AFGO, Part I (Reader Discretion is Advised)

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.



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12 responses to “AFGO, Part I (Reader Discretion is Advised)

  1. This is college, correct? I am amazed by some of the things that happen in your room at the college level. I would hope that it’s easier to remove them from class in college than in high school.

    I am doing this same unit. I started it Thursday. I anticipate immature reactions from my 14 year old students and I am not sure if I will handle it as well as you did should the same thing happen. Good luck!

  2. Yeah, Chatty – this is college. More to the point, this kid MARCHED in yesterday’s commencement ceremonies, so he’s not a first-year student. I’m still amazed by some of the crap that goes on in these classrooms, and I have to admit to looking forward to working for a school that demands a higher level of behavior and academic rigor from its students.

    TCC has a bad reputation around this area for being a bullshit institution, and I can’t say that reputation is wrongly assigned. I have a reputation for being a “hard” teacher because I make my students work (GASP!) and I hold them to MY standards. They’re not happy about it, most of them, but I refuse to pander to the lowest common denominator…

  3. People really do not understand the historical connotations of some of our most popular phrases. For instance, on our campus in which the student population is about 40% African American, a white teacher (one who has been at this school for many years) told an African American male student to take his “cotton pickin’ hands off of” an item that the student had picked up.

    When this teacher related this incident to one of our African American colleagues, she was rightfully offended. This teacher couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. It took considerable restraint on behalf of my African American colleague to explain in a reasonable tone why it was offensive. I still don’t think he got it or refused to get it (which I think is the latter because of this guy’s overall attitude).

    It is always nice to know that students have your back in cases such as this. I am very glad that so many were willing to stick up for you.

  4. I am constantly amazed (although I shouldn’t be) at the lack of respect for teachers and education. It seems as if the attitude of entitlement (to what, I’m not sure since they don’t act as if they are entitled to education) has seeped into all socio-economic classes.

    I can imagine your disappointment that after a semester of you class, this student still feels that this was, and is, an appropriate way to express frustration. I’d like to say that the he was frustrated with himself but sadly, I do not think that is the case. To think, this immature, racist, volitile kid is entering the work force. I’d like to see how he reacts to his boss at his first negative job evaluation.

    From what you have written I think you handled it very well. Great foresight to take his mid-term and grades to the department head!

  5. Dingo, I wish I could claim a higher motivation, but the truth is that I brought all this stuff to the department head because I wanted to make sure that my little white ass was properly covered. After my dealings with similar (though not quite as intense) students, I knew this could only get worse…

  6. I am so blown away by this exchange, but relieved that there are students who of their own accord came forward to back you up.

  7. joe

    Was it really neccessary to use the term “white” in your last comment. Maybe you are as guilty as the rest of us at subtle racism. Is your troubling student black by any chance?

  8. whodoesshethinksheisanyway

    Joe, her ass is white. So is the rest of her. Almost too white. She should really try to get a bit more sun.. Really dude, don’t talk about things you just don’t know about.
    Chili, clearly you are fostering an environment of respect in your class as shown by the students who came forward. Perhaps a class discussion is in order so everyone can discuss how they felt about the incident. There I go getting all touchy-feely again. You can totally use it as a teaching tool!

  9. Pingback: Joe Shmoe « Who does she think she is anyway?

  10. Is this boy an only child or what? What a drama queen!

  11. Hey there, watch the only child comments, we’re not all damaged in a bad way. 🙂

  12. Pingback: I Want a Crystal Ball for Christmas « A Teacher’s Education

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