The Series on Cultural Interchange

Preface to the Series
Titles in the Series
About the Authors

Building School-Family Partnerships in a South Bronx Classroom

David Bensman

Between Home and School: Cultural Interchange in an Elementary Classroom

Kathe Jervis

Cultural Interchange in a Bronx High School: Three Children

Kemly A. McGregor




“It’s the Company Why Crab Don’t Have No Head” — Leo

“If I Don’t Have God, I Don’t Have Nothing in My Life” — Gisela

“I Wanna Have It All” — Benjamin

Leo, Gisela, Benjamin, and Their School


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Reaching Out to Other People’s Children in an Urban Middle School: The Families’ Views

Jianzhong Xu

Grappling with Difference
14-minute video
Cultural Interchange in a Bronx High School: Three Children

Kemly A. McGregor

“If I Don’t Have God, I Don’t Have Nothing in My Life” – Gisela

It is her demeanor, perhaps—reserved, ladylike, yet friendly—that is most striking about Gisela (jee-SEH-luh) Urbano, eighteen years old, and an eleventh-grader at CBA. A short, slender girl of delicate build with a wide, pretty face and perennially well-manicured hands, Gisela wears a serious expression, although she has a quick smile. She favors neutral colors—black, whites, browns, grays—and a style of dressing totally appropriate for a late nineties urban teen: close-fitting seventies-inspired tops and jumpers, flared hems, boots, or chunky sneakers.

And the skirts. Long, fluid affairs, always down to about the ankle. I have never seen Gisela in pants or in short skirts. At first, I assumed she was just following a fad—after all, rack upon rack of these long skirts cram stores all around the Bronx, and they are quite the rage among her classmates. It was only later that I learned that long skirts are part of the code of modesty within the religious faith so central to her life.

Gisela is Pentecostal. For some, such an identification might have only the most perfunctory significance—that is, that they are members of such-and-such Pentecostal church, that they attend services there every Sunday, that they support their church through tithes and offerings, or even that they officially subscribe to a certain set of beliefs. For Gisela, however, being a Pentecostal goes beyond her attendance at Casa de Dios Pentecostal Church in the Bronx, where she is a member; it is integral to the life she occupies in the interstices of classes and homework. She attends services at Casa de Dios at least twice a week, besides Sundays, and is a past president of her youth group there. On many days, she rushes home as soon as classes are over so that she can get ready for evening services.

One September day in 1997, when I stopped her after school to ask if she would like to join my study, she was, as usual, hurrying to leave; this time, a young boy in her congregation had died, and she and her mother were going to sit with the family. From my notes:

(9/18/97) I meet with Gisela for a few minutes. She talks very fast. Her sister stands nearby, waiting for her—asks if she should go ahead, or maybe run to the store while Gisela is talking to me. Gisela tells her to calm down, or something to that effect. Gisela gives me a copy of her class schedule; says she is really busy with her church—she is there all day Sunday, and also on Tuesday, and Thursday (actually, I think she names three weekdays beside Sunday). She tells me she has, as she likes to say, “a life.” She tells me where her church is, and that she is very active there. A Pentecostal. She’s involved in the youth group, but is not the “president.” I tell her I think it’s wonderful that she’s so active in church, and that I’d love to visit there sometime; her face positively lights up, it seems to me. Tells me she was out of school for several days, and has catching up to do. I ask if she was sick. She says no, but she had “problems.” I don’t press. She tells me that her mom doesn’t speak English, but she understands it. Her mom is taking college courses.

Initially, I had not intended to study Gisela and her family. As interesting as I thought Gisela would be, it had been her friend, Ramona, who first caught my attention. Ramona is a tall, somewhat aloof girl who wears her dark hair in a restrained bun at the back of her head; wire-rimmed glasses add a touch of severity to her face. Occasionally, I had seen her smile in class, comment expressively on something without being asked, or giggle with classmates—but not often. She was, I had been told, “very religious.”

I was intrigued enough to consider inviting Ramona to join my study and spent some time asking A House teachers about her. She was, I learned, Pentecostal. All of the teachers, although concerned about her academics, thought highly of her and felt she would make an interesting subject of study. A few days after agreeing to participate, however, Ramona’s mother changed her mind.

