As I was helping my six year old brother with his homework this weekend, I realized with startling clarity that his basic math worksheets really weren’t basic at all. I’d bet that you probably don’t remember your 1st grade homework, but if your assignments looked anything like his do, you probably spent a good deal of time trying to figure out which one “didn’t belong.”

 As we’re going through one particular sheet, he comes to a set of pictures and instead of quickly determining which one was “different,” he looked  at me with a questioning expression and said: “Mika, these are all the same…?”

 He was starting fixedly at a picture of an apple, orange, peach, and banana. This was the last and most difficult question on the page because they are all the same in that they’re fruit. But, the correct answer was clearly the banana since its shape is significantly different from that of the other three. I probably wouldn’t have thought anything of his dilema with the fruit picture if I hadn’t just finished reading Michele Foucault’s lecture on (ab)normality. While Foucault discusses the concept of abnormality in the context of the human body and “hermaphrodites,” the link between his lecture and this simple homework problem was obvious to me.

We’re still teaching our children to quickly, almost reflexively, decide which member of a group “doesn’t belong.” This wouldn’t be such an issue if a negative connotation weren’t almost inevitably attached to being different. Practically everyone is guilty here… even Sesame Street!

 I realize that categorization and differentiation are critical skills, but it just makes me wonder what deeper lessons I’m teaching my brother if I make him single out the banana just because it looks a little different. This is a little overdramatic, but is he going to go to school and shy away from a child of a different ethnicity because he’s worried that this child is the metaphorical banana? Or, what if my brother feels like the banana for whatever reason? Is he going to be afraid to play with the apples and oranges?

I found this whole situation interesting because as I was reading Foucault (prior to the homework episode), I found myself wondering how so long ago they came to the conclusion  that someone had broken the “cosmic law” or was a “monster” just because their genitals looked different, and how even today we still sometimes think in a similar way. Even after finishing the piece I’m still not sure where they got the idea that it is somehow OK to pass judgments on the entirety of a person just by looking at one physical characteristic. I mean, think about it… What if people with green eyes were “abnormal”, problematic monsters who violated the proper working of the universe? Where would we be then?

In the end, I simply explained to my brother the reason that circling the banana would be the correct option. Of course, this was only one small homework assignment and I have far more confidence in my ability to share the right messages with him than apprehension about what stereotypes and detrimental lessons he might learn in first grade. I suppose the point here is that we can do anything and everything to try to teach children that we shouldn’t be mean to Johnny just because his skin is different or make fun of Katie because she has two daddies, but there are still so many forces counteracting this effort; most of which we likely don’t even notice.

-Mika Baugh

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