Challenges to Our Identity

“Fighting for identity is something very much in my life.” -Ang Lee

Was thinking quite a bit about how identity is formed. Are we born with it? Is our nature predestined? Are we a product of our environment? How much do we change over the expanse of our lives? What part of us remains the core of who we are throughout our lifespans? Does the core of our being culminate into one style? As a creative human being, I would like to believe that we allow for change and experimentation. I took a chance with the zentangle style once again. Not my usual process of creating but I found it meditative for several hours. I don’t think it would have endured a napkin. Drew this in East New York, Brooklyn during my lunch break. 

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This question concerning identity stems from some observations I had while walking the half mile from the subway to my current school. I am the equivalent to a substitute teacher. Some teens were walking ahead of me and greeted each other with a very intricate handshake. Sadly, this type of handshake is not a new phenomenon for me since you see a lot of things after teaching for ten years. Confirming my suspicions, a teen admitted to being part of a gang of over 200 members. I won’t go into what has been said about the violent initiation of a potential gang member but the idea of seeking out a gang made me question the whole notion of identity for several days. For what purposes might a person relinquish their personal identity for the larger identity of a group (or gang)? Survival? Belonging? Or perhaps it was an idea cultivated by family and friends, like a religious ideology or philosophy for living?

I continue to walk to my school and notice another teenage girl wearing a hijab and a long black skirt. She walks very quickly and takes a deep breath when construction workers reroute our walk to the other side of the street. That side of the street has many students who are not rushing to school, hanging out in groups, some play fighting. I turned to her, smiled and said, “We’ll get through it.” She followed me through with my belief that my identity as a teacher might act a shield. It did. I learned that some students have challenged her walk to and from school. I imagine she might think that to snitch on them (annoying word) would mean that she would have to eventually confront those who challenge her personal identity, perhaps strengthened by her religious identity. We all wear our identity armor.

I relayed the situation to an adult whom I know lives in the area. She felt the teenage girl would need to toughen up, speak up, maybe even fight back rather than attempt to stay under the radar “in this neighborhood.” Ironically, I was working as the teacher in charge of the suspension room that day. The room has the usual posters about the nature of bullying. All of them send a message to the students to not be a bully, not to fight, not to speak up and, yet, perhaps they were taught, that’s how you survive in this neighborhood, by some well meaning adult. It seemed like a Catch 22 for most teens. Fight to survive and then be incarcerated when you do! It does not seem just to me.

As I move on to my next school, I wonder about the quiet girl. I hope the construction is done and that she can continue to walk to school under the radar. As violent as I think as it may be for a person to join a gang, I think keeping your personal identity under the norms of your dysfunctional environment may be the toughest fight one may have to face. That fight would be worth it.

Going back to my napkin drawings…

Here’s a frazzled owl who endured quite a tough winter. Went for a walk up 7th Avenue in Park Slope to Lincoln Pl. and found the best French-Hungarian café called Café Dada for a late brunch this morning. I liked the name of the place. Dadaism was an avant-garde art movement that formed due to the negative reaction to WWI. Perhaps my frazzled bird is a homage to the Dadaists and dealing with my own reactions to the unspoken wars going on between some teens in Brooklyn. Peace!

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