When We Don’t Know the Rules

The sign seems obvious: 15 items or less. But what if you don’t know the rules? What if the sign means nothing to you from your context of shopping in open markets and bazaars where items in shiny plastic containers or wrappings are nonexistent and the idea of a forming any kind of line for checkout is completely foreign?  Not only is the sign and concept of 15 items or less not intuitive or obvious, it’s also completely confusing. You stand at the check out counter, thinking you’re having a  pleasant conversation with the cashier, thrilled that the shopping experience has gone so well and unaware of the glare of the gentleman behind you and the reproachful look of the elderly woman in the grey sweater.

Sometimes the situations aren’t as small as  “15-items or less” . They involve others, often our families, and bring about a sense of isolation and the feeling of being misplaced all over again, reminding us that we don’t really “get it”, that we need an interpreter, not of language, but of events and rules.  My friend Robynn Bliss, Author of Bright Pink Razais faced “a moment” this week and writes well of the memories and feelings associated with not knowing the rules. Enjoy!

Yesterday I had another moment. I thought I knew the rules. I thought I knew how it should go but in the end I had to give it up. Let it go. Assume that once again I really am a foreigner.

You see, yesterday was the Annual Awards Ceremony at the Middle School. We had been notified earlier in the week that our fourteen year old son, Connor, would be receiving an award. After supper I cleared the table and began the job of getting everyone out the door so that we would be in plenty of time to find good parking and a good seat at the ceremony. Suddenly Connor announces he doesn’t want to go. That seemed to me, to be completely immaterial. Want to or not, we’re going and we’re leaving in 10 minutes so get ready! But he really didn’t want to go. There was emotion attached to it. His eyes filled with tears. I kept up the pace for an on time departure.

Lowell, my husband of 17 years, my cultural informant extraordinaire, my interpreter of all things teenage boy, motioned for me to follow him into the other room. Lowell indicated that if Connor didn’t want to go maybe we shouldn’t go. Not go? I was appalled. We had to go. Connor was receiving an award and we needed to be there.
This is when the angst entered the room. Lowell explained, patiently and in good humour, that it was just a middle school event. There would be hundreds of young people acknowledged for achieving anywhere from a 3.2 grade point average to a 4.0. Many more would be acclaimed for good sportsmanship, good citizenship, marked improvement, persistence, perseverance and other note worthy virtues. Connor would not be missed.

In my mind it was disrespectful and rude to not show up. If you knew you were going to be presented an award you needed to be there to receive it. We went round and round it. I couldn’t conceive of the idea of not going. Lowell thought we could blow it off.

Finally Lowell said, “Robynn this isn’t the small Murree Christian School community” –that’s all he had to say. Of course it wasn’t. Murree Christian School was a small international Christian boarding school nestled in the Himalayan foothills of Pakistan. While I was there the enrollment never exceeded 250 students from grades 1 through twelve. It was a small closely knit community. At Murree you knew the Principal who handed you the award. You made eye contact. They had seen you grow up, they had known you since you could hardly spell, they were there, in the back ground giving witness to your childhood, your accomplishments, your achievements. It was Mr Roub, that very same Principal, who had to break the news to me that our pet dog would be taken away. It was Mr Roub who hugged me and handed me a tissue. Mr Roub asked about my parents. Mr Roub knew my aunt and uncle, my cousins. He knew me.

Later when the Principal was Stew Georgia the same was true. He quickly got to know us kids and our families. Phil Billing, already a staunch and established member of the community, entered the administrative role with relational finesse. He spiritually mentored me and taught me to think. These were responsibilities far from his job description and yet he embraced them.

Don’t misunderstand me. The Principal at MCS was responsible for dishing out punishments,academic probation and disciplinary actions as they are here at Eisenhower Middle School. It’s just that here  Greg Hoyt the Principal, who is reportedly an amazing person, only has access to these kids for two years. At Murree they had the unlikely advantage of watching us become who we were all the while knowing whose family we belonged to.

Murree Christian School was a small place with close emotional connections. If you didn’t come to receive an award, for which you were personally chosen, it would have been a slight against those who had chosen you, and those that presented the award. It would have been hurtful and rude. It would have been deliberate and disrespectful.
Here where the classes are enormous—there’s over 200 kids in Connor’s eighth grade (there were 5 in mine!)– it was okay, I guess, not to go.

A friend texted me from the ceremony. Connor received honors for scoring a 3.99 grade point average. He was also nominated for the citizenship award. It still feels strange that we didn’t go, even now, the day after.It feels stranger though, that still, after all this time I can’t always rely on my instincts. Those instincts were cultivated in a different place, in a smaller circle far away from here.

For those interested, take a look at this video taken of Murree in 2008. See what’s recognizable amid all the changes!

4 thoughts on “When We Don’t Know the Rules

  1. I think one of the very last things you said hits home the most to me “I can’t always rely on my instincts. Those instincts were cultivated in a different place.” That is EXACTLY how I felt as a teenager moved from Australia to the US – my instincts came from a different culture and following them got me into trouble. I now work with TCKs in China and see this sort of thing all the time. It’s difficult when the things that are “real” or “normal” to you don’t apply elsewhere. You either create a new paradigm or are left feeling lost and confused…


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