Saturday, March 1, 2008

In short[s],

On Friday morning my alarm didn’t go off, and I awoke 5 minutes before my ride was to arrive. Warp speed in full effect, I got dressed, made my lunch and was out the door. As the planned going-away braai for one of the departing teachers was taking place straight after work that day, and also given that it was a Friday, I tugged on a pair of tailored knee-length denim shorts and didn’t think much of my clothing choice. Especially since the shorts were paired with a tank top and button down shirt.


The second I walked into the staffroom, I could tell that I had perhaps been a tad hasty in my assumption. All eyes were on me (and more specifically, my shorts). Smiling and taking my seat, I asked my table-mate colleague J. if my shorts were a problem. She laughed and said no, not a problem, its just that we are not used to seeing someone wearing them. Too casual? I asked. ‘Yes,’ came her one-word reply. O-kay.

And then I went to class.

If I had thought that the teachers were staring, I had another think coming. As I entered my year 11 English class, students immediately began buzzing and chatting, while clearly focused on my shorts. The lesson began something like this...

“Good Morning Comrades!” (this is how I always address them now)
“Good Morning Comrade!” came their hearty reply.
“How are we this fine Friday morning?”
“Fine thanks and you?” (and so on..)

I then introduced them to the notion of cultural sensitivity, and what it meant and entailed. Talked about the importance of recognizing that when you are someplace other than home, it is important to understand and respect the customs of that place. That just because things are done a certain way where you come from, one must not assume that this is the case wherever you go.

As a case in point I offered them two examples. One of which was my experience at the parent’s evening that I (and several of their parents), had attended a few nights prior. How the format had been quite different from what I was used to, and how surprised I was at the way the meeting concluded. That while ending with the singing of the National Anthem and a prayer was standard here, where I come from it is much different. They were very intrigued by this. What I stressed most was the fact that it is important to be sensitive to these cultural differences, and respect whatever practices may be the norm.

Then I mentioned my shorts.

“Another example of the importance of cultural sensitivity in practice,’’ I said, “is respecting what is seen as acceptable forms of dress. Some of you may have noticed that I am wearing shorts today.” They responded with wide grins and tittering laughter. I went on to tell them about the practice of casual Fridays, and my hurried foresight into dressing comfortably for the braai after work. “However,” I went on, “it has become obvious to me that this sort of dress is not seen as appropriate for work, right?” Nods and the common chorus response of “Yes miss.”

(On an aside, I must mention how cute this is. Students have a habit of constantly letting you know if and when they agree or get something you are saying with a “yes miss.” This can be in any context from when I am explaining something on the board, disciplining the class, in a one-on-one, talking to the class as part of a lesson, or even just prattling on about something or the other. I find this very endearing. Moving on.)

I went on to say how today’s clothing choice was a mistake and neglect of proper culturally sensitive behaviour on my part, and that I should not have assumed that just because it may have been okay for me to dress the same way at home, that it would be so here. Even on a small scale, when one is in someone else’s metaphoric home one must take care to be aware and respectful of the house rules.

Soo yea. In short, les shorts won’t be making another in-school appearance, although in some ways I am glad to have worn them, if only to prompt the brief in-class discussion that arose following the admission of my gaffe.

PS. it should be noted that none of the teachers or students made me feel bad about my shorts, in fact they were big fans and wanted to know where I had gotten them. When I flushed in embarrassment, at the Math HOD’s comment of: “Hey girl! Looking good! Are you going to the beach?” which was met with staffroom-wide laughter, I was quickly told not to worry and that it was not a big deal, just that it was not something they were used to. “Ndisafunda,” came my red-faced reply.

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