Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Winning Respect

It's the kids' first day of school. When the bell rings and they start filling up my classroom, there's a brief, chaotic moment where I have absolutely no control or influence. They don't know me, so I haven't established my presence. Nobody knows who I am, yet everyone seating in their seats is desperately wanting to prove themselves. Everyone has their tough face activated.

There's a group of students that immediately run towards the back seats. Not all of them will have issues with noise or chit-chatting during class, some just want to be left alone. There are students who have to be loud about everything, because attention is their game. I foresee myself really enjoying toying with them for the rest of the year. A select few might even throw in a few cuss words out loud right before I'm about to speak, just to show how "bad ass" they are. "Fuck you bitch. Dat's my seat, n****." Buddy, I've heard a lot worse.

At this point, it's crucial to set the right tone. First impressions really do matter and at this point, I'm either going to win them over for the next fifty-five minutes (and essentially the next year), or it's a losing battle from day one. Decisions have to be made: will I be the asshole who picks every battle and wastes everyone else's time? Will I let everything slide and end up a pushover? I usually shoot for neither, and instead choose to tell my students about my own background. If a group of students choose not to listen, I will put them in their place with a slight brush of sarcasm. Nothing extreme enough to make them feel like shit about their actions, not yet anyway. I tell them where I came from and what makes me: my abusive childhood, where I went to college, where I worked before teaching, and why I quit. This story usually shuts them up for quite some time. Then the questions come, all at once.
"Yo Mista, dead ass you wuz makin' bread on Wall Street?" 
"Why'd you quit Mista? Fuck I would've stayed." 
"Shit, my n**** here made it and then told 'em to go fuck they-selves. Yo, so why you wanna work with us, seriously boss?" 
"Ay yo, anybody tell you you look like that Indian n**** from Harold and Kumar?" I think that's my favorite, by far.
They're at my fingertips now, because they've just heard a story of perseverance. More specifically, they just heard about my perseverance and I'm still standing there right in front of them. I made it big even though I grew up poor under a messed up home, something they can all relate to. I was standing in front of them and willingly left "making bread" because I thought money wasn't everything. I don't think they've ever met anybody yet who thought money wasn't everything. They're mind-fucked. They might think I'm stupid, they might think I'm cool, or they might not think anything at all, but they are thinking. This is how I win respect. In my fourth year, it's become pretty formulaic.

I have to be honest - I do drop a few cuss words while I tell my story, mostly on accident, but some on purpose. I tell my students I use cuss words with meaning and emphasis. "I don't want to sound like a jackass, dropping the F-bomb every other word. Why?" I pause and look around. They're so stunned I just dropped cuss words that I don't think they even heard my question. "Because then I look and sound like an uneducated asshole. Plus, you definitely paid a lot more attention when I just started swearing, but if I swore all the time, you wouldn't take me seriously." They're listening, quietly, and with focus. I continue, "You have learn how to code-switch when there are different types of people around you." I encourage them to code-switch when others walk into the room, but when I'm around and they think it would add meaning, go for it. I got your back, you guys got mine. "Don't snitch on me, I won't snitch on you. Can we agree on this?" Twenty nods of excitement. This is how I establish trust.

I go back to explaining why I quit investment banking, because they just can't get over it. As I talk about my desire to help others and not forget where I come from, a young woman raises her hand and drops this bomb, "Yeah Mista, you right. We need to step up and help ourselves. This black culture be killin' us. No black people that make it big be helping the hood as much as white people help themselves. Shit, white people be helping us and we be pissin' it away. Why is Bill Gates in Africa, how come we not???"

Holy shit. As crazy as that comment sounded, it actually sparked some motivation in the class. Obviously, I had to address we couldn't generalize like that, but I'm not sure how seriously they took me. I mean, regarding black culture they're probably not going to take a brown guy's word over their own. I did bring up some well-known African-American philanthropists, but it was interesting to note that many of the famous "gangsta-rappers" that my students are obsessed with weren't on that list (a student pointed this out). As the conversation unfolded, another student brought up a very good point, "That's the problem yo, we just play ball or rap. It's hard to make it. And in da end, even if you make it, you still owned by someone. And when you're not good, you're trash. If you don't make it big, then you're a waste. That's why I came to this school, to be different." Well, it's not math, but hey, at least we're talking the truth.

I didn't really think I could get comments out like these on day one, but it happened. With the students at my previous school, it took another day or two to get almost everyone to participate. My students this year are slightly younger, so while they might be louder and behavior-management might be tougher, changing their ways and their future might be easier. We'll see.


Anonymous said...

Great post! Sounds like you're really reaching them. I hope you have a wonderful school year. (From you-know-who-from-you-know-where)

Yo Mista said...

@ Anonymous:
Thank you! :-)

To you as well!

Insiya said...

So glad I caught this one - really inspiring. Makes me want to see you in action on your first day!

Yo Mista said...

@ Insiya:
Thank you!