I should explain that I was personally intrigued by the question of religion and the role it played in the lives of students. Because of my own interest in understanding how I reconciled my religious beliefs with my professional life,7 I wanted to talk with children who professed a strong religious faith, wanted to know how their beliefs permeated their lives and how they affected their school experience. Did these children bring their “faith life” to school, or did they leave it home? Was it possible that such a part of them could be left home? If they did bring this element of themselves to school, what form did it assume here? If they left it home, what were the costs? In the creation of its culture, where were the spaces CBA created for students to bring in what Palmer (1998) refers to as their “true selves,” or to answer their “big questions?” How did the school acknowledge that aspect of its students’ diversity? Children enter school with a worldview that, in some way or another, offers them the means of tackling life-defining questions. While I am convinced that one of the important tasks of schools is to prod children to analyze and test the frameworks they bring to these questions, how do teachers permit space for something like faith, which so completely defies the underpinnings of something like knowledge?

These were some of the questions that my brief glimpse of Ramona had convinced me I should ask; questions I was only gradually coming to realize were okay to ask. I had hoped to find someone else to help me elucidate some of these issues when one of the teachers suggested I talk with Gisela, whom I had observed in classes for some time. Gisela, like Ramona, seemed quite reserved and private. Yet I felt she could help me explore some of the questions I had begun to formulate.

My first interview with Gisela took place in the office of the school counselor, Emilia, about a month after she agreed to be in the study. From my notes:

(10/20/97) This interview takes place in Emilia’s office. Gisela is dressed as she usually is—blouse and longish skirt, boots. She appears a little nervous, though she is trying to be collected. She tells me later that she was nervous at first, until she realized that my questions were ones she could answer.

Everyone has positive things to say about Gisela—how together she is, determined, driven. I’ve observed that she gets flustered about stuff easily. And I don’t know quite what to read into her absences—every so often, she’s away from school for periods of time; usually personal issues, not clear to me. I think some of the reasons for her absences are the basis for her dealings with Emilia, though I can’t say beyond the shadow of a doubt. Nonetheless, I think most people here would consider Gisela Urbano a CBA success story.

Gisela did not begin high school at CBA. She first attended Millard Fillmore High School8 for about a year and a half before transferring to CBA. She had been held back her first year at Fillmore and was midway through a second attempt at ninth grade when she heard about CBA from Carlos, a boy from her church who was attending CBA.

Gisela lives with her mother and a younger sister and brother in an apartment a few blocks from the school. Her parents are separated. Some time ago, her youngest brother died in a tragic accident at the age of six months. Another sister, her father’s daughter from a previous relationship, does not live with them. Since Gisela is the oldest child, her mother has given her a great deal of responsibility. Sometimes her mother leaves town for a few days to attend to family affairs, and it is Gisela who “holds down the fort,” looking after 14-year-old Yvonne and eight-year-old Manuel:

I know how to do things on my own. My father’s been out of the house seven years. We started getting responsible since he left. I’m like the man of my house. With my mother, it’s like she’s the rule, and I take care of my brother and sister. I take care of her when she has a lotta things to do. Like, when my mother’s not home, I’m home, ‘cause I’m there. So I took a lotta responsibility, and I learned how to do things on my own—everything, everything. I know how to do everything on my own. I know how to pay bills, I know how to maintain house. Like if my mother leaves for weeks, like to go out, or is busy in a career or something, I stay at my house. And I maintain everything. ‘Cause I cook, I clean, I take care of my brothers, I feed them, if I have to bathe them, I’ll bathe them, ‘cause they my brothers. But when my mother leaves, I stay there.

Gisela is obviously proud of the contribution she makes keeping their home together. The care of her household, as I found out, sometimes took precedence over school obligations. Although higher education and a career were important to her, it became clear that she did not allow the pursuit of these things to jeopardize her home and her family’s welfare. I asked her how she had managed so far to juggle the demands of home, church, and school:

I have a balanced schedule. I know what I’m gonna do. I have a life. I don’t sit in front of the TV clicking channels and eating popcorn. No, I have a life. I come to school, I have to do homework, I have to type [papers]....

