My friend O’Mama has an acronym for those difficult and unpleasant situations in our lives that we KNOW are chances to learn and change, but which we hate having to endure. She calls them “AFGOs” – Another Fucking Growth Opportunity – and I’m in the midst of a doozy.
I’ve decided to start writing about it, despite the fact that I’m not yet on the other side, and I’ve also decided to serialize the adventure. Writing about it in one shot would be too much, and I can’t imagine that any of you would be able to sit through one serving, anyway.
Here’s the background: Public Speaking class (alternately titled “Effective Communication”) in which we’ve spent the last two or so weeks in focused discussion about what is and is not ethical speech. We’ve talked about racism and racist language. We’ve talked about demographics and inclusion and the origins of some of the things we say without realizing their original implications (“I was gypped at the used car dealership,” for example). We’ve talked about social contracts, connotation and denotation, and the idea that what I say may not always be what you hear. What I’m saying is that I HAMMER this stuff into my class – I don’t always hold by the “sticks and stones” philosophy, and it’s important to me that my students understand that language is powerful stuff. They can use their power for good or for evil, but they’ve got to understand their power before they can mindfully make that choice.
I’ve been having trouble with this one student since the first week of the semester, and I knew, when he failed his mid-term in spectacular fashion (he earned a 56 on the in-class portion and a zero on the take-home test), that there’d be some sort of trouble on the day that I handed them back. Anticipating this trouble, I brought photocopies of the tests to the boy’s department head, with whom I’ve been in conversations about the best way to deal with the student for literally weeks. Last Monday, I handed back the exams and started going over them, question by question.
Jon had taken his neighbor’s exam (whether with her consent or not I never found out) and was noisily flipping through the thing page by page. He was making enough of a rukus that it was distracting to me and I asked them, in as lighthearted a way as I could, what they were doing back there. Jon looked up at me and said, full to my face, that he was checking his answers against his neighbor’s because he wanted to be sure that I didn’t “jew” him out of any points.
“EXCUSE ME?! WHAT did you just say to me?”
“I want to make sure you didn’t screw me – I got all these points off and…”
“No, I’m sorry – that’s NOT what you said..”
“What! Now you’re putting WORDS in my mouth?! Why you gotta be like that? I know what I said…”
“Collect your things and get out. Go find Sam – we’ll talk about this later.”
“Oh, I’ll go find Sam, alright – I’m gonna tell him all about THIS!” as he’s waving his paper and stomping (muttering expletives the whole way) out of the room.
I looked around to see the entire room in a state of semi-shock. It’s not as though we could never imagine a kid like that saying what he said, but the environment that we’d managed to foster in the class really didn’t allow for that kind of outburst, and we – all of us – were taken aback by it. I managed to get through the rest of the review of the test (visibly shaking – I had to put the paper in my lap to read the thing. As a matter of fact, I’m shaking from the retelling, which surprises me a little), and got through the rest of the class as best I could.
During the break, several students came to me to tell me that they’d heard exactly what I did, and that they’d be willing to talk to Sam to back up my story. I told them that I was grateful for that, but I doubted it would be necessary. One student went on to tell me that Jon is often verbally abusive to me when I’m out of the room making copies or whatnot – it seems that the word “bitch” is bandied about quite often just outside my earshot.
Jon and Sam came back after the class was over to have a conference that did not, by any stretch of the imagination, go well. I’ll tell you about that in a bit.