Adventures in ‘culture shock’

‘Kaale Sharon’ learns and educates as Jesuit volunteer in St. Xavier
Thursday, November 15, 2018

Photo by Andrew Turck

Sharon Duplain Musser is surrounded by first graders at Pretty Eagle Catholic Academy in St. Xavier. One first grader in the picture initially hid under a desk, but she coaxed the student out by saying, “All of you are important to me.”

Going into the final day of Native American Week on Oct. 26, Sharon Duplain Musser of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps faced a problem. Parade set-up was underway at Pretty Eagle Catholic Academy in St. Xavier, but she couldn’t find a committee through which to help.

As someone from Chicago with a background in organizational management, she was used to planning events through committees. It didn’t occur to her that the Crow Reservation town of fewer than 100 people might take a different route.

“I’m waiting, and I’m listening and listening, and nothing’s going on,” Musser said, laughing repeatedly as she described the week leading up to the event. “But they are talking about the parade.”

Soon, she was asked by a teacher to help monitor some young students in a classroom getting ready for the event. “Oh,” she thought, “maybe that’s the committee.”

“What’s going on was while I was trying to find the organizational part, they’ve been doing all this stuff all week,” she said. “It was in my face and it just went over my head.

“A lot the parents came in and helped the children with the costumes, they had the trucks out there for the parade, the banners. All this stuff was there and I [thought], ‘What? What happened?’”

In addition to this moment of “culture shock,” Musser – who’s called “Kaale (or ‘Grandma’) Sharon” by Pretty Eagle students – was surprised to actually have been chosen by the school’s Jesuit Volunteer program.

The issue, she thought, wouldn’t be linked to experience – in addition to having served more than three years in AmeriCorps at the time, she was the former family outreach and earlylearning coordinator for Racine County’s University of Wisconsin Extension. She believed, rather, that she would be rejected due to her demographic status.

Of the four JV members who work in academic support at Pretty Eagle, she is the only African American and, at 68, is the oldest by as many as four decades.

“It seemed to be a fit, but I was extremely surprised that they accepted me,” said Musser, who arrived at St. Xavier in August. “I looked at the pictures they had over the years, the people who served, and no one looked like me – in all different demographics.”

“I just figured I would apply and find out what their excuse would be not to accept me,” she said, laughing, “but it backfired.”

Pretty Eagle Principal Garla Williamson said Musser has provided a patient and calming presence for the school’s students. According to Williamson, Musser has the ability to discover how children learn and draw from that in order to meet their needs.

“She’s flexible and willing to do whatever is needed,” Williamson said. “It’s been pretty smooth; it usually is with our JVs. They’re such a willing group of folks and what I like, too, is they’re models of service.”

Musser’s current role in the JV team is to help tutor first graders with writing and English pronunciation, and fourth graders in reading comprehension. The students, in turn, have attempted to teach her the Crow language, she continued, though her speaking rhythm made the words “sound like hip-hop.”

She lives with her fellow JV members in a trailer a short walk away from Pretty Eagle. They have different mindsets and have disagreed on issues involving household chores and the like, she said, but JV members also are very supportive of one another.

When she arrived at the Billings airport from a Seattle retreat on Wednesday, Nov. 7, one her fellow JV members drove for more than an hour to pick her up around midnight. At the baggage claim, she continued, she “saw another arm waving from the other side of the car.” All three members of the Billings JV team had come along to greet her. That, she told them, “was such a gift.”

“They looked like three blind mice sitting there: ‘Hi, we’re here!’ Oh, what camaraderie! I’m just in tears now,” she said as she cried and wiped her eyes. “And here they’re all 40 years my junior, and they’re all sitting back there and I couldn’t believe it. I’ve never had…I’ve never had anybody to come that late at night and just wait for me.

“They loved it, because I started talking to them like, ‘You all should be in bed. What are you doing up?’ and they knew I was embracing it.”

From her time in St. Xavier, Musser said, she’s become “a different person” – more empathetic to other viewpoints and more appreciative of her own family. While she found the Crow teaching style too commanding toward the students at the outset, she continued, the kids received and learned from such correction better than she expected.

Through connecting her work at Pretty Eagle with “misunderstandings I had in my own family,” Musser said, the journey has turned into something deeply personal. Her mother is 88 years old, she continued, adding that “I realize now how valuable she is through this culture.”

“They value family over anything else in the world… and I feel her even more from being here,” Musser said. “I want her to share the things she always wanted to share with me, like her crafts, and even her special way of cooking and baking. Now, I’m ready for it.

Her mother is in Hyde Park, near the University of Chicago and, according to Musser, in good health. However, she noted, complications can happen, such as when Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 85, fell and fractured three ribs on Nov. 7.

“It’s taken me to come [more than 1,000] miles out here to realize that I’m looking forward to being with my mom, and…not my husband and not my good friend,” she said. “It’s been very awakening for me to feel this way.”

The Jesuit Volunteer marketing may not be “quite there” when it comes to attracting active seniors, Musser said, but she encourages people in her demographic to consider it in their retirement years.

“A lot of people don’t know this kind of opportunity exists for them,” she said. “Hopefully, I’ll end up being some kind of ambassador – not in a formal way, but if someone wants to know my experience.

“I’ll go to – I don’t know about a nursing home – but I’ll go to an active seniors’ environment or maybe the Y.”

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