It was my first year as a college instructor.
I already had two semesters under my belt, but I was still very green, which was probably why I was consistently scheduled to teach at the school’s “urban” location.
And I know what that really means.
Don’t get me wrong – I actually prefer to teach the colored stud…
The urban students.
Cuz… well… I’m color… I mean… urban.
So, there’s that.
I was teaching an oral presentation class to students from all programs. Many of these students were terrified of public speaking, and were not here for getting up in front of an audience and talking.
In the beginning, I was met with skepticism, mistrust and flat-out hostility, in some cases. So I had my work cut out for me.
Now, when this particular incident happened(which is actually, too strong a word – nobody was killed or anything), we were about 6 weeks into the semester, and I had just assigned the “demo speech”. In this assignment, students were to create a 5 – 8 minute presentation in which they would teach their classmates how to complete a process. The only stipulations were:
They had to pick a process that could be demonstrated in the classroom (not like, say, working with some kind of factory equipment, or training a circus elephant, or shit like that).
They had to clear their speech topic with me first.
Which brings us to the day in question.
I had arrived 30 minutes early, and was in the classroom by myself, quietly grading papers, when one of my students walked in.
Let’s just call him Carlos.
Carlos was what old white guys on nightly news programs would call a “troubled youth.” Now, if that’s actually true or not, I didn’t know, but he wore the standard uniform: black hooded sweatshirt (hood pulled up), gold fronts, bomber jacket, sagging jeans, Timberland boots.
Until this point, he had spent the semester tucked into a back corner, his hood pulled down over his eyes, eerily silent. The rest of the class avoided him, and I rarely challenged him to participate in class discussions.
I later discovered that he was listening to everything.
So, this day, Carlos walked into the classroom early. I greeted him and went back to my grading, thinking that he would just walk back to his regular corner and… sulk. Instead, he walked up to me in the front of the classroom, and spoke.
“Ms. Bronson, I have a question.”
I looked up.
“Uh… would you ever call the police on me?”
I feel that I need to fill in some minor details here. First, this was a night class, during the winter. So it was dark outside. Also, there were less students and staff around, so the building (and especially, the floor we were on) was virtually empty. So
I was paranoid. As HELL.
“Why?” I asked, realizing that the only weapon I had at my disposal was an 800-page textbook.
“Well, I remember you said that we should do our presentation on something we know how to do, and that we do well. So, I was thinking, no’m sayin’, that I would do a speech on how to steal a car.”
I looked at him. He stood in front of me, hooded and sagging and ice-grilled out, twisting his hands together and rocking back and forth.
He was nervous as shit.
And I realized that at that particular moment, I was at a pivotal point in my career as an educator. Whatever I said next could potentially determine his success or failure in my class, and others. But what the Hell was I supposed to say? This wasn’t a sitcom – there were no writers standing around, and I couldn’t yell, “LINE!”
A million retorts ran through my head:
“Stealing cars?! Why don’t you teach us something useful, like, how to cheat the government?”
“Wait… you don’t know what kind of car I drive, do you?”
“Is THAT what they’re teaching y’all in public school?”
But instead, I said this:
“Why don’t you show your classmates how they can keep their cars from getting stolen?”
There was a pause. I watched him as he processed my suggestion, his lips pressed together and eyes rolled up towards the ceiling. He thought for several seconds, then finally, he nodded.
“Yeah. Yeah. That’s a good idea.”
And he walked out of the classroom.
He didn’t return for class that day, but a week later, he was back and ready to present – and I was terrified. I was afraid that he didn’t take my suggestion, and decided to go rogue.
That he would actually do what I suggested, and the other students wouldn’t take him seriously, and he would point at me and scream, “YOU DID THIS TO ME!”
That he would bring pictures of cars that he ACTUALLY STOLE, and someone would turn him in.
But in the end, none of that happened. Instead, he delivered what turned out to be one of the best demonstration speeches I’ve ever heard in all my years of teaching. Not only did he follow my advice, but he demonstrated his grasp of all of the theory we had covered in the term.
He was poised, relaxed, charismatic and authoritative.
He even removed his hood and gold fronts.
And he earned an A.
To this day, I still think about that student, and wonder what he’s doing now. After the term ended, I never saw him again. And while I had hope for him and his future, deep down, I knew the real, grimy truth…
The streets are jealous and unforgiving. They rarely give up their gifted without a fight, and the streets fight to win.
After years of teaching, experience taught me that he may not have had a support system at home, and in fact, faced blatant opposition to his efforts.
He went home and did the math, and weighed the options of spending the rest of his life hustling, vs. working shit jobs, or working shit jobs AND trying to pay off all the debt he would accrue in college.
Now, before you flood my comments with all the “well, actually(s)”, I realize that not all Black students from the inner city are faced with those problems. And there are MANY students who are dedicated, hard-working students with solid family/friend support behind them.
But Carlos was hard to read.
I never knew anything about him, and I hoped that he left and went on to better things.
And if not, hopefully I helped him realize that there is always a better alternative.