January 15, 2015
I had a rude awakening today at school. It brought me down to reality after my inflated ego was all abuzz from yesterday’s well-received interview. As the saying goes, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
I am in the middle of a poetry unit with my students. It is difficult, at best, to keep my little charges engaged. Somehow, they really can’t get into why “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” So much for Shakespeare.
It is the last class of the day and this is my fourth go-around trying to convince my students that “thee” means “you” and “hath” means “has.” They are just not into it. It is about this time that I hear one of my Caucasian students mimicking a Spanish accent. Jerry, not his real name, is not taking notes, is not paying attention, but is sorely in need of some; thus, the fake accent.
“Hey, Jose! Hey Juan! Whachoo doin?” Mind you, we have no student by the names Jose and/or Juan in that class. They are several Hispanic students who begin to disengage and put their heads down when Jerry starts up with his act. This has happened before, dear Readers. I’m teaching a lesson, Jerry needs attention, Jerry begins speaking loudly in a fake Spanish accent, I lose my students’ interest.
“Jerry, please stop!” I say between clenched teeth, partly because he is such a disruption and partly because I have had it with this kid’s bullying. You see, whenever Jerry gets to feeling like he wants to try on his accent for size, he directs his comments to a particular Hispanic student, Tom, not his real name. Tom sits right up front, so that I can see his body language as Jerry begins the show. Tom sits up ramrod straight, wraps his arms around himself as if to barricade the verbal arrows from penetrating his soul. It never works.
“C’mon Juan, or are you Jose todaaay?” Jerry draws out the last syllable of ‘today’, I suppose to make himself appear more authentic? I don’t know. But Tom is visibly unnerved.
Tom wraps his arms around his midsection even tighter and does the same thing he does every time Jerry verbally assaults him; he answers back.
“No, not Jose.. I’m Juan. Whachoo want?”
“Stop it, both of you!” I say almost too loudly. “Stop it, right now! Jerry, I am asking you for the last time to stop with the fake accent! It is offensive.”
To which Jerry replies, “I’m not offended, Tom isn’t offended, right Tom?”
To which Tom doesn’t reply.
I knew one day it would come to this. Jerry was not backing down this time and neither was I. We locked eyes over Tom’s head; he knew he was in the line of fire and that was the last place he wanted to be. At this point, out of my peripheral vision, I noticed the students who usually roll their eyes and put their heads down during the “Tom and Jerry Show” have begun to take notice. They are staring intently at the exchange.
“Calm down,” I tell myself. This was my chance to show my students, who would otherwise ignore and/or engage Jerry in his racially biting behavior, that there is a civil and straightforward way to let someone know they are offending you. Also, I could, perhaps show them how to verbally disengage a bully.
I failed miserably, dear Readers.
We played tit-for-tat, “It offends me,” I would calmly state, “So, don’t do it.”
To which Jerry would reply, “It’s not offensive. It doesn’t offend me.” There seemed to be no end, like getting stuck on the inside circle of a round-about in rush hour traffic in Abu Dhabi (look up ‘driving in the UAE’ on YouTube).
What Jerry said next has me questioning why I really give a shit!
“Miss, you’re Mexican, and if you can speak white, I can speak Mexican.”
~ Awkward Silence ~
Dear Readers, there are no words, absolutely no words.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, what happened next was simply the coup d’ tat. With only a precious few minutes left of the school day, we all sat in silence. Irony of ironies, the vice-principal, keeper of all things discipline, called to have Jerry come to the library to speak with her. At least the last few minutes of class I was able to gather myself. When the bell rang to end the day, I headed straight for my principal’s office.
After listening to me recount what had happened, my principal asked me to call Jerry’s mother and tell her of the “incident.” However, she instructed me to tell Jerry’s mother that he was in trouble for willfully ignoring my directive to stop doing something, not that Jerry has a nasty habit of bullying his peers and making fun of an entire race of people with a phony accent as thick as my thighs! Say what? I have to think about this one.
One other downside of this whole, ugly “incident”. After I dismissed my class, two of my Caucasian students approached me, separately and they both uttered the same thing,”Miss, I’m so sorry for what Jerry said to you.” It broke my heart. There is no reason for these two beautiful souls to apologize for what Jerry did, none. However, I know why they did, and we, as a class, will discuss the “incident” tomorrow.
The upside, dear Readers, because I have to end on a positive note. After my students retrieved their backpacks from their cubbies (yes!!! middle-schoolers still have cubbies), the Hispanic students began to gather around my desk, one-by-one. Then, the other students began to approach and envelop my desk. They fiddled with my tape dispenser and ruffled the papers on my desk and just sort of stood in a semi-circle around my desk. They were clearly uncomfortable but defiant, it was as though I had my own force field. There they were, my students; not white or black or brown, but my students, showing me their support the only way they could. The bell rang and they refused to move. I do not release my students until they are all seated and my room is in order. However, today, dear Readers, I let my students stand; I let my students stand in their solidarity, our solidarity. It was awe-inspiring. Peace, ~v.