I have a schedule. Tomorrow I go to church. I go home 2:30–7:30; 7:30–10:00 I go to church, then home. In church we have services, pray, read the Bible, sing.

She also told me about her future, what she hoped to do after graduation from high school:

I like helping people. Criminal justice is like you’re doing justice out there; you’re showing people that you’re different, and that a Christian is different. That person’s not guilty, that person’s guilty—you’re doing justice. And I always wanted to be a lawyer. It was like, interesting. It’s like you learn, and you learn, and you learn. You never stop learning. And you learn about life. You learn what’s out there, who you’re dealing with, who’s walking next to you, who’s on the train with you. That’s why I want to become a lawyer.

Being a lawyer, Gisela felt, helped you to understand people, to understand the “real” world. “Cause when you’re a lawyer,” she said to me, “you know what’s up. You know what’s going on out there.” She would never, she said emphatically, defend someone she knew to be guilty. “No. Then I’ll be part of that guilt. Then it’ll be wrong. I know that lawyers out there defend people that are guilty. But in my case, no I won’t. I won’t. If you’re a criminal, you’re a criminal. You pay your consequences. You was man enough to do the crime, now be man enough to pay for the crime.” I asked her if she believed it was possible that good kids are influenced to do bad things when they choose the wrong friends:

My opinion is, OK, sometimes you do mistakes because your friends influence you. That’s why my mother always tells me, “You have to watch who you hang out with, who you sleep next to, who you be with, who you eat with.” Why? ‘Cause the things that you just told me happen. Yes, I’ll defend that kid. But he has to pay the consequences. It’s always consequences. I’ll defend you, but you have to pay the consequences. Next time you’ll think about who you hang with. Because friends don’t force you to do things that you don’t wanna do. You do them ‘cause you feel like doing them. Ain’t nobody ignorant out there...nobody forces you to do nothing. You do things on your own.

As our conversation continued, it appeared that “paying the consequences” was something that Gisela had come to view as an inevitable aspect of life. She suggested that the “bad things” that have happened in her life—the desertion of her father, the death of her baby brother—were not God’s doing but may have been merely “consequences you have to pay,” the result of choices someone may have made in the past. This is something that she had learned not only from her home but has seen here at CBA as well. She claimed this reinforced lesson was one of the things she has learned from attending CBA:

I was in Fillmore two, three years ago. That’s a credit school. You take a test, and you just take it. But in this school, you have to write portfolios, and you have to write, give your perspective, and how this is, how this changes, things like that. It helps me a lot, ‘cause when I came to this school, I learned more about—life. I learned that I have to pay consequences, and I have to go on with the life that I’m living. And this school helped me a lot, because I didn’t know nothing—nothing that I learned now—in Fillmore....If I wanted to go to classes over there, I went. If I didn’t, if I wanna cut class, I’ll leave. Not in this school. You can’t cut class, ‘cause you get in trouble. You can’t leave, you can’t come the hour that you feel like it; no. In a credit school, you could do whatever you want.

And another thing is, here you show all your effort, all your work. You show all. At the end of the year, you be like, “I did this, I did that, I learned this.” Over there, they don’t care what you learned. It’s like, you pass the test, fine. You pass the citywide test, you got a good grade. You pass to the next grade here, it’s like you have to, you have to show your best, everything. You have to show you to the teachers here.

Gisela suggested that had she not transferred out of Fillmore, she might have stayed in school long enough to get a diploma, but the experience would have been devoid of much of the significance she had found in her school experience at CBA. If she had stayed at Fillmore, she said:

I woulda been lost...not dropped out, but I woulda been totally lost. Like, going to school for no purpose. My life [wouldn’t] make no sense if I stayed in that school. So that’s why they took me out, and I came here.

To get a better sense of the home life and “faith life” that she brought to her experience here, I asked her to talk a little about some of the things that were important to her:

GU: I go to church. I’m Pentecostal. I believe in God; He done a lotta good things to me; praise God for that.

KMG: Do you want to talk about that?

GU: About God?

KMG: Yes.

