Monday, April 27, 2015

...Because I'm Black

Middle schoolers can be real pains in the butt. I'm not saying this just from a position of being more than double the age of your average junior higher. I remember being twelve. We (and by we I mean a handful of boys in my class) made a student teacher burst into tears and run out of our classroom. Obviously it marked me since I remember it to this day. I recall finding it one half hysterical and one half pitiful. The next day, I hung around after class and apologized to her. It honestly had nothing to do with me but I think I was apologizing because the whole thing had made me so uncomfortable.

When I tell people that I willingly go into middle school classrooms as a SUBSTITUTE, they typically think this makes me some kind of hardcore masochist. Truth be told, I'd rather be in a room with a bunch of adorable kindergartners but it's not every day that one of those jobs is available. The reason I don't altogether hate middle school is because they leave after 45 minutes. I can tough just about anything out for less than an hour.

Today I took a reading class. While I assumed there would be, well, reading, I did not assume that my day would involve me reading to 7th and 8th graders. I love reading. My favorite thing to do at the elementary level is read books. I get to use funny voices. They laugh and call me the best book reader ever. I wouldn't dare use funny voices at the junior high level. I'd be met with looks of death, I'm sure. I also wasn't expecting to read aloud for somewhere between three and four hours today. I'm pretty hoarse now and I have a killer sore throat. I receive no benefits from substitute teaching so workman's comp is out of the question.

In first period, a group of three boys was being horribly disruptive. I asked them repeatedly to stop and they stared at me and burst into fits of laughter. Unwavering stares and incessant chuckling is something I get a lot from middle schoolers. I'm sure they're making fun of me and I don't even care anymore. It's a paycheck. Finally, I asked one of the boys to move. Not two minutes after I assigned him to a new seat, the remaining two boys were at it again. I pulled a chair directly next to me and told one of them to come and sit in it.

"Are you serious?" he asked me.

"Yes," I replied, holding my finger on the spot where I'd stopped reading.

He got up, mad as a hornet, glared at me and said, "You're doing this because I'm black."

It was instant. Everything inside of me came unglued. I held my outside crap together but only barely. Without thinking, really, I walked directly to my purse and pulled my phone out. I realized my hands were shaking as I scrolled through my pictures. The class was dead silent. I found what I was looking for, marched back over to the student, showed him Matthew and said, "This is my son. So, no. I'm not doing it because you're black."

"Oh..." he said softly.

I sat down and continued reading. Just before the bell rang, I collected their books. The boy stood with a group of friends. They were talking together, very quietly but then I heard his voice over the rest. "She's white and this kid was black so obviously she's not his mom. I don't know who that kid was but he wasn't hers." The thing about it is, if you threaten my child's position in my family, you threaten me. I get, like, mama lioness mad. I drew in a steady breath and slowly exhaled it.

"Well, but she cares for him, anyway," one of his friends replied and then glanced at me.

The bell rang and they all walked out.

I decided that during the prep period, I would let the office know what had happened just in case this kid went home and informed his parents that he'd had a racist substitute. I told the assistant principal what had happened, informed her that it was not a big deal (by then I'd simmered down considerably), but that I just wanted her to know that it had nothing to do with race, in case she heard from him or his parents. She said that it was a big deal to her and that he would be talked to. It was absolutely not my goal to get this kid into trouble. I mean, sure, I felt like educating him with my fist but I didn't want him to be disciplined by the administration. I reiterated that it really hadn't been that big of a problem, I'd dealt with it, and we were fine to move on.

Several hours later he walked back into the classroom.

"I'm sorry," he mumbled.

I was caught off guard because I hadn't been expecting that at all.

"Oh...okay," I stammered like a moron. Like his peer. Not at all like an authority figure.

"I just wanted to say sorry. I...what I did. That was racist."

"Okay." Apparently that was the only word I could formulate. He turned to leave and I finally grabbed my wits. "Hey," I said and he turned and stopped. I stuck out my hand. He looked at it for a long moment and then took it and shook. "I want you to know that I didn't go to the administration because I wanted you to get in trouble. It really wasn't that big of a deal. I just didn't know if you were going to go to them and I needed them to know it didn't have anything to do with skin color."

He nodded, turned, and walked out. I was actually really impressed with how respectful he'd been to me during this second encounter.

I've subbed at this school several times. They've had a hard time keeping substitutes because the school has a reputation of having difficult students. They're trying to keep substitutes coming back so they give out full sized candy bars at the end of the day. I've never had a problem with the students before and I'm more than happy to get a paycheck and a candy bar. The whole situation had unnerved me and, during my lunch break, when I was trying to figure out why I'd let a 7th grader get to me, I thought about how happy I was that I got to eat a candy bar on my drive home.

At the end of the day, I checked out, pulled a candy bar from the basket she handed me, and turned to leave. "Have a nice afternoon," I said. I swung the door open and the kid was standing there, in the middle of the hall. I suddenly felt an overwhelming conviction to hand my candy bar over. But I want to eat it, I thought. That thought was quickly replaced with, Just give him the bar. Great. He might not think I'm a racist anymore but surely he's been taught not to take candy from strangers. Give him the candy bar.

"Hey," I said. "Do you want this?" I held it out, like a complete idiot. I had no idea why I was offering my candy bar to this kid who had infuriated me just hours earlier.

"Uh...yeah...I," he stammered. "I...thanks!" he said as he took it.

"You're welcome," I said.

I walked out the door and straight to my car.

Once inside I said aloud, "But, I wanted the candy bar. Why did I do that? I'm so weird." The thing is, in a school setting, I can't talk about my faith. I can't tell this kid that I only see color because I notice the beautiful way my God paints people. I can't tell him that through a series of incredible blessings, the Lord gave me a black son and that, yes, I care for him. If care for is now defined as would die in an instant for. I wanted him to see that we're both bigger than all that. I'm bigger than my anger and he's bigger than his. I wanted to extend an olive branch--and the only thing I had in my hand was a Butterfinger.

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