New Places: Stories about being somewhere new

This week we present two stories about being the new one in a new place.

Part 1: After moving to a brand-new school in the seventh grade, Edith Gonzalez struggles to maintain her straight-A status with a new, scary biology teacher.

Edith Gonzalez is a native Nuyorican with four graduate degrees in various sub-disciplines of anthropology. By day, she is an historical archaeologist studying bio-prospecting in the 18th-century English-speaking Caribbean. By night, she has a "slight" obsession with Lord of the Rings, and the dance intersection of late 70's disco and early 80's punk. She is a veteran of MOTH and Take Two Storytelling (among others). As a two-time Smut Slam champion, she also enjoys telling dirty stories to a room full of strangers.

Part 2: When social scientist Meltem Alemdar leaves her home in Turkey to pursue her education in the US, she struggles to find her identity.

Meltem Alemdar is a social scientist and native of Ankara, Turkey. She came to Atlanta in 2000 to attend Georgia Tech's Language Institute, then decided to pursue a Master's, and then a doctoral degree. Dr. Alemdar earned her PhD in Education Policy, with a concentration in Research, Measurement, and Statistics, at Georgia State University in 2009. She is Associate Director and Senior Research Scientist at Georgia Institute of Technology’s Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics and Computing (CEISMC). Her research focuses on improving K-12 STEM education through research on curriculum development, teacher education, and student learning in integrated STEM environments. Dr. Alemdar has led numerous NSF-funded research projects that spans on project-based learning, STEM integration, engineering education, and social network analysis. She is passionate about improving K-12 public education system through her research.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Edith Gonzalez

I was absolutely terrified of my seventh grade Biology teacher.  And not for creepy, inappropriate reasons but because I couldn’t figure him out.  It was my seventh school in as many years so I was always the new kid walking in. Makes you a little nervous.

But I walked into the classroom and on the board it said, “Find your assigned seat,” and there was a chart.  So we file in, we sit down. And just as the bell rings, he enters from that weird little side door in some classrooms.  He walks in and he picks up the chart and he doesn’t interact with us by saying, you know, have you call out. He just looks at the chart, sees who’s missing, marks it, and then turns around and begins to write stuff on the board and lecture.  

He had not heard of the Socratic Method.  It was very clear by the way he ran out that little side door the second the closing bell rang that he did not want to interact with us at all.  This made me a little bit nervous because when you move as much as I did, there were sometimes gaps between the time you leave your old school and the time you start the new school.  Sometimes for me that was weeks and sometimes it was months.

And when I would start in a new place, English class, Social Studies, that sort of stuff I could handle.  I was a straight A student. I could read the textbook and figure it out for myself. But Math and Science sometimes there are concepts that need a little bit more nuance to explanation or you have questions and catching up was always a challenge.  

As I said, I was a straight A student but it didn’t mean that I was excellent in those subjects.  It meant that I was excellent at class participation so that if I could kind of get a B on the exams and the work that being charming or a teacher’s pet or something else, always hand in the air, that it would kind of push me over into the A-range.  

The reason I really, really, really needed to get an A was because my mother had the expectation that I would get straight A’s.  

I grew up in a very working class, very strict, Puerto Rican single parent household.  My mom did not have the same expectations for my siblings, but because I had already set the standard starting in kindergarten that I was going to get A’s that was the expectation and you were not allowed to do less.  So there was no reward for excellence but there were consequences for less than an A.

It really began to stress me out because she valued other things.  She was very old school and she thought that girls really needed to be good at more feminine things, maybe.  We learned how to sew, we learned how to cook, my sister and I learned how to sew and how to cook, how to make a nice home.  She thought that girls should be quietly ornamental, perhaps, is the best word. I was not ornamental and I was definitely not quiet so we had a little tension there.  

Edith Gonzalez shares her story on the Story Collider stage at Caveat in NYC in February 2019. Photo by Zhen Qin.

Edith Gonzalez shares her story on the Story Collider stage at Caveat in NYC in February 2019. Photo by Zhen Qin.

So I’m in my Science class and not only does this teacher not interact with us, it was the first time I had ever received a syllabus.  On the syllabus there are two things that immediately freaked me out. The first one is it clearly states only one person will receive an A in this class.  The second thing was there was a term project that was the majority of your grade and this was on botany. We were supposed to do a botanical survey of our yard, and that makes the assumption that you have a yard.  

