I wasn’t sure I was going to write about this, so perhaps my colleagues, you will let me know your thoughts.
A new student transferred to my class a few weeks ago. Nothing unusual about this: we get new students all the time: current enrollment is over 850 students, 7&8th grade now. Just these past two weeks I’ve gotten two or three new students: shameful that I don’t know exactly? Yes. I agree. One of them has gang-related expulsion issues. I haven’t met her yet. Another has truancy issues. Haven’t met her yet either. Another quietly slipped in, barely said hello, and hasn’t said a word since. But I’m trying.
But one has made quite an impression on me. He’s engaging, outspoken, and takes up a lot of oxygen in the room. Not a problem. “Classroom Management” is one of those teacher catch-all phrases that can mean anything from “everyone has their head down and is doing their worksheets” to “the room isn’t on fire.”
He and I got off to perhaps a rocky start, not so much on my part: I let him know immediately how I expected the culture of my classroom to be, to feel, and even though he didn’t know me, he would have to believe in the actions of the other students that I have his best interest at heart, and to give me time, not judge me, but be respectful. At one point, I guess he was being disruptive, and I have my mother’s and grandmother’s “skill” of “resetting a room,” — just letting everyone know, right there and then, what is happening, what should stop happening, and where we are going: a student told the disruptive one, “Oh, Mrs. Love just put you in CHECK!”
Student decides he likes me–and if you teach, you know how critical this is to promote any learning. And if you teach at a high-risk school, you know it’s as important as say, floors or oxygen. He is much taller than I am (I am almost 5’9″) and he greets me during passing time with a hearty side-hug and a “What up my N________!?”
There may be a different reaction from any given teacher. My reaction was, first, “Did he just say what I thought he said?” to , “Huh, better address that one soon!”
I wasn’t offended though. I know he meant it affectionately. The power of a word, owning it, saying it, is huge. But I would never consider, using this racial epithet in any context, unless it was a read aloud of Mice and Men, or Huckleberry Finn. And even then it would feel chalky in my mouth. I explained to this student the next morning (while he was being processed by another teacher for disruptions), about my views on this word, that I know he didn’t mean it to be disrespectful, but from my upbringing and values, couldn’t put a mere “pass” on it, because people died fighting for civil rights, and the dignity to be addressed as a human. If one person doesn’t have their rights, no one does.
But my little talk doesn’t make racism go away.
Fast forward to the Absolutely True read aloud. We get to the chapter where Junior talks about the rules of fisticuffs (try explaining that one) and the GIANT WHITE BOY’S most extreme racist joke*. And then try to explain why the joke is so offensive. Sherman Alexie first eases the reader into this with the use of the school’s Indian mascot. Some of the students smirk at this, but most do not. I stop and illustrate: “What if our school had a Mexican wearing a sombrero, taking a nap under a cactus?” (Most Hispanic students laugh). Or, an African American mascot standing out in a cotton field? Or a overweight white lady wearing polyester pants with a big jar of mayonnaise?
The *joke is so offensive because it dehumanizes. We talked about why, when Junior punches the racist student, the student just looks hurt, and dismissive. Every student answered it was because the GIANT WHITE BOY was scared of Junior, or Junior was crazy. Not one of them saw that it was because the white kids saw Junior as less than human, less than worthy of his attention.
I won’t be hypocritical here either. I think it’s funny when in “Raising Arizona” a mean-spirited and ignorant character tells a off-color Polish joke to a Polish polish officer. I appreciate when humorists do crafted satire to show how ridiculous stereotypes can be. And how could I be mad when student sincerely greets me with his warmest version of hello?
It just means that I will take those opportunities to explain why. That’s the right thing to do.