Give Me Strength

It’s been a day, People.

It started out well enough. I approached my morning class with a fair bit of enthusiasm; I had a plan in mind and a pretty good idea of the road map I was going to use to get to where I wanted to be. I got a little derailed, though, and I’ve been thinking about it all day. I had another adventure with Henry this morning, and I know it’s wrong of me to invest the boy with so much power, but he really threw me off my game.

The class was brainstorming persuasive speech and essay ideas at me and I was writing them on the board. They came up with some pretty good ones – there were the usual “gay rights” and “abortion” topics, but there was also “Coke vs. Pepsi” and “why you shouldn’t hate cops” tossed in for good measure – not all persuasive speeches have to be heavy on the politics, and I was glad to see the class having a little fun with it.

Henry came up with the topic of “racial profiling,” which I put on the board. He then went on to tell us that he and some friends of his had been followed around a local Wal-Mart not too long ago, and he was outraged (which, I’m coming to realize, is his default position). Of course, the only possible reason for the attention he and his friends got was race; there couldn’t be any other motivation for the employees to keep an eye on a group of teenaged boys wandering around the store. He then told us that someone got away with stealing something and they just walked right out, but Henry and his pals couldn’t make it past the front door without being detained and molested. How did Henry know that other person had stolen something if they’d not been caught, I asked. Of course, he had no answer. Neither was he moved by the fact that I, a thirty-something, white woman, often get stopped at the store’s exit and asked to show my receipt – sometimes a security device doesn’t get deactivated at the checkout, or the greeter just wants to be sure that I paid for that bag of cat food under my cart because, you know, it’s easy to forget to scan things tucked under the cart.

Nope! He’s a victim of racial profiling! No amount of logic will change his mind.

What. Ever.

It was at this point that I suggested that, even though the idea of racial profiling is a really intriguing topic for a persuasive speech, it might be best for Henry to choose something that he’s a little less personally invested in. I pointed out to him that he might find it difficult to approach this topic with the detachment and logic that would be required for him to make a compelling, articulate argument one way or the other.

He glared at me and gave me a dismissive nod.

After a short while, I sprung the class for a ten minute break. Four students stayed in the room, and one of them was Henry, who promptly took out his cell phone (the same one I’d told him – twice – to put away at the beginning of class, by the way) and called his father. He then proceeded to beg the man to let him drop out because, as he explained loudly enough for me and all the other students in the room to hear, he’s not being sufficiently challenged at TCC, his teachers all “hate” and “disrespect” him, and he’s failing miserably at TCC while he’s managing all A grades in the classes he’s taking at the local university.


Once I figured out what he was doing over there, I wandered to the far side of the room and made small talk with a student. I smiled at her and said, “Honey, let’s just chat, shall we?” She knew exactly what I was doing and managed to keep me from losing it by telling me that her 102 year old great-grandmother had recently died. While I’m sorry gradma’s dead, I’m really grateful to the girl for keeping me busy until Henry snapped his phone shut and stormed out of the room

It was at this point that another student, God love him, actually STOOD UP and apologized. “Mrs. Chili, that was just rude; you shouldn’t have had to listen to that and it was all I could do to not tell him off.” Bless you, precious boy – I really needed to hear that.

I’m hoping that Henry does get permission from his father to drop out. He’s not serving himself here; he’s not taking constructive criticism and he’s not trying to improve his writing or speaking skills in my class. I’ll keep working with him as long as he keeps coming, but I’m not confident that it’s going to matter a damn to him: he’s already decided that I, like the Wal-Mart employees, have it in for him. I doubt there’s anything I can do to convince him otherwise.



Filed under concerns, frustrations, General Griping, student chutzpah, Teaching, Yikes!

17 responses to “Give Me Strength

  1. Organic Mama

    First of all, let me applaud the visual you’ve chosen – perfection, really.
    This kid wants to be “challenged” – argued with, fought with, allowed to get angry at – but not really challenged. He’s just too lost to do anything more than be belligerent and inordinately childish. Your other students plainly saw this and yes, bless them, acted like respectful grown ups.
    I was going to suggest he be allowed to try to tackle the racial profiling speech, but there is no way he’d accept any poor grade (which he’d probably earn) without blaming your bias against him.
    Geez, your file on this kid must be enormous!