I had this little, half-concrete, postage-stamp area in front of my house that had one pine tree, dandelions and some grass, so I thought this is not going to be a compelling report at the end of this semester.  So I did what any truly nerdy, bookish kid does and I went to the library, because I could not ask this teacher and I could not ask at home how to do this.

So I go to the library and it was the first time I had ever lived in a suburban place.  This library was really new and it was a very affluent suburb. I walked in and I just remember, I can still smell that dusty-book smell combined with the toxic off-gas of acrylic carpets that they put down in the ‘70s, and I was so thrilled.

I meet the librarian and I tell her what I have to do and she did something for me that was life changing.  She introduced me to Peterson Field Guides. If you don’t know what a Peterson Field Guide is, I will tell you.  It is a catalog of a certain area of all the natural things in a certain grouping for that area.

The first book she handed me was Peterson Field Guides to northeastern trees.  Then Peterson Field Guides to New England wildflowers, shrubs, the whole shebang.  So I’m sort of giddy with this and I’m flipping through them and I’m so excited, because my imagination runs wild.  I think there is a guy named Peterson who is out in the world and he is collecting all of this information from each place.  And I kept thinking it’s one guy. I did not know that science was a team sport.

Then I start thinking, “This is his job.  How do you get a job going around collecting botanical samples?”  

I get very excited by this idea so much so that I begin to collect a sample of every plant that I encounter from my front door to the bus stop, and it’s a long couple of blocks.  So I start collecting this stuff and I even find a plant press at a tag sale for 25 cents. So I’m there drying leaves in bunches and there are seeds and twigs and all kinds of crap, and I’m drawing little illustrations of each phase of growth for each of these plants.  I share a room with my sister and she is probably the loveliest person in the world and really patient because there's just piles and piles of this stuff all over the room.

As it’s getting towards the end, towards when this is due, I have it all laid out on the kitchen table and the kitchen counters.  It’s classified into these bunches and I’m trying to mount these to paper to kind of make something that I can hand in.

My mom walks into the kitchen and she looks at it.  And I’m waiting for her to say, “Get this crap out of here because it’s time for you to make dinner,” but she doesn’t.  She sees that I’m getting really frustrated with this and she says, “Get in the car.”

We go to the grocery store and we collect a whole mass of the kind of cardboard boxes, the corrugated cardboard that they put canned goods in so they're really stiff, and a bunch of brown paper bags.  We get home and she makes a template and starts cutting out pages. Then she decides to cut out frames, like a picture-frame size that fit on top of the page. She mounts them together, stacks them to create almost this shadow box, a little indentation on each page so that I can put in the illustrations and the sample.  

And I calligraphed on brown paper all the scientific names.  It was so exciting. And we start stacking these things up and then they don’t get squished.  So this thing starts to grow and grow and grow.

And she's really talented with fabric and she can sew and everything so she makes a cover, this cloth-bound cover for this huge, massive book.  It’s huge. Then she's like, “Hmm.” And she goes and she gets an old leather belt and puts it around it, like a book strap that some 19th Century kid walked around with.  It looked straight out of Harry Potter.

So the day it’s due, I shove it in a black, plastic garbage bag because it’s pouring rain out.  I get to school and I get into the Science class. Of course the teacher is not there yet and I go to hand it in.  At the edge of… you know those slate-topped desks that the teachers have in science classrooms, at the end of this is a big, wooden tray and that’s where you turn in your homework and stuff.  

So I go up to hand it in and I’m pulling it out of the plastic garbage bag and I see everybody else’s report.  They are in those Mead Trapper Keeper folders. Some of them even had that very slick, clear, plastic report cover on it and they are typewritten on electric typewriters, which was a thing then.  

And I pull this thing out and I hear some kid in the class making this really snide comment about garbage and I just throw it into the tray.  The whole thing makes this huge thunk on the desk and I am mortified. I go back to my seat and I’m thinking I’m failing this because, clearly, I misunderstood what we were supposed to do because everybody else did this very different kind of report.  

A week goes by and I’m back in class and I walk in and the Biology teacher comes in and he drops all the graded papers into the tray and mine is not there.  And he says, “Edith, see me after class.”

I don't know a single word that he said for that entire class period because I’m so freaked out not just that I’m going to fail but that I’m going to have to go home and tell my mother that I failed.  

Class finishes, people pick up their reports, they go, and I go up to his desk after class.  I’m so scared that I can’t say anything. He just says, “Sit down.”

Edith Gonzalez shares her story on the Story Collider stage at Caveat in NYC in February 2019. Photo by Zhen Qin.