GU: Well, He done a lotta good things to my life. He changed the way I was. And since this day, I don’t have nothing to offer Him, ‘cause He done so many good things to me that it’s like, how could I pay Him back when He’s done everything in my life? When my father left, and my brother died, and I thought there was no solution to my problem, I could bend my knees down, and pray to God, and He hears me. When you need a friend, you need someone to speak to, He’s there...I been through a lotta problems. A lot. I had a lotta family relatives that died, and a lotta problems with my family. But I always count on God, ‘cause He’s always there, 24/7 [24 hours a day, 7 days a week]. And He’s like a phone that I don’t have to mark [dial] it; He’s right there. And He’s been good to my life.

Gisela told me that she has been a Christian for nine years and her mother for six. At first, her mother did not really attend church—she left the children there Sunday mornings and picked them up later. If their mother did not take them, the children’s Aunt Sarita, Mrs. Urbano’s sister-in-law, would do so. Although Sarita often urged Mrs. Urbano to go to church, it was only after the death of her son that she began to attend regularly:

After my brother died—there’s always something that happens that impacts your life, that you have to look to God. There’s always an impact. God don’t make these things to happen, it just happens, ‘cause of life—because things that you done in your past, or consequences that you have to pay....But after my brother died, that impacted her a lot—it was her son. But my mother went to church, and that’s when she got motivated, and she started going to church.

I asked Gisela, “What gets you up in the morning? What motivates you?” She said:

First, I give God thanks. Another one, my mother. She inspires me a lot, because her life wasn’t easy. And until this day, it’s not easy. And my family—my brother and sister...God and my mother—that’s what motivates me every morning to wake up and see a new day.

If I do something bad today, tomorrow I’ll remember what I did, and I’ll do it better. You make mistakes every day. If I fail a test today, and the teacher tells me you could retake it tomorrow, I’ll study tonight; study, study, and I’ll remember that tomorrow I have to take a test, and then I’ll do better, I’ll do my best there. And in my personal life, like if I had a argument with my sister today, tomorrow I’ll tell her, oh, you know, “Let’s not start, let’s not fight, ‘cause remember yesterday we had a fight.” I’ll always go back to my mistakes; I’m always like that. After I do things that I’m not supposed to do, I’ll sit down and analyze what I did so in the future I won’t do it over. That’s the way my mother brought me up. You have to look back at your mistakes. If you don’t look back at your mistakes, how could you get further on in the future, when your mistakes are the one that’s gonna lift you up?

I could see how a school like CBA corroborated Gisela’s belief in learning from her mistakes. The school’s consistent emphasis that children rework, edit, and reflect on their work played very soundly into Gisela’s idea that mistakes are “what lifts you up”; that mistakes provide opportunities to revisit old ways of doing things and gain insight for new approaches. CBA’s curriculum made it difficult for children to “abandon” their work; assignments were saved for further reworking, and they formed the basis of the portfolios and projects that students were required to defend each semester. That you could not just get rid of your work, that it followed you for so long, had been a complaint of more than one student. For Gisela, however, the ideas that underlie these practices resonate with her understanding of life.

While the concepts she had learned through her home and her faith were a salient part of how she experienced school life, Gisela told me that she was not particularly aggressive about her beliefs among her classmates, although there was little misunderstanding of who she was and what she stood for. She did not “force” her beliefs on others, but felt that her life quietly testified to her faith:

I have a lot of friends outside in the world, from other religions. I socialize with them. When it comes to the point, it’s like, I’m not gonna come to you and be like, “Oh, Kemly, you need God, oh, you need this, you need that.” No! You know what you have in life. You know what you need, and what you don’t need. This is not a forced religion. Like, people ask me, “Why you wear skirts?” To identify who I am. A skirt is not gonna save you, and it’s not gonna send you to hell. A skirt’s gonna identify you. The way you put it on, and the way you talk to people, and the way your personality is, you identify yourself. If I wear a long skirt, I still could be the baddest person on earth. And still go to church like nothing’s going on. No, a skirt don’t save you, and it don’t send you to hell. It’s your personal life with God, you’re willing to serve Him each day that you wake up. That’s what saves you. That’s why the salvation is number one in my life.

