Wednesday, January 21, 2009

N Word

Marker to white board, bold letters dart forth as I scrawl out the day's journal prompt in a handwriting only a mother could love.

"Do you believe that Obama will help stop racism?" I write. "Do you think he will change your life or help Latinos? Explain."

The students walk in, it's the Tuesday after MLK day and they are still in a festive mood, bringing me my beginning of the week tribute of the weekends past events. Jessica is excited to tell me all about her new boyfriend and how he took her to Chuck E Cheese and now her old boyfriend saw them and wants to get back together. John wants to brag about how he finished Marvel Alliance on the X-Box 360 and how now he intends to beat it on EXTREME violence level. Kathy comes in to sketch my morning cartoon character on the board, today it's a bunny rabbit with buck teeth and crazy eyes named Cuddy.

Not until the bell rings do any of them even glance at the journal. I read it to them, patiently explain for the umpteemth zillionth time that yes and no are not acceptable answers and they must answer the question in complete sentences. In about an hour we're headed to an assembly to watch the 44th president get sworn in.

(Actually, he's only the 43rd. Grover Cleveland got sworn in twice.)

The journal is intended to jump start a discussion, to make the students think. This being special ed, that's a tall order, but I'm optimistic. Amanda raises her hand. "I'm done."

I look down at her journal, she's barely written a sentence. No, I do not think Obama will help Latino's because he is black and we are brown. I ask her to explain why she thinks that.

"Because he isn't going to do anything, mister." she huffs.

"Why do you say that?"

"Because he's black."

"Don't you think he might be breaking down the "color" barrier for everyone in this country? Maybe a Latino could be president someday?"

Manny speaks up. "No mister, there isn't going to be a Latino president. We're not that smart."


I blunder on. "Don't you think Obama might rethink No Child left Behind? What if he did away with the exit exams for non-native English speakers, or made exemptions for special ed?"

"No, he isn't going to do anything, he only cares about black people. He doesn't care about brown people." Amanda continues, adamant.

"Why do you say that Amanda?"

"Because I'm not a nigger lover."

The N word, the N------. The word that must never be uttered, the word that causes conservative pundits on Fox News to duck, turn white people pale, and send social activists into a tizzied frenzy. The N Word packs the power of twenty F-Bombs, a verbal explosive device more destructive then any other single utterance, except for maybe the C-Word.

My aide Mr. C is all over it. He asks Amanda to step outside, but like a mule she crosses her arms and remains planted in her seat, refusing to give in quietly.

At that moment I have several options available.

. Send Amanda outside and have her stand in the corridor.

. Send Amanda to the Dean's office and right her a referral for detention.

. Lecture her profusely about the evils fo racism and how we have to be careful about what we say because we can be both hurtful and offensive to other people.

I don't like any of these options. I begin writing a note to the Dean, I don't believe it will teach Amanda anything but an example has to be set. Amanda becomes more belligerent, nearly gets into a shouting match with my aide.

"Watch the class for a second Mr. C."

I walk 15 feet to room C102, where my collegue Mr. H is going over his weekly schedule before he heads up to help tutor his own special ed students. Mr. H. is a massive, 6'6 African American bald monstrosity that looks like he could be an NFL linebacker.

He actually played scrimmage football in the NFL minors, as an NFL linebacker.

I hand him the note to the Dean. Mr. H is a gentle person, I've never once seen him raise his voice, his mild manner bellied by his gargantuan size. He reads it as I ask him to come next door. "You don't have to say anything, just stand there." I explain.

We walk back to my room. At the sight of Mr. H the class is hushed, silent. "Amanda," I ask politely, "Since you don't seem to care about what you said, would you care to repeat it to Mr. H? I'm sure he'd love to hear all about your brown pride."

Amanda's eyes grow red, increase two sizes in panic. She stutters, seeking a way out. I bear down, merciless. "What's the matter? You have a problem expressing your opinion now?"

Mr. H says nothing, just stands in place like a small mountain as Amanda fidgets in her seat, desperate for this to end.

After a long minute, finally I speak. "There's a reason why we don't use that kind of language. I can't stop you from thinking it, but I'll be damned if I let you speak it in my classroom."

I thank Mr. H for his time, he chuckles as he leaves.

The class breathes a sigh of relief. Amanda says nothing the rest of the period.

I toss the Dean referral into the garbage.

An hour later I take the students to the auditorium to watch our new president get sworn in. It's a mass of brown faces.

When Obama finishes the oath, the students stand up and cheer.

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