Edith Gonzalez shares her story on the Story Collider stage at Caveat in NYC in February 2019. Photo by Zhen Qin.

And I’m there waiting for him to say something and he's not saying anything and I’m not saying anything and it feels like about four years of silence go by.  He picks up the book and the belt is missing. I don't know what the hell he did with it. And he hands it to me and I still don’t know what he's expecting me to do.  

And he's there, he's got this like steely gray flattop and steely gray eyes and I’m like, “Uhh?”  And he flips open the cover and there on the cover in big, red, circled letter is my grade.

He said, “You know that I only give one A and I only give one a because only one person can be the best.  And what you didn’t know is that in addition to competing for this one A that I just gave you is you are also competing for a spot in the Talcott Mountain Science Center’s Young Scientist Program.  Here is the permission slip. Get your mother to sign it and next Saturday you'll be heading up to go learn how to be a scientist.”

So I’m like, “Haah.”  I feel like a condemned prisoner that has been given a pardon by the governor.  

So I pick up my book, I’m all excited and I’m thinking that I got this grade and it was clear, even in the moment that he's telling me this awesome news, that he does not like me, at all.  He doesn’t like anybody. And that he doesn’t have to like me.

So I kind of got a little crush on science at that moment because I thought I like science and that’s what’s important here.

I go home and my mom, she's busy as usual as any single parent would be.  I give her my permission slip and she kind of half-looks at it and she signs it.  

The next Saturday, I go get on the bus and two-and-a-half hours up to the top of this mountain in Connecticut somewhere.  I step off the bus, they gather us and this young woman takes us on a nature walk. At that time I thought she was probably the coolest person I had ever seen in my whole life.  She seemed so knowledgeable. And she was probably just like a first-year graduate student, but she was awesome.

And we’re walking through the forest and she gestures to this little shrub-thing plant-like item and she says, “The common name is Princess Pine but it’s not an evergreen.  This is Lycopodium obscurum and this species has existed for 400 million years. And about 300 million years ago, it grew to be over a hundred feet tall, taller than any of the trees that we’re standing under right now,” and I was like pff.  

My whole mind just expanded in that moment with the concept of evolution in play and deep past, deep time.  I was so excited by this notion.

So I go home and I say to my mom, like, “Haah.”  I mean, I was thinking my voice got so high only dogs could hear it.  I was so excited. And I’m telling her about what I learned and that, “and the next weekend, they're going to teach us to use the telescopes in the observatory and we got to use filters so we don’t burn our eyeballs out looking at the sun.”  I was so crazily excited.

And she looks at me and says, “I thought this was just one time, because it doesn’t really matter.  We’re moving."


Part 2: Meltem Alemdar

When I was born in 1977, my parents waited for three days for my aunt to arrive so that she can name me.  I know it sounds strange in American culture to be named by someone other than your parents but in Turkish culture this is actually an honor.  I always loved the fact that my aunt named me. She was so much loved in the family, an amazing cook, fun aunt, and a great storyteller.

We all associate names with certain characteristics so, in my family, my name was associated with words like troublemaker, naughty, lazy with schoolwork, rule breaker, talkative, messy, a lot of words like this.  I definitely did not have a good reputation in our household. I always got in trouble and I really hated the rules. In fact, my aunt one day told my mom that she should have named me ‘ruzgar’ which means ‘wind’, a kind of disruptive wind.  If you hear my name in our household, Meltem, the first reaction is, “What did she do now?”

I really hated rules and, basically, I was not the proper Turkish girl but somehow I managed to get in college.  I really hated school but somehow I ended up in college. I was able to finish it and, after college, in my degree in education there were not many opportunities.  My brother was a PhD student at Georgia Tech at that time. He urged me to come to Atlanta so I can go to language institute, study English, and try to figure out what I want to do with my life.  

While I was attending Georgia Tech Institute, a good friend of mine took me to Georgia State University so I can learn about the masters programs.  I didn’t think much will come out of it. My GPA was super low and I really never had an interaction with a professor in a one-on-one setting before.  But here I was, sitting in this American professor’s office who was so interested in what I was trying to say. I was shocked.

When I got in the masters program my parents didn’t believe me.  I had to get the acceptance later, translate it in Turkish, and mail them so that they can believe me.  

I had great professors at Georgia State.  They made me love learning. One of my professors couldn’t pronounce my name so he gave me this nickname of ‘Mel’.  I loved it. I thought everybody in America has nicknames. Basically, when you have a nickname, you are accepted, that people love you.  