God gives you a time to spread the news. If the time comes that you need someone to talk to, I’ll give you God, and He’ll be your friend. If someone wants to hang out with me, I’m not going to tell them “Let’s talk about God.” But if the opportunity comes, and the issue is brought up—amen, I’ll tell you. I’m quiet, I have a strong attitude, but I’ll talk to you about God if the occasion comes. But I don’t argue and I don’t debate about religion. It’s like, I respect yours. You don’t have to respect mine, but in front of me, respect it. ’Cause if I’m respecting yours, you respect mine.

In fact, other than to Sophia—her “only close friend in this school”—and to the other Pentecostal students there, Gisela did not talk much about religion at school. Sophia and Gisela had discussed Catholicism, and Sophia had even visited her church. (Sophia is a Catholic; Gisela and her family, before they “accepted God,” were Catholics, too, but mostly perfunctory ones, not particularly devout.) Gisela explained:

I talk to Sophia about [my faith]. She’ll talk to me about Catholic[ism]. I know all about that; I came from there. But she respects me.

“Everybody in school respects me,” she said. “I wear my skirts. And this is the way I am.” Neither, she added, does she reject those classmates who do not share her beliefs—although she has acknowledged there is somewhat of a distance. This distance was probably not entirely due to their difference in beliefs, however, since Gisela did not claim to have many close friends inside or outside of school and considered her mother, brother, and sister her main sources of support:

’Cause I don’t have close friends. I could socialize with you, but don’t consider you as a close friend. I keep my distance from a lot of people, ’cause a lot of things that happened to me in my life.

Gisela did not talk much about those things that had happened in her life that made her keep to herself. No doubt her father’s leaving had been one of the things that forced her to turn increasingly to her home and faith for emotional support:

It was crazy when my father left; it was like, Wow, now how are we gonna survive? How are we gonna live this life? But give God thanks, and give my mother thanks that He gave us strength, and now we’re fine. My mother has a beautiful house. We dress fine, we eat, everything is cool...everything is back to normal. It’s a little bit more extra help, more that we need help, whatever, but we’re getting it. We’re getting it.

It appears that, at least for Gisela, religious beliefs did not have to be left behind, but they were an integral part of who she was in school as well as outside of it. To bring her faith life into a secular setting did not mean making her beliefs a perpetual object of discussion or using them as a way of sifting out who was worth associating with and who was not. They were an integral part of her identity, the “me” that people had to accept if they wished to deal with her. She does not hide who she is, nor does she ask that others be like her. CBA has created an atmosphere in which children are taught that respect for each other’s views is a baseline expectation (I have observed many classroom discussions at CBA over the years, and almost never have I heard children openly scoffing at each other’s viewpoints). In the process, CBA, a thoroughly secular school, had left space for people like Gisela to feel that their beliefs were as welcome here as anywhere else—so much so, in fact, that Gisela and a few other Pentecostal students at the school approached a teacher to ask if they could form a Bible study club for interested students.9

After we had discussed school, her hoped-for career, and her family, I asked Gisela what she considered to be the most important thing in her life. It was clear that for her, as for any student, balancing her life demands continual choices—choices about what stays, what goes, what gets sacrificed in a pinch, what slides for a bit while other things get attended to. The success-through-education orientation that drive us (her teachers, and certainly me) makes it difficult to understand some of the sacrifices Gisela has made—days out of school, missed assignments, the inevitable confusion and desperation that resulted from skipped classes—to ensure that things got taken care of at home, that a family member in crisis was attended to (occasionally, Gisela accompanies her mother on trips to Philadelphia to deal with family issues among relatives there). What, I wondered, didn’t get sacrificed? What took precedence? Gisela answered:

My salvation. My salvation means a lot to me. To serve God means a lot to me...if I don’t have God, I don’t have nothing in my life. ’Cause with God, you’re something in life. But without Him, you’re nothing. So I think that’s the most important thing in my life, my salvation.

7Although I had attended a public high school, I received my undergraduate education at a university supported by my own religious affiliation (Seventh-Day Adventist). My first teaching job after college was at a Seventh-Day Adventist school. In my earliest adulthood, therefore, I had little need to think about juggling professional and religious responsibilities. However, since that time, working in a secular organization has forced me to think more about negotiating my obligations to my profession as well as to my religion. return to text

8Not the school’s real name. return to text

9Gisela’s friend, Carlos, was given responsibility for getting this club established; at last notice, however, he had not followed through with the plan. return to text

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