Tuesday, May 9th, 2006
“Wassup Mister Thompson my nigger.” A 14-year-old black girl offers her clenched fist to mine in a gangster salute. I think she has a crush on me. Must be the English accent.
I’ve been teaching English literature to 11th and 12th graders at Wilson Prep, a public high school in Oakland, CA, for six months. I decided to become a teacher after working in the media and nonprofit worlds for 10 years, including five years working as a producer for the BBC and Channel 4 in London. I grew up in England, and studied English Lit at Oxford University. When I was at the English equivalent of a high school, nobody called the teachers “nigger.” For starters, we didn’t have any ethnic minority teachers; in any case, the N word was still plainly racist, free from the complex nuances it would acquire after being “reclaimed” by people of color (a la “queer”).
As an Englishman in the East Oakland ghetto, I am, it’s fair to say, an oddity. From the students’ perspective, sure, I’m an adult who tells them to stop using their cell phones in class or falling asleep on their desks. But I don’t quite fit in the same category as the white Bay Area liberals who make up half of the school staff. “Are you from France?” an eighth grader asked me a few weeks after my arrival at the school. “No, England,” I replied. “What language they speak in England?” he asked. I explained. Embarrassed by my reply, he asked me why I was in Oakland. It was a good question.
I fumbled for a reply. “Because I love literature, and I want to share it with you,”I tell the friendly Latino teen in a black hoodie. He looked bewildered, and no wonder, because while altruism is part of the answer, I am far from the Buddha, only a practicing Buddhist. But presumably it would have been a little disappointing for my poor teenage interlocutor to hear me say “because I need a job,” which is also true, or the whole, crazy story of my impetuous immigration to the United States during the dotcom heyday, subsequent unemployment, and existential meltdown, which would have kept him for several hours after school.
The funny thing about being an oddity in an inner city public school is that I think I fit in better here than in most jobs I’ve had in America. During my six years in the United States, working for an Internet film company, then a tech magazine, and then a nonprofit education organization, I’ve found the world of work more alienating than any experience thus far in my 35 years of life, with the exception of my teenage years at a Church of England secondary school, where they forced us to take naked group showers after long cross-country runs in the rain. I used to dread my eight hours of cube-confined misery, and constantly wonder whether I’d made the right decision to get married and settle down 6,000 miles from my nation of origin, and sometimes even ponder plans to return. But now, working among hundreds of awkward adolescents, many of whom have immigrated to the United States themselves in the past few years, I feel strangely at home. We are all oddities, in our own way, or, depending on your point of view, all quite normal.
Lionel Wilson College Preparatory Academy (aka “Wilson Prep”) is the first new high school to be built in Oakland in the last four decades. Named after Lionel Wilson, the first African-American mayor of Oakland, the school serves low-income Latino and African-American students in East Oakland. Wilson overcame the racism prevalent in the United States during his career as a lawyer. Similarly, the just four-year-old school was founded to redress the balance of a public school system that has failed to provide equitably for all socioeconomic classes, despite Horace Mann’s vision of free universal education as “the great equalizer.” The school’s motto is College Claro — College for Certain — and the staff is passionately committed to ensuring that all the school’s students continue their education at university. Last year, all the school’s seniors graduated to a four-year college. These young people are achieving this despite the potential obstacles of race and class, and in many cases despite tough family lives. Wilson Prep is the kind of place that can make you suspend your cynicism, a place where hope is both real and possible.
Last semester my 12th grade class was reading Herman Hesse’s masterpiece Siddhartha. The class was mystified by Siddhartha Gautama’s rejection of worldly riches in exchange for ascetic poverty. “You can’t tell poor people that poverty is good,” a colleague advised me. The Siddhartha that my students identified with was Siddhartha the Brahman, living in his palace surrounded by beautiful women and fine wine, not the deliberately impoverished mystic wandering by a river alone. “No, I wouldn’t swap rags for riches,” wrote one student in response to an essay prompt about material wealth and happiness. “I live in rags.”
In my first six months here, I do think I’ve bonded with many students, but I still feel as green as the fields of England when it comes to the crowd control skills needed to deal with large groups of students in the classroom. Perhaps my English politeness is getting in the way, but I have run out of ways of saying, “please be quiet.” I am learning that prefacing a command with “please” can incorrectly imply that students have a choice, which they really shouldn’t. But a deeper issue than my Englishness is an underlying resistance I feel to assuming the mask of authority. When I was at school, the teachers I admired most were iconoclasts who outsmarted the system. And even though, at 35, I’m long past adolescence, part of my identity is still tied up with the idea of youth, thus of wanting to seem and feel young — and wanting to strike the same anti-authoritarian pose that comes so easily to my students. But as their teacher, I have to lay down the law.
“Wassup Mister Thompson dawg.” I have no trouble adapting to my new, Oaktown Englishman identity, but I’m less happy dealing firmly with defiance or taking control of a noisy classroom. Slowly, slowly, I am learning. Yesterday I consoled a young woman who had been bullied by the class Queen Bee by listening to her story and promising to intervene if I saw her being bullied again. But it’s a long road I’ve gotten myself on — and I’m used to driving on the other side. I hope you’ll keep me company along the way.
Up Next: I Dream of Saint Tupac