Kind regards

Baron Stewart

Fish Don't See Water - A journey of self discovery

Beyond Chicken Bones

During my first eight years in New York, I lived primarily in the Jamaican communities of the Bronx and Brooklyn. But when I was twenty-six years old I took a teaching job at a beautiful, small,  private school in Congers, New York where I made quite an impression from my first day.  One of my responsibilities was to be the assistant soccer coach, and at the first practice with the junior varsity, I played in my bare feet. I played football without shoes many times as a child in Jamaica, but many of these kids had never seen this before, so I caused a buzz on my first day. I made my next impression on the dance floor as a math teacher, who loved to dance. I would show my moves at the Rockland County Day School Danceathon.  My dancing became so popular that I started a dance club called Swing and Sway with Stewart.  I would teach the kids how to dance to Reggae and Calypso music, and we danced together passionately during every club meeting.  I did most of my teaching in the classroom but on Friday afternoons during the winter; the kids had a chance to teach me.  I was responsible for chaperoning a full bus of students as they went skiing on Vernon Valley Great Gorge slopes in New Jersey.  I have never skied; I am scared of heights, and I hate uncontrolled speed.  Skiing was not my cup of tea. I fell so many times, and when I wasn't falling I was would be frozen with panic on the icy slopes.  My young students would come to my rescue every time. They would teach me how to turn and stop. It was their chance to give me what I had given them.  At the end of the year, I was voted co-teacher of the year with Harold Goldstein, the excellent art teacher.


Towards the end of my first year at RCDS, some of the students decided that they wanted to welcome me formally to the school by having a dinner party in my honor. The party, held at a beautiful upper-middle-class home in West Nyack, started with wine, cheese, and casual talk.  Everyone was curious about this young, well-educated, black, mathematics teacher from Jamaica, who was generating so much excitement among their children.  "What did you study in graduate school?" the father asked. I struggled to describe Algebraic Topology, a branch of theoretical mathematics, in layman's terms. "How do you like the wine?" asked the host and mother of my students. After struggling to answer the first question, this second one had me completely at a loss. I'd had little to no particular experience with wine. In fact, I had no idea if the wine was good or bad.  I was so far out of my element that I lost my social footing. "I don't know if it's good" I sheepishly replied. I did my best to keep my composure, but my answers advertised the fact that I was well out of my comfort zone.

After about an hour of talk, the mother of the house called us over to the dinner table to partake in a delicious looking chicken dinner. I sat down across from the father of the family with the mother to my left and their two children to my right. Our light chatter continued over dinner until I grabbed a chicken leg in my hands and tore into the flesh. It was delicious. I aggressively ate the meat and began to chew the bones.  Eating chicken legs was never a tactical knife and folk process with me; it was an 'always eat with my hands' process, and I was a seasoned diner in that department. I held the leg in my hand and continued to enjoy the bone and the marrow, because, as a native Jamaican, those parts were the most satisfying part of the meal. I love to suck the marrow, chew the bones and swallow everything.  
Lost in my bliss, I hadn't noticed the loud silence that had overtaken the room.  It was so quiet that all I could hear was myself eating. It wasn't until the young girl to my right exclaimed, "You're eating the chicken bones!" that I came out of my chicken bone eating trance. At first glance, her face reminded me of someone who'd just seen a ghost. Confused, I responded, "Yes. Don't you?"  The room responded in unison, "No we don't!"  The embarrassment implicit in the situation dawned on me. My efforts to seamlessly blend in with the Rockland County elite had proved useless because I'd shown my real self. I was the new Jamaican mathematics teacher who ate chicken bones in public. It never occurred to me that there were places where people didn't eat chicken bones. All my friends and family ate chicken bones. Why wouldn't I? In Jamaica, if you were to watch the average family settle down for Sunday dinner, you would see that the hard parts of the chicken are the primary focus. The father and the oldest son would get the legs, the mother, and the remaining children would settle for the thighs, wings, and neck.  The hard parts of the chicken were all the rage in Jamaica during the 1950s when I grew up.  Eating bones have been going on for generations in Jamaica. It is no accident that I eat them too. I never thought, for a moment, that this behavior was odd at this time in New York. 


The cultural collision had huge impacted other areas of my life. I started to notice things that I hadn't noticed before. Soon after, I remember shopping for chicken at the supermarket and was shocked to find a package of boneless chicken. Wow! "Chicken without bones," I thought. "What a novel idea?" I would tell my chicken bone story when I made speeches at luncheons later in my life.  After almost every speech, a few people would come to me and say, "We want to see you do it." I did, and some of them would try it too. Others would mumble, "It must be the calcium that makes him do it." I have gained many chicken bone eating followers, "The bones taste good." "I would never have guessed," they'd say. Over the years that followed, I continued to eat my chicken bones, but only in the privacy of my home among consenting adults. I would say to my American wife, "Honey, I am going to eat some chicken bones." She would smile as she gave her approval.

My chicken bone eating incident forced me to consider other aspects of my Jamaican personality that may seem very odd to others.  One trait was my Jamaican cool. My  "No problem, Mon." personality was not going over well as I tried to climb the corporate ladder in America.  My managers at IBM would often say that I was not committed enough because of my relaxed attitude. They would not trust me to implement some of my ideas because I did not have the type A personality that made them comfortable.  I remember losing a lofty position of Seminar Director in a company that produced seminars in New York City for around 200 people once a week because I did not look the part. I had the skills to lead these high profile seminars, but I resisted the expected power persona of a workshop director.   I was so attached to my Jamaican mannerisms. I felt that if I let these habits go, I will lose myself. Why didn't I notice them before? "How was I going to respond to this new knowledge?"  Would I have to shy away from those situations that exposed me to embarrassment or should I risk looking like a fool so that I might learn and grow?   

My Chicken Bone story is the catalyst for this blog; Fish Don't See Water. The story has implications for all of us.  We all have behaviors that are so much a part of us that when we are doing them, we don't even notice.  We often discover these invisible habits when they are they are pointed out by others. Many of these unusual mannerisms are not even our invention but are traits of our culture.  We don't choose them; they choose us. We are recreating the behaviors of our ancestors. In different cultures, these practices appear very different. In one culture, we use our hands to express the passion of our conviction. While in another culture, any expression of emotion is unacceptable.  Still, in another culture, we kiss on the cheek when we greet each other. While in Jamaica, we say, "Ire Mon"   We are all fish that don't see the water.


I would love to hear from you. Write a comment.  What are some of the metaphorical chicken bones in your culture?  What are some of the habits you cling to that may not always work for you? The truth is that most of these traits are invisible to us and in many cases, they limit our freedom. Finding them and making a conscious decision to keep them or lose them gives us freedom and expands who we are. Explore these concepts with us. Share your perspective in a comment, and I will respond to you.