The Third Space

The Third Space.

In Spanish, we have a saying that describes what the “American Experience” is for Latinos: “Ni de aca ni de alla.” Neither here nor there. One foot on either side, never wholly in one space, never wholly feeling like we belong. For many Latinos, this means being seen in American culture as–to put it bluntly–an alien.

“Oh, where are you from? No, where are you REALLY from?”

“Do you know that everyone on this show looks like you?”

And so on and so on.

Likewise, whenever I visit El Salvador I’m welcomed by my family, but I’m never really “one of them.”

“Oh, your cousins don’t want to go THERE. Take them to the mall or McDonald’s. Somewhere more American.”

“Que dijistes? What did you say? I can’t understand your accent.”

This is sometimes said of my sister, who is the most Americanized out of all of us and is treated and revered like an American for her whiter skin and Westernized attitudes. As a result, my relatives try hardest to make her happy, which only echoes what I’ve seen other Latinos do to accommodate Americans.

What does any of this have to do with the so-called “Third Space”? In my experience being in the Master in Teaching program, I find myself privy to falling into this Third Space. As a masters student, I am exposed to a constant influx of pedagogy and philosophy. Names like Vygotsky, bell hooks, Jean Anyon, H. Richard Milner–all swim through the subconscious of our curriculum like fish at sea we catch and put into our ever-growing fish tank we need to maintain and take care of. We get bombarded with social justice curricula. We attend conferences and training to encourage us to push our thinking and our beliefs. We stay up doing homework and give up precious time with loved ones to write critical memos, essays, our inquiry-driven thesis papers.

We rethink schools.

By contrast, our school lives have different expectations of us. We are asked to differentiate, to discipline, to divulge into the school’s curriculum. We sacrifice precious time with our loved ones to grade papers and plan lessons. We are asked to think outside the box, collaborate, to be on time, to give 110% even if we are already giving 100% elsewhere.

We teach.

We rethink schools.

But the Third Space–that in-between in the Venn diagram linking Masters work with School work–is always there, constantly staring at us and analyzing us like a third eye. We are called to be masters students, but also teachers. We have to find ways to incorporate both what we learn in our program and the school’s culture. We sometimes even have to balance social justice in places that see justice as equality, not equity–as colorblindness, not racism.

My experience in the Third Space made me feel like I was in the Twilight Zone. Last Fall, we were taking time out of our lesson on something we did in English Language Arts to present a PowerPoint on bullying. The high school I was in tries to bring attention to justice issues in various ways, and pushes teachers to be aware of stereotypes we may not be aware of. The school, like many in Western Washington, is also predominantly White. Unsurprisingly, so was my mentor teacher. It was therefore no surprise that the following exchange occurred when the conversation shifted toward stereotypes:

“Okay, so this is why we don’t do stereotypes. Let’s say you,” pointing toward a Vietnamese-American student in the middle of the room, “were stereotyped with always getting good grades in math. That is a prevailing stereotype, if I thought —- is really smart because she’s Asian.” My mentor never even bothered to ask —- about her cultural heritage. How did she know she wasn’t Pacific Islander?

Another time, we had an English Language Learner in a different class period. I asked my mentor where she was from, in case there were accommodations I could make to the curriculum.

“I think she’s from China,” replied my mentor two weeks into the school year, when she had time to research these things. She was also working on her ELL certification at the same time.

I checked the computer system later just to be sure. The student was from Vietnam, not China.

The reason these two scenarios put me in the Third Space was because I was torn. I was taught to never essentialise based on one person’s experiences, and here was this student being asked to represent all students who looked like her in the stereotype of being smart. I was taught to never judge what a student “is” ethnically because everyone’s experience is different, and here was a student being essentialised based on what she looked like. I was taught ┬áto speak up for injustices, and here I was unable to say a word because I didn’t have a job yet, I wasn’t a teacher yet according to my mentor, and my enrollment in my masters program depended upon this assignment. I had no power, and I had no way to bring this up without getting blamed for being racist, or judging my mentor, or having this all be my fault in some twisted way I couldn’t fathom, as people of color are often victimized whenever these matters are brought up. As I had been victimized by bringing it up on a different occasion. I was neither here nor there.

“Ni de aca ni de alla.”

I anticipate yet another ten weeks of being in this Third Space. Like my experiences as a Salvadoran American, I have impossibly difficult expectations placed on me. But there is a strange beauty to being part of two worlds. It is the realization that I have experiences that are unique to who I am, and that can help me empathized with students like the one I mentioned, who are sometimes made to be alien and sometimes feel torn between two worlds that are each a part of who they are. I wonder, in my perceived lack of social privilege, how many teachers out there actually feel PRIVILEGED enough to understand these struggles, and how many are privileged enough to know we one day have the power to be the change we wish to see in the world, to put an end to racial stereotypes that place us in this difficult position to begin with.

I know how to be in the Third Space.

I know how to be neither here nor there.