Before you take charge of the classroom that contains my child, please ask yourself why you are going to teach Aboriginal children.
What are your expectations?
What rewards do you anticipate?
What ego needs will our children have to meet?
Write down all the information and opinions you possess about Aborigines.
What are the stereotypes and untested assumptions that you bring into the classroom?
How many negative attitudes towards Aborigines will you put before my child?
What values, class prejudices and normal principles do you take for granted as universal?
Please remember that “different from” is not the same as “worse than” or “better than” and the yardstick you use to measure your own life satisfactorily may not be appropriate for their lives.
The term “culturally deprived” was invented by well-meaning middle-class whites to describe something they could not understand.
Too many teachers, unfortunately seem to see their role as rescuer. My child does not need to be rescued; he does not consider being Aboriginal a misfortune. He has a culture probably older than yours; he has meaningful values and a rich and varied experiential background. However strange or incomprehensive it may seem to you, you have no right to say or do anything that implies to him that he is less than satisfactory.
Our children’s experiences have been different from those of the “typical” white middle-class child for whom most school curricula seem to have been designed. (I suspect that this typical child does not exist except in the mind of curricula writers). Nonetheless, my child’s experiences have been as intense and meaningful to him as any child’s.
Like most Aboriginal children his age, he is competent. He can dress himself, prepare a meal for himself, clean up afterwards, and care for a younger child. He knows his surrounds, all of which is his home, like the back of his hand.
He is not accustomed to having to ask permission to do the ordinary things that are part of normal living. He is seldom forbid to do anything; more usually the consequences of an action are explained to him and he is allowed to decide for himself whether or not to act. His entire existence since he has been old enough to see and hear has been an experiential learning situation arranged to provide him with the opportunity to develop his skills and confidence in his own capacities. Didactic teaching will be an alien experience to him.
He is not self-conscious in the way many white children are. Nobody has ever told him his efforts towards independence are cute. He is a young human being energetically doing his job, which is to get on with the process of learning to function as an adult human being. He will respect you as a person, but he will expect you to do likewise as to him.
He has been taught, by precept, that courtesy is an essential part of human conduct and rudeness is any action that makes another person feel stupid or foolish. Do not mistake his patient courtesy for indifference or passivity.
He doesn’t speak standard English, but he is in no way “linguistically handicapped”. If you will take the time and courtesy to listen and observe carefully, you will see that he and the other Aboriginal children communicate very well, both among themselves and with other Aborigines. They speak “functional” English, very effectively augmented by their fluency in the silent language, the subtle unspoken communication of facial expressions, gestures, body movement and the use of personal space.
You will be well advised to remember that our children are skillful interpreters of the silent language. They will know your feelings and attitudes with unerring precision, no matter how carefully you arrange your smile or modulate your voice.
They will learn in your classroom, because children learn involuntarily. What they learn will depend on you.
Will you teach my child to learn to read, or will you teach him that he has a reading problem?
Will you help him develop problem solving skills, or will you teach that school is where you try to guess what answers the teacher wants?
Will he learn that his sense of his own value and dignity is valid, or will he learn that he must forever be apologetic and “try harder” because he isn’t white?
Can you help him acquire the intellectual skills he needs without at the same time imposing your values on top of those he already has?
Respect my child he has a right to be himself.
Yours very sincerely,
AN ABORIGINAL PARENT
(Adapted from an open letter, from a parent to a teacher published in the Native Perspective July – August 1977)