: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Blackjack. Available from Amazon.com, Kindle, Barnes and Noble, and at bookstores.