Immigrant Bengalis

It was sometime in the early 1990s. I was a psychologist at several schools within the Cincinnati Public School system. One day I was evaluating aten-year-old boy at one of the schools. This boy was referred to me for possible emotional problems. After a couple of minutes of spending time with me, the boy looked at me and asked “Are you Chinese?” I responded “Do I look Chinese to you?” The boy did not pay any attention to what I had to say. Instead he replied, “You Chinese people and them white people always mess us up.” I asked him “Who told you so?” he replied “My mama.” Instead of getting into any further discussion on this topic, I promptly changed the subject and moved on with my evaluation. That was what I was there for. I could not spend time trying to figure out why he thought I was Chinese and why he thought the Chinese people messed them up.

Cincinnati Public Schools student population in the 1990s was very much divided into two major racial groups—blacks (African Americans) and whites. The other ethnic groups were not really visible.  They are somewhat more visible now. So I was not surprised that this child thought I could be Chinese. He probably had never met a Chinese person in his life. All he could tell was that I was neither black nor white. But interestingly he already had developed some strong negative feelings about people who were not black.

I have never met a first generation Indian school psychologist during my twenty-one years of professional life.  I had studied math both in India and in the US (as a graduate student) before an unexpected life experience changed the direction of my career path. Our first child was born with Down Syndrome and spent almost four years with us before she passed away. During those four years, I had extensive contact with professionals involved with special needs children. After she died, I strongly felt that I needed to make good use of my experience as a parent to help other parents of special needs children.  So I went back to graduate school and ended up becoming a school psychologist. I started working for Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) in 1990 and worked there for twenty one years until I retired in 2011.

Once I started working for CPS, I realized that I needed to learn quite a few things that my graduate school had not prepared me for. The population I was working with was really “alien” to me. In many ways it was a rude awakening. I began with a high school for former drop outs. More than half of the students were teenage girls with babies. The district provided free daycare as well as free preschool for the children of these teenagers. My role was to encourage these students to stay in school and try to become independent. A small percentage of these students were motivated. Most of them were not. I realized that unless you belonged to their own community, discussions about becoming self-sufficient was not going to make a significant difference for most of them. The school had a program for getting mentors for these students but they were predominantly professional white men and women. Many of these students looked at these mentors as people who could give them money or buy things for their children. This school did not last for too long. It was too expensive for the district with not enough good results.

Most of my time in CPS was spent evaluating students for possible special needs. I also provided short term counseling and small group counseling from time to time. Sometimes I was called for crisis intervention such as calming down an out-of-control student who was in danger of hurting him/herself and others. There were times I was there to calm down an irate parent—a parent who was there probably to beat up another student or a staff member. Then there were days when along with some other psychologists, I was called to provide grief counseling for students. Usually this happened when a student had died. These were all challenging situations. Once I remember a junior high student had died in one of my schools due to a car accident that was the result of a high speed chase with several police officers. This student obviously did not have a driver’s license. He was also driving a stolen vehicle and was driving way past the speed limit. His peers could not see any fault on his part and kept on blaming the police officers. We failed to explain to the grieving peers that there was something to be learnt from this incident.

One of the biggest challenges of dealing with students, particularly upper elementary and above, was the absence of fathers. During my evaluation, I usually spent some time interviewing the student. When I asked “Where is your daddy?” a common answer was “He in jail”. With close relatives being locked up in jail because they have broken the law, it is very difficult to explain to a child the importance of following the law. They know the consequences but do not blame their relatives. Instead they blame the system for being unfair to their relatives. Also, because so many of these students are used to seeing close relatives being incarcerated, breaking the law and the resulting consequences did not seem to be something they were afraid of. Similar problems arose when I tried to work with pregnant teens encouraging them not to get pregnant until they became independent.  When your own mother was fourteen when she had her first child, how can that be bad? After all, a mother cannot be wrong. I remember evaluating a ten year old girl who had nine siblings, most of them in the same school. When asked about her dad, she replied very calmly “We each have our own daddy”. To her, that was the norm. Obviously, most of the fathers did not take any significant responsibility in raising the children. The mothers would receive a monthly check from the government for each dependent child. A small percentage of these children were able to break this cycle and make it against all odds. But most could not.

Another big challenge was to get the parent/guardian involved. In some of my elementary schools, the principal actually provided dinner for the parents if they showed up for “Back to School Night”. The parent/guardian was first required to visit the classroom and meet the teacher and then the teacher would give the parent/guardian tickets for the family to have dinner. This way at least they would show up and meet the teacher. Many times I would try to get in touch with a guardian particularly if the child was having behavior problems. This was to encourage the guardian to be an active participant in drawing up a “Behavior Plan” for the child. I tried to explain to the guardian that the child needed to get a clear message that the home and school were working together and if the child misbehaved in school, he/she would lose privileges at home such as watching TV or playing video games. Unfortunately, this did not work most of the time because taking away these privileges meant that the guardian would have to come up with options to keep the child occupied at home. I was always amazed as to how many children in our schools owned video games although they came from mostly low income and welfare families. Most of these children qualified for free breakfast and free lunch but they still owned these games. I guess for the guardians, these were easy “babysitters” that would keep the children occupied at home.

There was also major peer pressure for students who tried to work hard and be successful. I counselled a fourteen year old eighth grade girl who was very bright and an excellent student. Although she came from a single parent home and was living in poverty like her peers, she had high expectations of herself and wanted to become a physician one day. However, she had no friends in school and her loneliness really bothered her. She was frequently mocked by her peers because in their minds she was acting “white”. Fortunately, I was able to find a young professional female African American mentor for her. This girl eventually graduated from high school and is now in college. These were some of the few successes that made my job worthwhile.

