The rumored reunion of The Fugees means almost nothing to my students, who were mere toddlers when the group topped the Billboard charts in 1996. I am always surprised when my references in class to 1980s and early ’90s cultural and political phenomena yield blank and puzzled faces. It’s not that I forget how young they are; I forget how old I am–at least to them. Last week, they kept reminding me of the gap between us in subtle and not-so-subtle ways I had not heard in months. Something must be in the air.
During my English III classes, I threw a “Gatsby” party, replete with period music and “finger food.” I secretly designated one student to serve as the mysterious protagonist in Fitzgerald’s novel, and the rest of us gossiped about his supposed exploits and speculated about the source of his wealth while munching on his food and sipping his beverages. It was fun guessing which of the “guests” actually was Gatsby, and, for a moment, the party almost seemed lifted right from the novel. It was then someone blurted out, “Were you born then?” I reminded the student the novel was published in 1925, the year my mother was born. “So when where you born? The ’40s?” another asked incredulously to much fanfare from the crowd.
“None of your business,” I replied, which satisfied no one and only fed the diversion. Sensing my disadvantage, I quickly had them open their books to Gatsby’s first entrance in Chapter Three and refocused their attention on the matter at hand: Why had Fitzgerald waited so long to actually introduce the character after whom the novel is named? The ploy worked, and the age inquisition slipped away.
The next day, a female student in my AP English Language class stopped me during a brief review of the social conditions surrounding Bigger Thomas in 1930s Chicago (we are reading Native Son) and asked, “How do you know so much about that? I thought you were from DC?” I gently reminded her about the presentation our excellent librarian had delivered to us two weeks earlier on that very subject. His multimedia lecture included political cartoons about The Great Migration, period blue songs, segregated housing track data from Chicago, and an amazing New Masses piece by Wright entitled “Joe Louis Uncovers Dynamite,” which describes the symbolic elation in black Chicago following Louis’ heavyweight boxing victory over Max Baer.
“So were you there?” she asked, facetiously I hoped.
“Yes. Front row,” I said. We all laughed. Later, the speculation about my age reached its zenith during Thursday’ break.
This year, my planning period corresponds with our staggered lunch schedule. As a result, I have a two hour hiatus each day, a time I have come to cherish. In years past, my classroom had become something of a cafeteria alternative for pockets of students needing time away from the crowd. This year is no exception, and, with the larger classroom I now occupy, as many as thirty students cluster throughout the room in their disparate groups during first and second lunch.
I host jocks and skateboarders, loners and popular kids. There are seniors planning prom, and juniors awaiting seniority. Lately, a group of tenth graders I have yet to teach have also made my room their gathering hole. I enjoy the company of all of them.
My wife keeps me supplied with peanut butter crackers which they all devour, followed by the mint candies I also stock in a wooden box on the window sill. There is much joviality in the room, and I always marvel at the students’ ability to stick to their own “kind” while still embracing the same space. It reminds me of my own high school years, and some days I seem to almost share the weighty demands adolescence brings.
But each week, I pose questions to the crowd in an effort to root the banter in deeper ground. Last week, I asked if they agreed with the oft-repeated Biblical admonition “Spare the rod; spoil the child.” It is a favorite topic of mine. Most of my students have been the recipients of corporal punishment at home; they overflow with stories of pain inflicted for “their own good.”
I am always amazed at how many vehemently defend the practice and the practitioners. Almost all vow to continue the tradition with their own children. “How else they gonna learn what not to do?” one asked. “It’s all about love,” another volunteered.
I chose the topic for a reason. I deplore the prevalence of child beatings, especially in the black community. I attribute it to the stubborn vestiges of slavery. I explained to the students that way, way “back in the day” astute parents beat their children before the master did. If you wanted to keep your offspring as long as you could–maybe to twelve or thirteen years–you had to teach them their place before someone else did. An unruly or overly curious child, I reasoned, could easily be singled out or sold away.
My lunchroom guests recoiled at this notion. “Yea, maybe in your day,” a senior girl said. “I heard they used sticks and switches on your behind. My mother said her grandparents were mean.”
I confessed to being hit by a switch or two in my time, but only when I went South each summer to stay with my traditional grandparents. My mother was not really a fan of the belt or any other instrument.
“Yea,” the girl continued. “But back then there wasn’t much to worry about. You didn’t have shootings, and drugs, and things back then. Today, you have to beat your kids to keep them safe.”
I tried telling them that dangers have always existed in cities. I told them about my own experiences with goody bag snatchers during Halloween, and teen “jumpings” for money, and bullies with rocks and fists, but it all seemed so ancient to them. Once we established that Popsicle’s from the ice cream man used to cost me a nickel, and a soda and bag a chips only set me back a quarter, my claims of childhood relevancy landed with a thump.
I tried to switch tactics by explaining that well-to-do parents do not beat their children. “Do you actually think President Obama and the First Lady swack those little girls?” I asked.
“Maybe they don’t.” one answered. “But I bet that grandmother does.”
They laughed some more. “Seriously,” I interjected, “it’s not funny. I hate those comedians who always make jokes about getting beaten. Why is that funny?”
“So what are you saying?” another senior boy asked. “You believe in all that “time out” mess? I was in a store once and this little fancy girl practically called her mother a ‘bitch.’ My moms is not having that!”
We went back and forth for the rest of the lunch period. At one point, I took off my belt and smacked it repeatedly against my desk. “See how it sounds like a lashing?” I asked.
“Yea, you would know,” one girl said. “Times have changed,” she assured me. “People don’t do it that way anymore.”
I could feel myself aging with every word . By the time the bell rung, I stood as a feeble relic from a time more distant even than The Fugees. I became that pestering old neighbor from the past trying to shut down the birthday party, or confiscate the wayward football that landed on the precious lawn. Clumsily, I made it a point to tell them I would be “going to a club” that Saturday to “find my groove.”
“Save your money,” one yelled while exiting. “That groove is gone.”
“Not if I can help it,” I hollered back.
Then, on Friday, at an unusual assembly for juniors, I watched their faces beam while the class ring guy gave them ordering instructions for next year. It was the first time they had been treated as seniors, and I instantly remembered that same exhilaration when my classmates and I gathered near the end of our junior year. We had finally made it. We were seniors-to-be. I shared the students’ glee and excitement. Maybe that is why so many of us teach, not only to stimulate young minds, but also to keep our own rhythm hopeful and strong.
As promised, on Saturday night I danced to old songs from the ’70s and ’80s. I moved until it hurt. I thought of my students and my old high school buddies I hadn’t seen in years. Then I excused myself, rushed home in my car, ran hot water in the tub, and soaked my aches away. I pray the remedy for my students, especially the ones who spent at least part of their childhood dodging the wages of love, comes as easily.