Friday, June 8, 2012

Superstitions

One of the topics that provides great fodder for class discussion and writing practice is that of superstitions. In order to avoid running into the question of superstition vs. religion, I limit the discussion to good luck, bad luck or predictions of the future. Some of the most fruitful areas of discussion are the superstitions around major life events, particularly weddings and babies. It's fascinating how many of them are common to very different cultures – and how often the same item will have very different meanings for different cultures.

For example, the notion that if your right foot itches, you will travel or go to a new place was common among Irish, Middle Easterners and Somalis. On the other hand, owls, which for Western Europeans signify wisdom, are a portent of death for many Asian and African cultures. Part of the reason I enjoy the topic so much is how much I've learned from the students.

And then there are the unexpected things...

One student wrote the following in an essay, showing a wonderful disregard for relating pronouns to their antecedents: “My culture, Somalia, has a lot of superstitions. Many of them are about babies. I don't know where they come from.” (But yet he had four children!)

I asked the class if their cultures assigned any meaning to the left or right palm itching. Several students from various parts of the world had the same meaning I had learned in my Scots-Irish upbringing: that if the right palm itched, one would be receiving money, and if the left palm itched, one would be spending or losing money. One student looked very thoughtful and said, “When my palms itch, it means I have dry skin.”