I held their index cards stating their name, phone number, counselor as if I was holding a candle, in a candle light service with everyone holding a candle. I had to be careful not to spill it or touch it to someone’s dress. I thought about the fire hazard, why churches don’t burn with so many people holding fire, inside. I didn’t actually think this at the time, I was in a hurry, reading before I went to class, but I am trying to give you a picture of what it’s like reading students’ dreams, simply stated in a one line answer to the question: Why did you come to college?
“To become successful. To be a well rounded adult. To study nursing, or fashion merchandising, or psychology. To graduate. To continue my education,” they said.
I flipped through the brightly colored cards. I grew silent. Here were young men and women hoping to learn how to write, already agreeing that it is a foundation for their work in college and life. Some admitted they hated it because they don’t like writing under a teacher’s deadline. They don’t like writing about something they don’t know anything about, or that they have to research. Well, neither do I. “The trick is to make those assignments your own,” I scrawl in the margins. Like last year’s students, they know how to handle their sentences. Sure there are comma splices and fragments, but they don’t overwhelm the writing. Could it be Race to the Top is doing some good? Or is my university admitting better students?
We sat in computer lab on the second day, doing that old grade school exercise: “Show and Tell.” I wanted students to introduce themselves by sharing something important from their lives. They revealed themselves, more than they knew. We watched some inspiration like Rocky Balboa telling his son that he’s better than being cowed by others’ opinions or Eric Thomas’ saying you’ve got to want success as bad as you want to breathe. One young woman shared “The Gummy Bear” song, light hearted, goofy and irritating enough to become an ear worm, until she shared that she picked this because she had a Teddy bear in her room, that she’d held when she was little, stuck in a hospital, way too long. Another young woman showed “Let’s Go Build a Snowman” a song from the movie Frozen, about friendship and play in the wake of deep sadness. A young man showed the glorious beauty of a body builder, who had shaped his muscles like the round stones shaped by water in a stream. Another showed the beauty in the violence of special effects of the video game Battlefield Four.
As adults we think today’s kids are hard, edged with violence, but they’re not. Even though they are first year students in college, some from difficult neighborhoods, they are children determined to work hard, to make those dreams they wrote on cards come true.
But one young man showed a day in the life of his homies, a video set in California. He said it was funny, about fashion. I thought we’d see something like the sweet Nike commercial where a man gives his girl a pair of Nike’s for her birthday. They linger over the beauty of her feet. But no. This was a group of boys being boys, chests out, full of themselves, proud, but rough and tough. After the first “fuck” the class turned at me with burning eyes. I’d just said, “no swearing in class” on syllabus day. And then the word “bitches” and finally the “N” word. He skipped through the video.
He didn’t sugar coat his world, but the students’ stares, well I didn’t know what to do, so I sat there, gave him his peace, hoping my face didn’t reveal my discomfort with their stares, hoping they wouldn’t think the video itself made me uncomfortable. Do they think I’ve never seen videos like this? Did they take me seriously when I said no swearing, nothing too graphic? When have students listened to their teacher? (I think, from reading how their papers followed directions, this group.) But this isn’t graphic, just full of slang. (When I think graphic, I think dull knives, throats cut.) Did the women feel disrespected by the use of “bitches”? Other students by the use of the “n” word even though it wasn’t white folks saying it? Afterwards I said I was honored he showed us his world but I missed the jokes. I asked them do they talk like this? Is this kid language? They said yes they do talk like this. I said I didn’t get the jokes. And then class was done, my day was done.
The next class, I asked, why the violent langauge? Why do they adopt a sexist’s words, a racist’s? And as for “fuck” well, using it every other word, saps the shock from a word that can zing with anger or sexuality or both at once. They told me it was all in tone, that women can call each other the “b word,” that close friends can call each other the “n word” but if a man calls a woman out or a white person, well watch out. They said these can be words of endearment or cursing. It’s all in tone. But still, if I can’t say those words, why should they? And I contradict myself by telling them that yes, they can use these words in their writing, especially in dialogue.
I left the first week of class full of awe and the thrill of fear, like I’ve felt watching the popular video of someone riding a bike down a mountain, on a trail barely wider than the bicycle itself. As a teacher I must keep that sucker balanced, not look over the drops, ride confidence through the terror, through the responsibility holding their dreams in my hands.