  2. nhfalcon

    I’m sorry, I know I’m gonna piss off and offend a lot of people with what I’m about to say, but it needs to be said…

    There are such things as “niggers,” and this kid is one of them.

    Before you send the outrage my way, allow me to (feebly) try to defend myself…

    By my definition, a nigger is somebody who thinks the color of his skin gives him the right to avoid any and all responsibility for his actions and entitles him to a free pass for life.

    Tell me that definition does not apply to Henry.

  3. Oh my. I was going to post a reply but I got a little thrown off by the previous one. Let me try anyway.

    I believe there are students – of any race – who treat the education process as summer camp. The teacher is essentially a babysitter who’s there to entertain me. Unfortunately, I suspect some teachers prefer to just let them slide and not confront them and challenge them and (heaven forbid) teach them, as our dear Mrs. Chili does.

    PS: I’m not going to go chasing after the previous poster for using the n-word. I disagree with the comment, but I’m on this blog to interact with Mrs. Chili not other commenters.

  4. As I said to you earlier today, I’ll eat my hat if a. that was actually his dad on the phone and b. he’s actually pulling the stellar grades he professes at the local U. He’s a drama queen of the highest order and any interaction is feeding him. By speaking to someone else or even by leaving the room for a drink or a pee you were exactly on the right track to taking the wind out of his self-important sails.

  5. Hmm, I agree that this student was way out of line, and I admire your attempts (as detailed in previous posts) to get him to understand just exactly why his behavior is unacceptable, what he needs to do to get a decent grade in the class, and the larger issues of how his communication style may cause him trouble or prevent him from being heard even outside of the classroom. Too bad he wasn’t able to hear it.

    On a completely separate note, however, I definitely do think that racial profiling exists, and that a white person (and I am also one) is not likely to be aware of it. I bet the store *was* watching these kids in a way that they might not have with a group of white teen boys, and that even if that particular example doesn’t hold, he has probably experienced it in other situations many times over. Leaving aside the issue that how he presents himself to the world very likely contributes to how people perceive him and treat him, I still think that racism is a fact of life for people of color, even if we don’t want to acknowledge it.

    Another blogger I read (also a teacher) just wrote a very interesting post about this:

    I hope you don’t mind that I’ve said this. The comment is not at all about your interactions with this particular student, as it’s pretty clear that you have done everything in your power to help him despite his attitude. It must be hard to be a teacher who actually cares so much about your students at times like this– so much easier to just write off the problem ones, or give them a Pass just to get them off your back, etc. Sigh.

  6. Mama, every term, I’m met with a challenging student. If not for Henry, we would be sharing that student, I think. I almost wish that were the case, though I’m grateful to the Universe (no, really) for the lessons my experiences with Henry are teaching me.

    Falcon, I’M certainly not going to tell you you’re wrong (nor am I going to tell you I’m offended by your assessment, either – you’re dead-nuts on in that, I think). Henry is EXACTLY that kind of person. What’s sad (and more than a little scary) is that, up to now, it’s worked for him. He’s freaking out right now because it’s NOT working for him with me and, rather than change and adapt (and, you know, LEARN and GROW), he’s trying to duck out.

    Michael, while I respect your hesitation to engage Falcon, I have to tell you this: I KNOW Falcon, and I know exactly what he means by this comment. I am a tolerant, open-minded person, and I don’t abide friends who aren’t the same. Falcon is making a valid point in a shocking way – his terminology, though, is appropriate to his point. Henry (as a Polynesian, by the way) was my most outspoken participant when we were discussing Imus and the N-word; his claim was that HE gets to use that word, as a person of color, but that I, as a white woman, can’t. The one African-American in the class was ROLLING her eyes – her contention was that the kind of people – black OR white – who use that word are, really, exactly the kinds of people that Falcon describes – those who use race as an excuse for bad behavior.

    Henry’s not so much treating college as summer camp (I’ve got a few of those – Organic Mama’s and my shared student qualifies as one, I think); he really believes – truly, I don’t think it’s an act – that he’s doing quality work and that I’m being discriminatory and disrespectful of him because of who he is. Regardless of his attitude – whether he blows the whole thing off or is under the delusion that he’s demonstrating evidence of complex thinking – he’s still not interested in engaging with me when I try to offer up suggestions to make the work that he IS doing better (read: coherent).