In one of my elementary schools, I ran a program where doctoral clinical psychology students from a nearby University would come and provide individual and group counseling to some of the students. I selected the students based on teacher referrals. Almost all of these doctoral students were white. I still remember one of these psychology students holding the hand of an eight year old African American girl and taking her to a room for their first session. After the session ended, I asked her how it went. The doctoral student had a strange look on her face. She said, ” The girl told me that she liked white people because they always gave her stuff.” Obviously, this doctoral student was very surprised. But I wasn’t. This is what this girl had learnt in her short life. She had learnt to manipulate people so that she could get what she wanted.

We had to deal with a lot of fighting in school. During social skills groups, it was a challenge to discuss what a student should do if someone started to fight with him/her. The answer invariably was, “Hit him/her back.” The problem was that this was what the children had learnt to survive in their environment. They would even say, ” My mama told me to do so.” So as school professionals, we had to let them know that there were two sets of rules. There was one set of rules that they would follow at home and in their neighborhood and the other set of rules was for school. In school if someone hit them, they would have to tell a teacher or an adult and not fight back. This did not always work but this was the only way we could deal with some discipline issues without undermining the authority of the parent.

During interview, I would usually ask students what they wanted to be when they grew up. Frequently the boys would say that they wanted to become professional basketball or a football players. Sometimes they would say they wanted to become doctors. Girls generally wanted to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, or beauticians. Unfortunately, they had no idea as to what was involved in realizing their dreams.

A student is generally referred to a school psychologist because there are some major academic/emotional concerns about that student. When a sixth grader in an inner city school is reading at a second-third grade level, the chances are small that he/she could realize the dream of becoming a doctor or a lawyer one day. There is a huge disconnect between the outcomes and the pathways to achieve them. According to the “No Child Left Behind Act of 2001,” the federal government requires public schools to set objectives with the goal of having ALL students score at the proficiency level or above in reading and math within twelve years. There is a big problem with this expectation. According to the findings of Drs. Betty Hart and Todd Risley at the University of Kansas (1995), there are meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children. By age 3, the observed cumulative vocabulary for children from professional families was about 1100 words whereas the observed vocabulary for children from working class families was about 750 words, and for children from welfare families it was just over 500 words. Despite best efforts in preschool programs to equalize opportunity, children from low income homes remain well behind their more economically advantaged peers later in school. There could be more recent studies done that show somewhat better results but the fact remains that there continues to be a gap.

I have always wondered why school districts (with predominantly students from low income and welfare families) do not provide an option of vocational training for their students in school. In my opinion, it is political correctness that expects every student to be able to accomplish everything. In many of our elementary schools, the eighth grade graduation was usually a big thing. The parents were invited and there were invited speakers. There was a lot of food. I used to be surprised in the beginning but later I realized that this was the only graduation ceremony many of them will ever attend. Some of these students were able to graduate from high school. However, many of them dropped out because the school work was too difficult for them and they lost interest. Unfortunately, with no marketable skills and not having a home environment with strong parent(s), many of these students got involved in activities that were illegal and dangerous and ended up being incarcerated. Some even got killed. It is one thing watching a former student on the local news because he/she has done something good. However, during my twenty one years in CPS, I have watched several of my former students on local news because they were involved in something that was not only against the law but also dangerous. Some of them had lost their lives. I have visited families of deceased students during their funerals.  Those have been some of the most difficult experiences in my career.

When I went back to graduate school to become a school psychologist, I had a lot of expectations of myself. My dream was to make some big changes in some people’s lives as a school psychologist. When I started working at CPS, I continued to have those expectations. I thought I could inspire some students and their families so they could rise above their poverty and misery and do something in life that they could be proud of. What I found out was that the desire to make a big change in one’s life must come from inside. If you are not willing to make a change yourself, no amount of outside help can make that possible. Not belonging to the community was also a problem. The fact that I was not a white person was not enough. I was still not one of “them.” However, I believe I did my job as a school psychologist reasonably well. Even though I grew up in a foreign country, I was able to make myself comfortable working with a population that was somewhat “alien” to me.  My schools were generally happy with my work. However, I myself would define my job as a psychologist as a “band aid.” I felt most of the work I did was a temporary solution to a much bigger problem.

Fortunately, I myself came out of this experience much more enlightened. This experience gave me a lot of confidence in myself. After all, when you are asked to calm down an out-of-control child who has a weapon that could hurt others (including yourself), you have to have confidence in yourself. I have also learnt to listen to others without being judgmental. At the same time, I have learnt to accept the unpleasant fact that we may have a lot of ideals about making big changes but in reality, we do have our limitations and that doesn’t necessarily imply that we have failed. My experience as a school psychologist in an urban school district has made me grow in many ways and that is something I will always cherish.

(Posted August 1, 2014)


From MR (Aug 6, 2014):  "I was  impressed with the stories that Ruma Sikdar has presented in her article-----I learned quite a lot about the problems that an immigrant psychologist can face trying to tackle some basic psychological issues in a "foreign" culture. It certainly awakened me to a problem in North American schools that I'd not have normally thought about even though I spent my entire life teaching at "foreign" universities. Lovely piece of writing." 

From SG (Aug 3, 2014): "Three very enjoyable and touching articles. Thanks very much for sending the link, which I will forward to my friends."

The Chinese School Psychologist
Ruma Sikdar