Re-Envisioning the Dinner Table

I was between places for about two weeks. It was an experience I found both unsettling (where to put my dogs, my stuff, my BOOKS?!) and freeing (once the dogs were in their favorite kennel, that left me copious time to loiter in book stores, see neglected friends, attempt to dig myself out of the mishegas that had somehow become my life). It was also during this time that some great friends offered me a place to stay. One of them was a teacher and we’d spend moments here and there throughout those weeks chatting about teaching. She teaches in the city, in an under-resourced school, and she’s amazing because she just gets it done. She does not allow the fact that they are poor, or second-language learners, or have a disability prevent her from teaching them to be great.

I often reflect on moving to the suburbs and now back into the city, the differences between the two places. Finally, in one of our conversations about Lisa Delpit and cultural capital and all that stuff that’s difficult yet critical to discuss, we hit upon it: Kids who are privileged–in whatever ways they are privileged–have incredible opportunities to sit around a dinner table and soak in knowledge. So it might not matter that something is “missed” in school in favor of test prep or remediation. A parent or someone is going to probably mention some fact, or concept, or build background information, fill in those gaps.

For many underserved kids, they don’t have those opportunities. This is not a pity party, so hold on. They have plenty of strengths, but–and I’m channeling Theresa Perry here–they don’t have someone/anyone systematically handing over knowledge and cultural capital in any consistent format.

About a week ago, I took up another friend on her offer to have dinner, the night after I’d moved into my new place (finally). Of course I took her up on that! We enjoyed this stick-to-your-ribs soup and then, the parents of another family that was there, too, asked their son about a quiz he had the next day.

The cities in Japan. They quizzed him. Then, because he couldn’t name all the cities, they printed out a map of Japan, labeled the cities with him, and then proceeded to come up with a creative mnemonic for him to remember on his quiz the next day.

I was in awe: it was exactly what I meant about the handing over of cultural capital AT THE DINNER TABLE.

I could not have scripted a better moment if I’d tried.

Now what if we re-envisioned the dinner table, took it out of our houses (for those that even have those things, and let’s be real–not all kids do) and brought it to places where kids could sit down and “eat,” as it were? What if we encouraged kids (and adults, too, most likely) to pull up a table and give them the nourishment that they need?

Classrooms can be such places, yes. Wherever these spaces crop up, shouldn’t we hand over the cultural capital in a way that allows them to walk in the world as more knowledgeable, more brilliant young people?

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Filed under Equity, Writing About Race

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