I have found myself entirely captivated by the recent event in St. Cloud, the mall stabbing that so deeply affected the community. From the moment I saw a post on Facebook about it, I was constantly refreshing the browser on my phone, trying to find out what happened, who was involved, what the motive was. It was shocking and painful, as I thought about the community that I called my home for a while.
I reflected on my time living in St. Cloud for about 5 years as I was working on a Master’s degree at SCSU. It’s a vibrant community, a diverse community. It’s a community wrestling with change (because change is difficult!), and to be honest, for most of the people who want to be involved and invested, it’s a pretty healthy wrestle. I do see incredible leadership and initiatives to promote communication and unity.
But for others in the community, unfortunately, it’s more of a battle. It’s an “us versus them” situation. We see that in the reports of harassment of community members in recent days, hateful speech, and threats. There is also hate and fear in quieter versions: avoidance, comments made under one’s breath or only among people who are of similar backgrounds.
I know that change can be strenuous, complex, and unwanted. All of us are at least a little afraid of change, not because the change is negative but because it’s unknown; it affects us and our traditions. I see that in my own family and relationships. We like tradition: we like knowing what to expect, and, frankly, some of us are better at change than others.
I also know that sometimes the difficult part about change is the perceptions that people carry based on the stories they’ve heard, their personal experiences, and the narratives they’ve been exposed to. We hold on to the narratives that we want to believe. We hold on to the narratives that ignite our emotions – often fear, shock, anger.
In this situation, many are fixated on the narrative of a young Somali man stabbing several people in a mall. That narrative is shaping many people’s ideas about the city of St. Cloud, about shopping at Crossroads Mall, about Somali people, and about their personal safety. It’s shocking and awful and upsetting, and it’s the highly visible narrative right now.
The thing is that there are so many other narratives that aren’t shocking and awful and upsetting; they also aren’t as visible right now. So, I want to share just one of them, hoping that more of these narratives will become known and visible.
As a student at SCSU, I got a part-time job as a tutor with a local company. It was a pretty sweet gig. I got paid $20 an hour to go to students’ homes, bring some books and worksheets, and read and do literacy activities with the kids. The program was for elementary students performing below grade level, and, expectedly, it included mostly students who were English language learners. I worked with a few students over the semester, but there’s one who stood out the most. As I think about how to tell you about her and her family, the words that come to my mind are gracious, hardworking, loving, and eager.
I called to set up our first tutoring session, and I talked to Amal (name changed for anonymity), as her father had only basic communication skills. They had been in the U.S. for about 6 months, and he likely hadn’t had a chance to study English as he was busy working at a local factory. Amal and her older brother, with their young, nimble brains equipped for quick language learning, did the translating for their parents, taking on various adult responsibilities as 8- and 9-year-olds. When I called, I actually thought Amal was a boy, because that’s what it said on my paperwork and I had little familiarity with Somali names. As she was busy translating what I was explaining about tutoring and meeting in their home, I was using words like “he” and “him” rather than “she” and “her”, likely adding confusion to the complex task of navigating the situation.
When I arrived at their small two-bedroom apartment, I was greeted by the whole family, sitting in the living room waiting for me to arrive and to see what this was all about. I greeted them with little bits of Arabic that I had learned from my students and friends at SCSU: “Assalaamu Aleikum”. Her father and mother were visibly surprised, and responded to the common greeting in Arabic with big smiles.
In the living room, there was one couch and a couple of rugs. At first, I sat on the couch, thinking that it was the logical place to sit. I soon realized that Amal was used to sitting on the floor, so that’s where we sat. Amal was a petite third grader with a vibrant smile. I found that she loved her teacher and all things about school. She never complained once about doing more school work, and when we were reading together, she would sometimes make me pause so that she was sure that she knew what had happened in the story.
Amal’s mom was in the kitchen or sat with us on the floor in the living room during all of our sessions. I could see the humility in her eyes, and our communications were mostly in smiles and kind looks. Sometimes she would scold Amal’s baby sister when she wanted to interrupt us and see what we were doing. The scars on her mom’s face told me of the suffering she must have experienced in her life prior to St. Cloud.
One of the last times I was there, Amal’s dad asked me to help set up their new computer. It was old and bulky, likely cast off by its previous owner. The school wanted each student to have a computer at home, so they received one that the kids could use for educational games and homework. He had waited to try to set it up until I came, so that I could help them and read the instructions.
The things that I remember most about working with Amal is how welcoming she and her family were, how happy she was to have the opportunity to learn, and how I would be greeted with smiles, especially when I tried to speak just a bit of Arabic or Somali. Even though they had very little, Amal’s mom would often offer me a little treat as I left.
A few months after our tutoring sessions ended, I received a phone call from Amal. She called just because she wanted to say hi and see how I was doing. She told me she missed me and hoped I’d come visit again.
Today, I wish I still had her phone number, to call and say hi, to see how she’s doing.
When I got the list of students to tutor, I could have said no to any of them. I could have said that I’d only work with the Latino kids because I’m familiar or comfortable with their culture. I could have said,
“This is weird and I don’t like that I have to go to their house and sit on their floor; why don’t they start ‘acting like us’?”
“The fact that they can’t speak English isn’t my problem.”
“They shouldn’t have even come here.”
I could have said all kinds of words like these – words that I’ve heard before from people in the community.
However, I chose to be kind and curious rather than judgmental and scared, and I’m so glad that I did.