Alternately titled “Mohammad Expects the Mountain to Come to Him”
I had a very long, very interesting confrontation with a student the other day. It’s been rattling around in the back of my busy mind for a while now, and I think I may have enough distance from it to be able to express it here with some degree of coherence.
I’ve mentioned this boy before; for the sake of anonymity and convenience, we’ll call him Henry. Henry strutted into class on the first day and, in his introduction to me and his classmates, essentially announced that he is who he is and anyone who doesn’t like that can go pound. He told us that he speaks Ebonics, that he has a mean temper, and that he doesn’t care what people think of him; his attitude forms an almost visible sphere around his body, and the range of his disdainful and annoyed facial expressions is impressive.
Henry hasn’t proven himself to be a stellar student. He often wanders in late, plops himself in the same seat by the window and puts his cell phone on the table in front of him (it often buzzes messages, which prompts him to pick it up and reply in the middle of classes). He waves to people coming past his window, he waves at them again through the window in the door as those people come into the building and, more than once, he’s attempted to carry on mimed conversations with folks in the hallway. Nine times out of ten, Henry will be gazing out the window when I look at him, and he only rarely offers up questions or comments: almost all of his class participation has come at the other end of my actually calling on him.
He’s failing the class. His refusal to do the homework has left him with quite a few zeros to overcome, and his test results at the midterm were unimpressive. Because of his grade, I was obliged to write a progress report for his department head, which I had to discuss with Henry before submitting. I went to the boy when the rest of the class was on break on Tuesday and informed him that I know he can do better than he’s doing, and that a little effort on his part will likely yield him much more satisfactory results grade-wise. At the bottom of the report, I wrote “Henry is inconsistent with his homework and seems unmotivated in class.” He signed the report, I took my copies and moved on to the next student.
At the end of the class, Henry came up to me with his attitude in full force. “I’m offended by what you wrote on my progress report,” he told me.
Offended? Really? What an interesting verb to use! Why, exactly, I asked, was he offended?
He went on to rant that just because *I* didn’t think he was motivated didn’t mean that he wasn’t. Sure, there have been homework assignments that he hasn’t handed in and yes, he did complain about having to watch the Bono speech, and he doesn’t really participate in class, and he can see why I would think that he’s not motivated, but he IS motivated, and he’s offended that I wrote the comment on the bottom of his progress report.
I stopped him at this point. “Henry,” I said, “if you can understand why I don’t perceive you as motivated, how is what I said on the progress report MY problem? You are not showing me that you care about doing well in this class. You are giving me no indication that any of this matters at all to you. If I’m justified in my perception of you, why are you offended?”
His response to this was that, if he weren’t motivated, he’d have just taken the comment on the report and said “fuck it, I don’t care.” His coming to me to complain was evidence, in his mind, of his desire to do well in the course.
I wasn’t buyin’ it.
The conversation went around like this for quite some time and, when Henry figured out that I wasn’t going to back down from my assessment of his character in my class, he changed tacks. He told me that the reason he doesn’t participate in class is that he feels disrespected by me and his classmates.
Up to that point, I was pretty calm and even-keeled; this little crack fired me up a fair bit. He was accusing me of dismissing his opinions, and he was heading to the issue of race to back himself up.
I don’t frickin’ think so!
I, very sternly but very professionally, stomped on him. First of all, I told him, you may NOT blame others for your lack of participation. NO ONE in my class has been disrespectful to ANYONE in my class – it’s even written in the syllabus that I will NOT tolerate any kind of disrespectful or dismissive behavior. Secondly, I have NEVER, EVER been disrespectful to or dismissive of him. As a matter of fact, I told him, I’ve been particularly attentive to him in an effort to try to draw him out in fruitful and appropriate ways. I told him, on no uncertain terms, that he may not accuse me of oppressing him when that is so plainly not the case.
To his credit, he did back down from that argument, but turned it around to accuse others in the class of being rude to him. “They don’t like to listen to what I have to say,” he claimed. “They dismiss me and disrespect me and that makes me not want to say anything. If they don’t like who I am, that’s too bad for them.”
Ah-HA! NOW we’re getting somewhere!
I tried my best to explain to dear Henry that – what a coincidence! – we happen to be in a COMMUNICATION class! I also reminded him of something that I said to him on the very first day we met; his goal for the course was to learn to speak clearly, slowly, and in a way that makes people want to listen to him. I reminded him of the concept of social contracts – that we modify our behavior and/or tailor the delivery of our messages so that we can interact with people in meaningful and productive ways, even if (and especially when) we don’t see eye-to-eye with those with whom we’re trying to communicate.
I pointed out to him that his “love me or fuck off and die” attitude doesn’t leave much room for negotiation, and asked him how he feels when presented with choices like that. His answer (obviously) was that he hated people like that, at which point I asked him why he should expect any different as a response when people are faced with those same kinds of options from him.
This kid has a lot to offer. He’s had experiences, as a multicultural student, that many of us in the classroom haven’t had. He has perspectives on issues and questions that the rest of us may never consider. I told him that I truly believe that he matters – he’s got something important to say that we all should hear. We’re not going to listen, though, until he learns how to TALK to us. Ranting and blustering and preaching and blowing attitude isn’t going to cut it. He’s got to learn to get past these walls he builds. He can’t expect us to come all the way to him – he’s got to meet us at least halfway.
I have NO idea if he heard me or not. I hope he did, but my experience with students like him tells me that he may have nodded and thanked me for my time, but he likely went outside and complained to his friends that I’m just an ignorant, racist white bitch who has it out for him because he’s different. That’s the mode of thinking that’s gotten him this far, and I fear it may be too late for anyone – even someone who actually cares – to change that.