Thursday, June 8th, 2006
A few days before I left on paternity leave, an African-American teenager ran down the street in front of my school firing a gun in the air. Cops were soon patrolling the school grounds, and a television news helicopter flew overhead, eager to see if Oakland’s double-digit homicide rate had risen again.
Luckily it hadn’t, and nobody was hurt. But the incident left me spooked. Previously I had thought nothing of wandering from school during my lunch break up 105th street to buy a coffee in the corner store, ignoring the drug dealers loitering outside. But the crackle of gunfire reminded me that East Oakland is a dangerous neighborhood, especially for an Englishman in a shirt and tie.
I came back from my paternity leave to find that the principal had given me a new assignment. An eighth-grade humanities teacher had resigned after losing her temper with a student and hitting him in the face. While I was away, the school had coped with a string of substitutes, but the principal was happy that I was back. The school has a mixed record with subs, including one nervous character who leapt out of the window and ran away when he mistook the sound of a file folder falling on the ground outside his classroom for a gunshot.
My predecessor had lost her temper because of a simple fact: the students were out of control. Nobody would stop talking. Within minutes of the students’ arrival the floor was littered with paper balls and airplanes and jelly beans. Students threw books at each other, wandered about the classroom, listened to music on their headphones, gobbled candy bars, did their makeup. One gave me an electrified pen as a practical joke. “Listen up, people,” I barked in my best imitation of an Army drill sergeant. But the people did not listen. I started talking about the causes of the American Civil War, a subject about which I knew virtually nothing except it had something to do with slavery. I am neither American nor a history teacher, and the task would have been challenging even if the students were silent.
I tried reasoning with them, telling them that if they studied hard they could go to college and get the job of their dreams. I tried sending the most disruptive students out of class. I tried counting backwards from ten. I yelled. But the mayhem continued. My class even goofed around during the state standardized tests that began a few days later. Facing the prospect of seven weeks of this chaos before the end of the semester, I felt daunted and frazzled. I spent my prep period asleep in my chair, desperately trying to catch up on some of the zzzs I’d lost as a new father.
When I was in the English equivalent of the eighth grade, I went on nuclear peace rallies and discovered masturbation. I won a school prize for a moody existential poem about Armageddon and how much I hated my parents. I caked my scalp with hair gel and sprained my left wrist trying to impress a girl by break-dancing to the Grandmaster Flash song “White Lines.” (I knew all the lyrics, even if I thought the white lines that blew away were chalk dust on a children’s playground.) I was only just a teenager, old enough to start sneaking booze at my parents’ wine-and-cheese parties but too young for a plausible fake ID. Marketing gurus hadn’t yet conceived of tweens, so I hovered in the developmental hinterland between the end of childhood and the start of adolescence, an overgrown cherub with pubic hair.
That hinterland is where my students live. A few are dedicated to their studies, but the majority receive Ds and Fs because they refuse to do any work. Hyphy, the Bay Area dance and cultural movement led by rapper E40, is a major influence on many. My students are too young to drive but idolize the car stunts of young men in baggy white tees, dreds and shades, driving pimped-out sedans at illegal Oakland car shows where young women face off in frenetic dance competitions. “Going dumb,” E40 calls this anti-establishment hedonism, but as I remind my students, E40 spent his childhood reading the dictionary and studied art in college before pressing nine records and putting the Bay Area back on the hip-hop map. E40 is very far from dumb, even if my students take his music as an endorsement of not doing their homework; even if some identify truth in the words of black nationalist rappers dead prez and believe that the public school system “ain’t teachin’ [them] nothing but how to be slaves.”
The sad irony of the dead prez educational manifesto, I told myself, is that students who drop out of school are more likely to find themselves enslaved by minimum wage jobs than those who pay attention in class and work hard. The only civil war in which the United States is likely to engage itself in the foreseeable future, I told myself, is in Iraq, not for the empowerment of black people on American soil. But rather than lecturing my students about my own politics, I had them break into groups to discuss the lives of abolitionists.
I had the groups give themselves names, and one of the groups called themselves Da Krakheadz. (I wondered to myself what Grandmaster Flash or any of the anti-drug godfathers of hip-hop would make of urban children who romanticize addiction.) I reminded myself that, as child psychologist Erik Erikson theorized, the central task of adolescence is to discover one’s identity, which necessitates risk-taking-hence the joking flirtation with crack-and I wondered if perhaps to get smart and mature you have to get a bit dumb first. But understanding child psychology brought me no closer to actually controlling the children in order to teach them. My patience waned. After telling story after story of rebellious behavior to my wife, her patience waned, too. When a student commented on my body (”Mr. Thompson, you got a big booty”), my wife got angry on my behalf. Something had to change.
At the suggestion of a colleague, I scrapped my lesson plan for the day and had the students practice lining up outside the classroom and walking in quietly. Twenty-five minutes later, my students were finally sitting down at their desks, reading silently. My exercise had been somewhat militaristic, and part of me worried that forcing compliance might end up proving dead prez right. Even though I’m now a father and a teacher, part of me is still an anti-establishment teenager, uncomfortable in taking on power, even if I sincerely believe it is for my students’ benefit to do so. But I had seen the consequences of a classroom without structure.
After silent reading, we started an exercise in persuasive essay writing. Prescilla, a bright and likeable Latina girl, wrote a paper trying to convince her parents that she doesn’t want to fund her college education by joining the army, as they want her to. “Nobody can make you join the army if you don’t want to,” I said. “Really?” she said. I nodded. We got to work on her essay, and thinking of this young woman not going dumb but studying hard and escaping the chaos of East Oakland gave me a flush of pride.
Up Next: As the end of the school year approaches, two students get expelled for smoking dope on campus — and I start writing report cards.