    Kizz, I don’t doubt he was talking to his father, but I can’t BEGIN to dream that he’s doing as well as he claims at Local U. *I* graduated from Local U and, while there WERE some classes that your average tree toad could pass with a C, there were more that I, as a relatively intelligent woman with a Yankee work ethic, had to bust ass to complete well. I know for a goddamned FACT he’s not nailing his ENGLISH classes – there’s not a professor in that building who would put up with the incoherent babble I’m getting from him. “He uses history a as crutch,” indeed!

    And it was SO hard to not confront him yesterday. It was really all I could do to maintain some semblance of professionalism….

    Kate, I don’t mind at all that you’ve brought this up; I think it’s important to be clear about this stuff. I’m perfectly willing to allow for the possibility that Henry was being profiled (far more willing than he is to allow for the possibility that he wasn’t). His comportment is such that he almost invites that kind of attention, however, and I’m trying to get him to understand that taking his education seriously – which means being able to employ some metacognition and self-analysis to recognize when behaviors, habits and patterns no longer serve him and being willing and able to change – might take some of that negative attention away from him. Yes, people of color – even well dressed, educated, eloquent people of color – are profiled. What I’m saying is that if he doesn’t want to be the center of that kind of negative attention, he should stop blatantly asking for it.

  7. I’m not sure I completely agree with the profiling comment based solely on race. One must consider the way a person is dressed and how said person carries himself. I tend to envision Henry as a boy who wears baggy clothes, and probably some cheap gold jewelry and a baseball cap turned the wrong way (of course, that’s probably my own profiling coming out). If that’s the case, then security is going to follow any group of boys dressed like that through Walmart. Had they all been dressed in Docker’s and Golf shirts, they most likely wouldn’t have gotten a second look.

    When he drove the irony home by stating that someone did, in fact, steal something, I am further led to believe that there was an aura of shadiness surrounding the whole group. Store security isn’t stupid, and statistics don’t lie. If you don’t want to be pigeonholed into a negative light, look the part of someone viewed in a positive light. Dress for the job you want.

    Personally, I would have asked if I could talk to his dad, because maybe a team effort from the two of us could drive some sense into the boy. That would have put a puddle right around the bottom of his pant leg. There is a very good chance that the boy’s father does not share his world view, and might concur with the teacher who is calling bull on this kid.

    Henry sounds like a privileged kid, attending two universities, enough entitlement to know that asking to drop out won’t create a dismal financial hardship for his family, and not enough common sense to not bitch about how hard his life is. Were his life really so tough, he would be a little more humble and appreciative about the incredible opportunity to attend an institution of higher learning. Unfortunately for you, no one has ever taken the time to beat this into his thick scull, so his ‘oh woe is me’ story has had time to cultivate itself into full victimhood status.

    People like him give me a full on migraine. They are the people who I want to watch get completely pounded by their own skewed sense of reality.

    Ok, enough rambling for a Friday morning. Good luck with this moron; you’re going to need it.

  8. “I tend to envision Henry as a boy who wears baggy clothes, and probably some cheap gold jewelry and a baseball cap turned the wrong way (of course, that’s probably my own profiling coming out).”

    Hey! That’s HIM!

    Leah, have you been lurking around my classroom?!

  9. sphyrnatude

    MrsC: you’re closing point in the comment is dead on – Henry has an attitude that pretty much ensures he’ll be profiled. Kind of like walking through airport security rtalking about making bombs, and then being surprised that you get extra security attention.
    As far as the whole nigger thing – from what you’ve described, Henry is aperfect fit for what that particualr word means – which is part of why it is so offensive. It doesn’t apply to most blacks (or other dark skinned folk), but in some cases it does. Of course, it also fits people of other skin tones too. Offensive, but to me, accurate. If the shoe fits….

    I ahve to say that if I had a student that pulled that particular cell phone stunt, I’m not sure what I’d do. I can think of a couple of options (other than “ignore it”, which would be my most likely response – I would have given up on henry long ago):

    1) interupt his call, by pointing out that he is in my classroom, and that this is not the proper location for his call. (I don’t allow cell phones in my calss even during break. If you want to make a call go out intot he hall). End it or leave. I might also point out that no is FORCING him to attend my class, and that he is welcome to leave at any time.

