Science Fiction, Amygdalas, and Cinco de Mayo

*I am aware that it is now May 6th, but I don’t have the mental energy to start a new post. 

Today is Cinco de Mayo. So that means that my day started out with my school blasting some Marc Anthony (who was born in New York, and whose parents are from Puerto Rico) song in “celebration,” a student telling me that their mom had found and bought a “giant sombrero,” for a party later today, and another kid telling me, “Happy Mexican Independence Day!”

Honestly, if I had a dollar for every time someone asked me, “What is your family doing for Cinco de Mayo?” or, “Wait, but isn’t it Mexico’s Independence Day or somethin’?” I could probably buy a decent-sized luxury sedan. Maybe even a crossover.

This week alone, I’d probably have eighteen bucks.

I’ve been talking to my students about it, especially since one of my students said that he was tired of telling people that Mexico’s Independence Day is in September.

“I’ve told like, 300 people and it’s not even lunch time yet,” he grumbled. While he may have been slightly hyperbolic, it does tend to be never-ending.

Just today, I wrote a message on Old Navy’s Facebook page because they sent me an email with the subject line, “Friday Fiiiiieeessssta Cinco de Mayo Sale!!” In the email, I was told that everything was 30% off online, but that “Margaritas would be sold separately.”

Cha-ching. Just earned myself another Mocha dollar. One step closer to that Lexus.

It’s not that I want people to ignore this holiday. It’s just that I want people to be informed and then celebrate accordingly. If you find yourself with an intense desire to acknowledge and celebrate a battle fought between the Mexican and the French armies in the small city of Puebla, then go for it. Do some research. Find some authentic dishes from that region. Learn about how that battle even came to pass. Maybe, if you’re feeling extra groovy, you could learn some traditional dances from 1862 and dance the night away.

But don’t completely eviscerate a beautiful culture and come away with a pitcher of margarita mix and some poorly made tacos (oh lord, especially those abominations with the square bottoms).

It’s like there was a point a while ago, where someone used this logic:  “I don’t get Mexican culture very much. But I do get drinking. Tequila is Mexican. I’ll drink tequila instead of actually trying to understand the other parts. Those are mostly in Spanish, anyway.”

They pare down a culture that they don’t understand, that maybe scares them a little, into shot-sized stereotypes that help them feel better and retain their power. And that fear of the unknown or misunderstood is what led us to science fiction for our 7th graders.

We have read The Monsters are Due on Maple Street by Rod Serling, as well as The Pedestrian and All Summer in a Day by Ray Bradbury. We are about to start reading Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut. All of these stories, aside from being totally and completely amazing, are about people’s reactions to those who are different, unique, or present themselves in a way that confuses people. Three different authors came to the same conclusion: people tend to be awful when confronted with anything different, or anything that makes them go, “huh?”‘

We learned that the human brain reacts to someone with different ideas, beliefs, or values in the same way as it would react to, let’s say, a bear attack. Seriously. The amygdala, which is the threat assessment center of the brain, goes into DefCon 1 when someone comes at you with a machete, or you know, votes differently than you do.

My students were astounded to learn about this. These science fiction stories were not total exaggerations, but warnings about human nature at its worst.

I asked students to think about examples in today’s society in which people let their amygdalas do all the talking. Almost immediately, students brought up racism, classism, religious biases, and others. Every class remembered a time when they or their peers had ostracized a fellow student for being “different.”

Then, right when their faith in humanity is almost gone, I tell them that their amygdalas can be trained out of this response. Their heads snap back up from their downcast states, their eyes light up a bit.

I tell them them that all they have to do is try new things, and meet new people. Read books about people different than you. Do research about something that scares you a little, or about something you don’t quite understand.

“That,” I said, “will shut your amygdala right up.” Then I give them their homework: What is something they could do this week that would help keep them from reacting like the people in Monsters are Due on Maple Street or that brat William in All Summer in a Day. 

Their responses thus far have been epic

“I walk by a Mexican store every day, and I’ve been too scared to go in. I’m going in today!”

“I want to learn more about Islam.”

“I want to try some authentic Chinese food, and I want to ask them about it, so I learn more about their culture.”

“I’m going to read more about immigration.”

And lastly: “I’m going to talk to my grandma. She’s terrifying.”

Terrifying grandmothers aside, I hope that my students do go and broaden their worldviews. Having a broader perspective about people and the world we live in is so vital in helping us overcome any differences. It also allows us to refrain from sending stupid emails about Cinco de Mayo and margaritas.

So, on this celebratory day, let us raise a glass to those valiant soldiers of Puebla, to Rod Serling and Ray Bradbury for scaring us into talking to our grandmothers, and to my students, who will have such well-trained amygdalas that no monsters ever appear on any Maple Street ever again.

 

 

 

 

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