Home > Uncategorized > Fear and Trembling: Encounters with the Other

Fear and Trembling: Encounters with the Other

So far, I’ve used this blog as a tool for thinking and sharing experiences. But today, I have a question for readers. It relates to a project that I’ve done with 9th graders for the last couple of years and a way that I’m thinking of changing it. It will take a couple of paragraphs to explain, so the question comes at the end.

For two years, my World Literature students have conducted interviews with immigrants to find out about “The World in Our Midst.” This year, I’d like to keep the interview process but change the focus to “Encounters with the Other.” This is an archetype that we study in World Literature; examples include Prospero and Caliban dealing with each other in The Tempest and Okonkwo’s struggle against colonial forces in Things Fall Apart.  The Other is the person or group who seems profoundly strange or threatening to the observer; it’s the person whose humanity isn’t completely understood.

In literature and history, these encounters tend to be dramatic, but in real life they can sometimes be quite mild.  For example, I have a vivid memory of such an encounter on a train platform in New Haven, Connecticut many years ago.  I was a very naive college student going into New York for about the second time in my life; my more city-savvy roommate was getting her violin fixed, and I was tagging along.   It was mid-morning on a weekday, and there weren’t very many people around, but a Puerto Rican guy with a big boom box on his shoulder came up and sat down near my roommate and me.  Unsure if anything was going to happen, my roommate and I sat quietly and waited for the train.

It happened that I was a few weeks into my first semester of Spanish, and as we sat and listened to the rather pleasant (though loud) music emanating from the boom box, I had time to prepare a comment in my head.  I saved it until the train pulled up, and then I turned to the Puerto Rican guy and said, “Gracias por la musica.”

An amazing transformation came over him: the “tough guy” look fell from his face, and he turned to me.  Making some exclamation that I didn’t understand, he said in a voice full of surprise, “Te gusta?”

I replied, “Me gusta mucho.”  And then I got on the train.  The guy remained on the platform; he was just there to hang out.  And all these years later, I still remember the feeling of exhilaration that came from bridging a profound social gulf, however momentarily.

So here’s my question: if a 9th grader asked you about an encounter with the Other (and gave a brief explanation like mine above), would you have a story to tell?  It could be positive or negative, great or small.  I’d love to hear from you with a simple yes/no, a sentence or two, or a full description.  It doesn’t have to be here in the blog–email or phone or smoke signals are welcome!

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. August 8, 2013 at 12:35 am

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