    2) let him make his call, but change my post-break lesson plan to cover effective communication, and include venue, delivery, and content. Use a person making a phone to a friend and sharing racist jokes in a venue where black people are present and very likely to hear. Discuss the acceptability and propriety of the phone call.

    3) let him make his call, then point out to him that his performance was remarkable. Suggest that a similar level of effort on his classwork would result in much better grades. Then, after break, use his phone call (with as many quotes as possible) as an example of effective indirect communication. In other words, use his lemon to make lemonade – very loudly and publicly. It might CYA a bit to open by stating that this isn’t really part of the course, but the sudden opportunity was too good to pass up….

  10. Because I “might find it difficult to approach this topic with the detachment and logic that would be required for [me] to make a compelling, articulate argument one way or the other,” (in other words, I live in a city in which this attitude is the norm, rather than the exception), all I am going to say is this:

  11. You got one of my students, Mrs. Chili, and I am sorry you had to get one. I wish I could say something, but there’s always an excuse. I have literally had students say how they got arrested because of their race, and not because of the crime they were committing, which they admitted to committing. If they were a different race, they would not have been watched so closely so they would have gotten away with it. I suspect that no matter what, Henry will blame race for everything. Street lights which don’t switch to green when he needs them to switch are designed to read the skin tone of the drivers.

    In the end I give up and start using sarcasm. “Oh, Henry, I guess your pencil broke because it’s racist.” I’m always told to not use sarcasm, but sometimes a point of view is so out there and so persistent that something has to be said without just saying it.

  12. *hugs* Just remember, Mrs Chili – this too shall pass! (Eventually.)

    Every time you refer to this unique little fellow as “Henry,” I am reminded of Tom Lehrer’s reference to HIS friend of the same name. He says that his friend is such a unique individual that he spells his name H-e-n-3-r-y.

    The “3” is silent, you see.

  13. Thanks, Dana. This, actually, shall pass in two weeks. Classes end on the 21st.

    I try to choose pseudonyms as far removed from my association with the students I write about as possible. (“Henry,” to me, is someone genteel and a little mousy.)

    Sometimes, I even change the student’s gender to protect anonymity. Of course, if they were to stumble upon my blog, they would instantly recognize themselves; I change names, not stories – I swear to you, I don’t make ANY of this shit up.

    My hope, though, is that, if the students DO find my blog, they won’t want to ADVERTISE that to the world – most of the stuff I write about is stuff I wouldn’t want to cop to if I were them…

  14. It sounds to me that Henry has some major issues and problems in his life.

    I talk about choices with my 9th graders. Making good and bad choices in life will have serious consquences in your life.

    Henry is making some bad choices. At some point in his life, he will realize that you are/were a caring educator who WAS trying to help him to reach his potential. He will eventually run out of excuses and realize that he needs to “shit or get off the pot” (pardon my words) to do something in his life.

    I also loved the visual – VERY appropriate! 🙂

    Good luck!

  15. Don’t pardon your words, Mdawg – they are appropriate to your point!

    My hope is that Henry (and all the students like him) will come to the realization of which you speak sooner rather than later. If Henry continues on his current trajectory, he’s headed straight for mindless occupations (folding shirts at the local Gap comes to mind) or prison. He could be so much more than that….

  16. The way you dealt with this situation is impressive! You were polite, you took him seriously and at the same time you tried to show him that he might be over-sensitive about the race-issue. I think you can be very proud of yourself. I hope Henry will find a way to work things out for himself, either within your schoolsystem or somewhere else.

  17. WL

    Time to go on the offensive, Mrs. Chili, and point out the truth: He’s only treating you this way because you’re a white woman.

    Would he try to play the race card with a fellow African-American or another minority? I doubt it. I doubt he’d try it very hard with a man of any race or ethnicity. He’s taking advantage of hundreds of years of male domination of women – he’s taking the aggressive male role and putting you on the defensive and he’s expecting you to fall into the nurturing, understanding, empathizing female role. And you’re doing it.

    Maybe it’s time to remind him that in the victimology sweepstakes, women – who received the vote much later than black males and were treated as chattel for many hundreds of years longer than black males – will always win.

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