I grew up watching a lot of American TV shows, like Cosby Show, so I thought I knew what the whole American culture is about.  Once you have a nickname you are basically an American, right?

Meltem Alemdar shares her story with the Story Collider at the Highland Inn and Ballroom in Atlanta, GA in January 2019. Photo by Rob Felt.

Meltem Alemdar shares her story with the Story Collider at the Highland Inn and Ballroom in Atlanta, GA in January 2019. Photo by Rob Felt.

But I really tried.  I tried to have casual talks on campus introducing myself as ‘Mel’ hoping that everybody can see how much I was assimilated in the culture.  I continued to watch more American shows, like Gilmore Girls, Friends, Seinfeld, so that I am not left out of conversations. With a nickname like ‘Mel’ and all the knowledge about American shows I thought I can be popular, I can make a lot of friends.  But the reality is, as soon as I opened my mouth, the first thing that people saw was my foreignness.

After September 11, it was hard to make friends among Americans.  I miss home more and more. But I decided to continue with my education.  I loved going to school here. I got in a PhD program in Education Policy Studies.  Again, it was more shocking news to my parents but it felt natural to me, to ‘Mel’ here.  Because ‘Mel’ here was smart, ‘Meltem’ in Turkey was not this smart, so it felt very different.  

I was often reminded of my differences when I traveled outside of Atlanta.  In this one particular school, I was traveling with a friend, with another graduate friend collecting data in classrooms.  We arrived in the school and I introduced myself to this teacher, as usual, ‘Mel’. She looked at me and she just refused to talk to me.  I was not sure what was going on.

My friend who was American didn’t have an accent.  When she talked to her she continued to interact with her.  I was really wasn’t sure what was going on.

Later that day when we were observing her classroom, I noticed that she had a lot of students who were second-language speakers.  She also ignored them in her class. There was this one student relatively with better English was trying to explain everything going on in the classroom to her friends.  I felt terrible.

Unfortunately, during my research in Georgia classrooms, I witnessed a lot of teachers avoiding saying different names, different than typical American suburban names.  Every time I witnessed this, I felt terrible. I felt like these students were undervalued. I felt this connection with these students, this kinship with these students and I start thinking who are we without our names, without our true names?  We are all different so are our names.

Things got a little harder for me in the United States.  I start just hanging out with my Turkish friends avoiding small talks because the reality about small talks for us foreigners is not beyond than, “Where are you from,” “When did you get here,” “Do you plan to go back’.  

Most people, when we speak, they have this deer-in-headlight look shocked face.  They cannot go beyond hearing our accent. So that ‘Meltem’ in Turkey who was so talkative and extroverted became ‘Mel’ who was less talkative and introverted.  

One day, I was smoking in front of my apartment.  I used to smoke. My neighbor came out. He was a friendly American neighbor.  He want to have a cigarette. I really wanted to avoid the small talk, but he was very friendly.  It was right after Bush elections. I really wanted to know why people voted for Bush. I was neither a Republican or a Democrat that time.  I had really little understanding of American politics, but I was against war and I want to understand it.

Meltem Alemdar shares her story with the Story Collider at the Highland Inn and Ballroom in Atlanta, GA in January 2019. Photo by Rob Felt.

Meltem Alemdar shares her story with the Story Collider at the Highland Inn and Ballroom in Atlanta, GA in January 2019. Photo by Rob Felt.

We had great conversation.  At the end of the conversation, he asked my name.  As usual, I said, “Mel.” He asked my full name. I was surprised.  Nobody ever asked my full name in a conversation like this before. I said, “Meltem.”  And after a couple of times, he got it.

I thought, well, it was not that difficult.  This moment became very important in my life.  This man became my husband later on.

After 2016 elections, I feel more immigrant than ever in this country, even though I’m a United States citizen today.  I get very self conscious in social settings when I’m the only one with a different name, with an accent. I misunderstand a lot of jokes.  I cannot really keep up with social cues. I get very shy in large parties because I never know how people are going to react to my accent or how tolerant they are going to be.  

But the reality is I am experiencing what it’s like for so many immigrants in this country.  Today, I am very proud to live this most American of stories. I am very proud to teach my fellow Americans the correct pronunciation of my name given to me in my birth in Ankara.  

As immigrants, America pushes us away, pulls us back, always pulling and pushing.  I realize that pushing away my name and pulling it back again is the story of this country.  It’s the story of searching for and then finding our place. Thank you.