Day 4: Because we are on an alternating A/B schedule, Tuesday I simply repeat the lesson plan from Monday, only better. Exchange is everything. I have the same three classes with different students. Some students are returning to me from 10th grade; on B days most are new.
On Wednesday and then again today, I move each class deeper into the realm of ideas. I decide to frame my first week’s entry points around issues I believe will resonate with the black and brown faces I teach. I should mention I share that heritage, though I am in no way implying that those who do not are impaired. Every teacher finds his or her own pathway to connection. Still, I want my students to know I understand something of the larger universe swirling around them–especially in DC..
In each class, I begin by telling them about my background: I am a native Washingtonian who grew up in Anacostia, an area of our nation’s capital routinely described by the local media as barren territory desperate for gentrification. It is euphemistically labeled “east of the river,” a catchphrase for poor.
I always begin the same: “I’m from Shipley Terrace, so don’t even think about starting any mess. I grew up deeper in the ‘hood than you will ever be. Y’all don’t even know where it is–that’s how deep I am.” They usually laugh. “And on the last day of school, I always walk home–slowly. So if you ever think you want to “talk” with me privately, you’ll know where I will be.” The male students, most larger than me, especially respond to that part.
But, as usual, there is a point I want to make. I still remember my dismay when, reading somewhere back in the ’60s, I discovered in The Washington Post that I was socially stunted, economically disadvantaged, and culturally deprived. I want them to know they are not strangers to me. I have three children myself and a vanload of nephews, nieces, and cousins who look just like them. I am an educated man, “all-Ivy” I tell them, undergrad and grad. I want them to trust me. I want them to know I understand, and I am qualified. I want them to relax.
For Debate I, I present the challenge of deciding whether or not the use of the N-word is ever a “good thing” on the heels of the Dr. Laura controversy (I provide them with the transcript of her on-air radio “conversation” with the caller Jade, and a host of articles and song lyrics pro and con). In AP English Language, we read Bill Cosby’s “Pound Cake” speech (the one where he argues that poor black people are the architects of their own demise), and the first chapter of Michael Dyson’s book-length rebuttal. Finally, in English III, we focus on the meaning of the “American Dream” while unraveling theme in Edward P. Jones’s short story ‘The First Day” and Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl.”
In all my classes, I begin with showing video excerpts from the documentary What Black Men Think produced by conservative Janks Morton. I focus mostly on the two spoken poem segments, as my year-long theme is “The Power of Words.” But I also share selected portions which highlight some of the issues relevant to our class discussions. (Why do most Americans think there are more black men in jail than in college? Are poor people lazy? Is racism just an excuse? Is hip hop music an abomination?) I alert them to be on the lookout for the goals of political discourse and some of the subtle techniques inherent in persuasive speech. We will revisit the art of persuasion again and again this year in every class. So much of the world has already decided what they are; I want them to be able to articulate who they are and then defend what they believe.
After I read “The First Day,” I ask my English III students, the last period of the day and my most boisterous group, if they remember their own first day of school. “Who cried?” I ask. Almost every hand goes up, especially the boys. We laugh as they recall that first tiny book bag with the face of their favorite cartoon character on the back, the brand new pencil case, the lunch box with the thermos whose top became a cup. I then sneak a challenge in by instructing them to remember how excited they were to finally go to “the big school.” “I want some of that in this class,” I tell them. “I want to meet that little boy, that little girl–at least a little.”
The ensuing conversations soar. I can feel their energy, even though I still do not know all the names. Yesterday and today, I try to harness that excitement and take it further. Debaters have to chart the arguments about N-word usage on both sides and then begin to frame a personal response. AP Lang students work hard to take a stand on the issue of behavior and poverty, and then explain it. Several want copies of the handouts to share with their parent(s). I assign them a two-page essay entitled, “Is Bill Cosby Right?” Finally, English III students must uncover how a fictional writer uses technique to suggest theme. They have to write about “Girl.”
But then something else happens. Somewhere in the stream of all this inquiry, I ask a question in each class. “Was the future better for your parents and grandparents than it is for you?” Almost every hand raised in the affirmative. I demand evidence. “Our generation is spoiled,” they say. “We don’t know how to work. We don’t appreciate sacrifice. We don’t care about one another.” Then one girl who I also taught last year states, “The dream died.”
This is where the deeper challenge begins. This is why I love teaching. I pull my inspiration from a conversation I had with my wife the night before. I told her about my classes and the timbre of that conversation. I mentioned to her that my students this year were clearly bright, but some seemed undecided. “I just think sometimes we were more inventive than they are,” I shared. That was when she reminded me about something more.
She argued that it is self-serving to blame young people and denigrate their strivings, as though we were never young, and searching, and confused, and cocky, and scared. She reminded me about DJ Kool Herc, and how he helped transform a catchy beat into art and a lucrative industry. She sketched a picture for me of the Bronx on that hot, summer day when he stepped out of his apartment and into the world, with the speakers blaring, and the freed hydrants cooling, and the allure of scratch beckoning, and the sound of adults and children splashing in the air. She reminded me about Chuck Brown uncovering music in the silence of confinement, just sticks challenging metal bars, until he unleashed “go-go.”
Feeding off that fire, I enter my classroom on Wednesday and Thursday, and I tell my students they are wrong. Old people always believe their ways were better; otherwise they think there was no point in growing old. I turn to them and explain:
“Look at what you have done. You took a N-word that shamed so many of us, lifted it from the heap, sprayed it with gold-plate, encrusted it with fake diamonds, and then wore it on your chest–an emblem of affection. Then you dared to decide who could and could not use it. You took the hallmark of defeat, the beltless, sagging pants of prison halls, and turned it into fashion. Look at your parents and guardians who rejected the hand-me-down names of yesteryear and crafted their own sounds and spellings for so many of you–no matter what. My child will be unique.
You created your own dress, dances, and hairstyles. You brandished tattoos, even after we told you dark people could not display such things. You created language and music and cadence, earrings in both male ears, and dances that smelled like Africa, whether we liked it or not.
As Public Enemy exhorted, “Don’t believe the hype.” You are better, yes, for our struggles. But you are more than that, too. You are special. You are the embodiment of the American Dream. Life will be better for you and your children, despite what Springer and Povich display–because you are the essence of the dream we imagined. Yes, people can argue otherwise, but argument exists for manipulation. Listen to your heart. Hear mine (by now, the room was still, and every eye opened). When I look at you, I see me. Only better.”
I have no words really for what happens next. Silence. Pens and pencils moving. Charts about argument, main ideas, and structure filling. Students whispering to one another. I have no words to describe that noisy silence. But I can tell you what I do next. I say nothing more, swallow my impulse to comment further, and sit down. What a great week.