conference travel: Nepalese lunch and alligators

A large part of what I do at conferences lately is to try to understand more about what the point of the conference really is, and how we achieve that. We purport that these meetings are to disseminate research results, and maybe we’ll suggest that there’s the potential to develop new pursuits as a result of what’s being reported. But, in reality, I think people really show up to get glimmers of ideas, things they can glean from a talk that could be used for some obscure purpose. Yesterday during the Q&A of a presentation, someone raised her hand and suggested a single reference to the presenter as one of those nuggets — the presenter was pleased, and iterated with a delighted tone, “That’s why we come to these meetings, isn’t it?”

I wonder if it’s really a great use of my travel budget — hundreds and thousands of dollars for plane fare, lodging, and food — to retrieve a single citation I might have been able to look up on Google.

But after that talk, my Nepalese friend drove up to the hotel in his minivan to show four of us his adopted hometown of Minneapolis, including the better of the two authentic Nepalese diners in town. I decided after the outing that I may come and report my purpose as being the opportunity to harvest an idea or a citation, but really it’s to go out to lunch for Nepalese food in Minnesota, where the conversation turns to explicit racism in our educational system and society writ large.

My relatively innocent question to R about how he liked his new town and position turned into a lesson. R told us how the state of Georgia really got around to enforcing desegregation around 1970, in spite of the May 17, 1954 ruling on the Brown v. Board of Education case. Coincident with that delayed enforcement of human rights, private “Christian” schools sprouted up in R’s current town. And, they persist today, mostly white, and what so many of his neighbors refer to as the “good schools.” Then he told me about the pools, a necessity in the south in the summer. His family’s first visit to the public pool was uncomfortable, though, as it was clear that their unclothed bodies were the only pale ones there. Yet, neighbors suggested to them later that they should try their pool, a “club,” which he noted later was nice; yet, it was also secret, private, and almost exclusively white.

My mouth, previously eating delicious Minnesota Nepalese food, was agape. My only very small bit of solace was found in the potential that there might be other states and mentalities that could be more closed-minded than some of my own neighbors’.

And then M told us his story.

As a young African American, M’s best (white) friend wanted him to come to the pool that the family frequented. The father of this friend knew he could, in theory, invite others to the club, but also knew that inviting M wouldn’t be tolerated by the club. M and his friend jumped up to peer over the fence that separated them from the cool water to see what they were missing, and eventually, together, decided to spend their summer days swimming in the bayou. Swimming “lessons” were not about any particular stroke like “crawl” or “breast,” but rather the imperative, “Gator’s comin’!” Notions that one would have to literally swim for his life, avoiding water moccasins and alligators, gave me the impression that M must be a good swimmer now. He laughed as he told the story, now a part of who he is.

M’s 12-year-old son, five minutes before he was leaving for school the other day, asked him, “So what’s this racism thing?” M told me about the episode, laughing about the impossibility of the question and his responsibility to answer it as a father. I suspect that the five minute answer has to do with learning to swim, and the ignorant prejudice that we’re so generally ignorant of if we haven’t had the opportunity to swim with water moccasins or have to choose between segregated schools in the “desegregated” south.

The white schools and the white pools and the gators of the bayou are what I learn about when I come to a conference, in the Nepalese diner of Minnesota. On my travel envelope I have to write, on three lines, the “reason for travel.” I can’t fit the real reason in its entirety, nor will they accept “Nepalese lunch,” so I’ll write “science teacher education meeting.”