It Isn’t Just About the Three R’s

I’m not sure if they are still referred to as the “Three R’s” anymore or not. It isn’t a term I’ve heard in a while out there in the world. For those who don’t know or haven’t heard the term, the “Three R’s” stand for reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic. These were, and really still are, the foundation of being educated.

If a student could master these three things, then they would succeed in life. It is true, if one hasn’t mastered reading, writing, and arithmetic, it can be difficult to maneuver through life and the workplace. However, they aren’t the only things one needs to make it in life. We also need to know how to “act” in “polite” society.

What I mean by how to “act” in “polite” society, is how to enunciate, how to read a mass transportation map, how to dress for an interview, how to be punctual, how to eat at a fully set table, how to make small talk at a business gathering, and so many more of life skills.

For the middle class and up, these types of life skills are modeled all around you almost every day of your life. It is expected behavior because you have been around the above types of things as a part of your normal life experiences.

If you aren’t firmly in the middle class, struggle to make ends meet, experience food scarcity, experience being homeless, eat the equivalent of a TV dinner and never eat around the dinner table, you most likely have gone out into the world at a deficit.

I was reminded of this as we watched In the Heights last night. (Spoiler Alert!) When one of the main characters did everything right in her poor immigrant neighborhood, which got her into Stanford, everyone in her life lived a bit vicariously through her because she got out. But, when she was subjected to all kinds of micro-aggressions due to being a person of color, along with a few other things she hadn’t experienced before, she decided not to go back to Stanford. This scene reminded me of a section of Julian Castro’s book where he and his brother arrived at Stanford ill prepared to do basic things, such as use a mouse, their peers took for granted, leaving them at a disadvantage right off the bat.

Oddly, it reminded me of the first time I had shrimp. I’ve been upfront that I grew up dirt poor, where sometimes we didn’t know if there would be food on our plates, and as I’ve reflected a bit, there may have even been times where we weren’t sure we would have a home at the end of the month. Shrimp was not part of our meals in any shape or form.

At 18 I up and moved to San Francisco with nary a dollar to my name (but that is a story for another time). One evening a friend of mine and I had been able to purchase tickets to a Cyndi Lauper concert in Oakland where she lived. We had decided to go out for a nice meal beforehand close to the venue.

This was not an overly fancy restaurant, but it was definitely not in line with places I had eaten at so far in my life—think McDonald’s as our go to place growing up, and we thought that was a huge deal. When looking over the menu, I saw they had a shrimp dish. Up until that point, as I said above, I’d never had shrimp because at that time it was a little pricey for my budget.

Since it was a special occasion, I decided I was going to order the shrimp dish. When it arrived, I looked at it and wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. The head wasn’t on it, but the tail most certainly was as it was still in the shell. I did not know it was in the shell, and unfortunately, my friend had never had shrimp before either.

We talked for several minutes about how we thought one eats shrimp. Do we eat it as is with the tail on? Where we supposed to cut it in half and the shell would come off? Do we eat the shell by chance as part of the flavor? And several other questions as we debated next steps.

Finally, I decided since it had been served with the tail, and the shell on, it must mean it was eatable. I picked one of shrimp up and bit in to it. As I’m sure you’ve already guessed, it was not the best of tastes. In fact, it was horrible. My first thought was, how could anyone actually eat this thing and like it. The second was, I had just spent a chunk of money on such a horrible tasting dish.

After that first bite, I let her know how bad it tasted. We weren’t sure what to do next as I surely couldn’t send it back and look the fool for ordering it in the first place. Plus, there was not a definitive feeling I had eaten it correctly. So, we sat there looking around to see if anyone else was eating shrimp. Thankfully, thankfully, someone a couple of tables away had a dish with shrimp on it.

Trying not to stare at the person, we watched intently to see what he would do. I’m so glad he never looked over our way. If so, he would have seen two people trying not to appear to be watching him, while watching him, and looking a tad ridiculous. He picked up the shrimp with his fork, so it was on its back. Then he cut into the underside and peeled the shell away before taking his bite.

At that point, Tammy and I burst into laughter to the point of tears. I was definitely burning in the face at the time out of embarrassment. Plus, it was funny that I had eaten an awful shell and we wondered if it would now make me sick. After we settled down, I properly ate my shrimp, which was now delicious, making shrimp one of my favorite foods.

We went on to see a fantastic concert by Cyndi Lauper. One hasn’t fully lived until they have heard her sing True Colors a cappella. It brought tears to my eyes.

Now, when I try something new, I generally tend to ask the person, after saying it is my first time to try the dish, is there any special way I should eat it. This has saved me many a time from repeating my shrimp adventure.

The point of all this is, we need to broaden our thoughts on what our students and children need to know. They should know how to interview, how to eat more formally, know how to follow the lead of the people around you in new situations, and just experience, in some way, what life can be like when all one knows is poverty, to not live in poverty. These life lessons should not fall only on educators, but on all of us. It is hard to have a role model of how things might be if one is only around those just like them, or experience what has always been experienced, and believe it could be different.

We need to help see the different, the possible, and prepare students, especially students in poverty, to know they can have a life that is foreign to them, and they can survive, and thrive, in that foreign land, until it is no longer foreign. When the foreign is no longer foreign, then it needs to be paid forward until no one lives in poverty, that we can all live a life without fear of not having our needs met.

I hope I’m still alive to see this possibility become a reality!

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