There are things we take for granted about our culture, and I am certainly guilty of making assumptions which mash Irish culture into American culture, without really thinking through the differences. Over the course of my 23 years in America, my lack of cultural insightfulness has occasionally had repercussions.
Not long after arriving in Florida, I began my first teaching job. I was co-teaching a class of 36 children, aged between three and six. My co-teacher and I had an assistant. Three adults were absolutely needed to shepherd that big group of children successfully through each day. From time to time, one of us would be out, and finding substitutes was often a problem.
My mother lived not far from me, having moved to the States fifteen years earlier (she was the reason I’d ended up in Florida). She often heard me complain about the substitute situation, and she volunteered that she’d be willing to help out next time we were stuck. I have always been a bit wary of mixing personal life with work life but, even knowing my mother’s history of low levels of self regulation, the absence of alternatives made me seriously consider the offer.
Not long after that conversation, our teacher’s assistant came down with the flu, and we were, once again, badly stuck for a sub. I remembered my mother and considered how having her help out might go. It could work. All she had to do was help supervise and be nice to the adorable little children. After raising three children of her own, and being exposed to American culture for more than a decade, it seemed likely she could pull that off. It would be grand.
The next day Mum showed up to school on time and smiling, and the morning went well. She helped make sure the children were all on task and prevented any major catastrophes. I congratulated myself for having made a good call in asking her in to assist. My co-teacher seemed delighted. All was going swimmingly. I had saved the day.
Then came nap time. The children all lay down for 45 minutes after lunch and recess every day. Most of them napped. The ones who didn’t could lie quietly on their mats with a book. Mum asked what I wanted her to do. “All you have to do is sit with our little friend Brandon, over there, and make sure he stays quiet”. I explained that Brandon was a bit of a terror at nap time. Not only would he not lie quietly, but he insisted on disturbing all the other children in his proximity, making it hard for anyone at all to sleep. “Just sit next to him, Mum. Rub his back and remind him to be quiet. That’s all. I’ve got the rest of the room”. “No problem”, said Mum, with a smile.
So nap time kicked off. I turned down the lights, and put on the relaxing music and busied myself around the room, tucking in and rubbing backs. Every now and again I’d peek over at Mum and Brandon. I saw her whisper to him once and smile sweetly. Perfect. It’s all under control. I continued helping the children get to sleep.
About fifteen minutes into nap time, I stuck my head up over a shelf dividing the room, and saw that Brandon was lying ram rod straight, arms by his side, eyes closed. “Wow”, I thought, “Mum sure has a way with children.” I considered that my own childhood memories must have become skewed over time. I never really would have considered my mother as someone with a natural knack for kids. She caught me looking at her and gave me a smile and a wink.
Once all the other children were asleep, I walked over to mother and saw that Brandon was, unbelievably, asleep too. Really unbelievable. A nap time miracle. For the first time that whole school year the entire class was happily asleep. I invited Mum over to sit with me at a table in the corner.
“Mum that is amazing! Brandon absolutely never sleeps. You’re going to have to tell me your secret,” I told her. She gave a self-depreciating smile. “Oh, it was nothing”, she said. “I could see that he was planning on being difficult so I just whispered in his ear that he was to lie still and be quiet and that if he moved a muscle I was going to break every bone in his body”.
I felt my blood pressure drop. What? What did you say? Please tell me you didn’t just say that. It’s a joke. Ha, ha. Dear God, I thought you were serious. I scanned her face. Nope, totally serious. Smiling at me. Waiting for me to congratulate her on her ingenuity. Well done, Mum. I simply had never thought to issue death threats to the children before. I feel I’ll be much more successful now.
“Mum, you didn’t actually say that, did you?” I whispered. “I did, of course”, my non-plussed mother answered. “And it worked. You just said so yourself”. “Oh dear Jesus, Mother. This is America. You can’t say those sort of things to American children. It’s not done. You could be arrested. I could be arrested. F******ck!” (all said quietly, so as not to wake the children). Suddenly, I wasn’t the bright spark I thought I was, inviting mother in to help. Now we were all going to jail. Mum failed to see the problem, and actually got a bit defensive. She had gone from miracle worker to felon in record time.
I explained what had transpired to my co-teacher. She, being American and not having grown up in a tradition of daily death threats, was even more alarmed than I had been. We decided to see how Brandon was acting when he woke up. We would assess the damage then. Nap time over, a quick check in with Brandon suggested no lasting trauma. He seemed all the better for his nap, in fact. Mother glared at me. One year in America and I had turned into a politically correct hysterical, apparently.
At the end of the day I confessed all to Brandon’s mother. Though slightly horrified, she listened to me plead the case for cultural differences, and seemed to understand that my mother had never really intended on inflicting any actual damage on her son. I was so relieved, and resolved to keep my personal and work life totally separate from that point on.
I also resolved to do a better job of remembering that Irish people and American people are not quite the same thing! As a child growing up in Cork, part of the daily routine of parent child interaction involved a variety of threats of bodily harm. The litany included; “I’ll break your neck.” “I’m going to chop your head off.” “You are about to get a right clip around the ear”. “I will break every bone in your body” (of course). “I will kill you”. And the ever popular, “I’ll sell you to the tinkers”. None of them meant. Terms of endearment really. Since we knew the threats weren’t real, we weren’t traumatized in the least by them. They rarely even impressed us enough to cause the correction in behavior that was the desired outcome of their very issuance. We all went on to live perfectly happy, therapy free lives.
But I have to say that I had never really considered the literal value of the threats, nor how an American child might perceive them. And I had most certainly never expected to be the conduit for such an exposure to occur. I do hope that Brandon did go on to live a perfectly happy life, unmarred by his encounter with my Irish Mammy. And now, a couple of decades on, I have three American children of my own, who have never known anything else but an Irish Mammy. Check back with me in a few years to see if therapy was actually needed.