I teach composition and book club on Saturdays at an SAT academy, which is codespeak for a near-entire Asian (ethnic Chinese, Korean, Indian, and Vietnamese) first generation immigrant parent clientele who want a place to send their kids from 7th grade on. My kids spend three hours every Saturday with me for a year, then I teach summer school, often to some of the same kids. Understand that most of them live in Asian enclaves in which they rarely run into white people, much less black or Hispanic. The public schools they go to are 80% Asian, then they go off to public or private universities that are 40-50% Asian, they (thus far) marry other Asians and will eventually form additional enclaves and renew. I always start off every new year by asking the kids to estimate the percentage of the American population that is Asian–the lowest guess ever has been 15%. Most of them guess 30%.
I love it. I have my doubts about the impact this same population is having on public schools and college admissions, but my affection for the kids themselves knows no bounds.
It’s a book club, and the primary emphasis is on vocabulary, reading comprehension, and writing in different forms. But I nonetheless include a great deal of instruction on “white people world*” and most of them soak it up eagerly. I am often the first person they’ve met who has told them that watching more TV is actually helpful, that good grades are nice but only if they are accompanied by actual knowledge and achievement which is not the same thing, and who understands but gently mocks their parents’ demands. I can only be satisfied by them thinking for themselves, and there are no grades—a topsy turvy world for these kids.
Each class quickly grasps that I will mention things that they’ve never heard of, and that they should know of, and that I think it’s a problem, or at least a deficit. And periodically, the deficit will be so significant that I immediately act to remedy it.
Which is what happened today, when we were going over the news of the week. They all knew that Whitney Houston had died. It took me a while to realize that none of them could identify a single song of hers.
“Seriously? I Will Always Love You? Never heard of it? Hmmf.”
“Was she really popular?”
“Oh, hugely so for about 15 years back in the 80s and 90s. She came from a talented family. You’ve probably never heard of her mom, and probably wouldn’t know Dionne Warwick, but Aretha Franklin was her godmother, and…..” I see the blank looks.
“Oh, come ON. You do too know Aretha.” They all shake their heads. “You have too. What’s annoying is that you’ve heard her and just didn’t know it was her, and you SHOULD. So I’m going to play her most famous song, you’re going to go ‘oh, yeah, I know that song!’ and from now on you are going to know who Aretha Franklin is.” I am thumbing through my Android as they assure me they have no idea who Aretha Franklin is. Their assurances last through the opening of “RESPECT” and then , as her voice comes on, sure enough….”
“Oh, is THAT Aretha Franklin! I know that song!” and they are all cracking up because they are doing exactly what I told them they’d do.
“Now. Never forget who Aretha is, okay?” They nod.
I then play two Whitney songs. Not only had they heard them before, but one of them had “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” on her Ipod.
Don’t worry, parents, we talked about art and Asher Lev, too.
*Yes, I know, there’s a certain irony in my calling it “white people world” when I’m explaining Aretha and Whitney.