Thursday, July 28, 2016

Rochester, MN

Total Population: 106,000 
Race breakdown: W: 81% B: 6% H: 5% A: 6%

Rochester, a small town about 1.25 hours southwest of the Twin Cities, is a funky little place. It is (barely) on the map only because of The Mayo Clinic, an international medical destination. To give you an example of this, what 100,000 person town do you know with an INTERNATIONAL airport. People from Saudi Arabia and San Diego and Brazil all come to Mayo when no one else can fix their bodies. This is important information, because, although I think a small town such as Rochester would normally suffocate me, three was a rhobustness about it due to the power-house of Mayo. More restaurants, more establishments, more shopping, more highly educated people, more stoplights than had it been any other 100,000 person town. Still, it was surrounded by fields of soybeans and corn. And, still, look at the percentage of whites. This was by far the whitest place I had ever lived.

We lived there for 3.5 years. Scott worked at the Mayo Clinic as a development professional and I busied myself with raising our growing family and working part-time at one of the middle schools in the Rochester School system, the only one there was. I remember the culture shock of less African Americans. But, from the school standpoint, what the population lacked in African Americans students, it made up for in African refugees students. The basement classroom I taught in for half the day was where practicing Muslim students (often refugees) could go to in place of the cafeteria during fasting religious holidays. I would have my planning period during this time and often be found at my desk plugging in grades, while Mr. Nur, the Somolian teacher charged with their oversight, would welcome these students by name and exchange banter, often a mix of English and the language they shared. I feel embarrassed that I don't know more about the refugees' connections to Minnesota, much less Rochester. But many of them, I recall, had gone through a lot. Several of my own African students had spent numerous years before their move to the states in Egypt and other not-their-home-country countries seeking a place to live that wasn't worn torn. Although there definitely was a bit of segregation between the white students and the refugee students when left to socialize on their own, I was incredibly happily surprised at how well the classroom setting worked. The headdresses and holiday-observation and accents and everything else different about these Africans was overall well respected.

I tell this story, because it was my first exposure to a population of people in America who were born in Africa. I remember time and time again, when describing a student to another teacher or analyzing subgroup scores in a teacher meeting, having to suck back in the words "African American" when I really meant "African." I grew up learning to refer to all black people in this country as "African American." In Rochester, I was seeing two faces of the black community, those whose families had been living in this country for generation upon generation: African American... and those born in Africa and who were fiercely and desperately learning how to be American.

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