Schoolyear Homestretch: They Know Not of What They Speak. Or Write.

The discussion in my predominately black, tenth-grade classroom was focused on racism.

We have been working our way through the book A Lesson Before Dying, a wonderful 1994 Pulitzer nominee about a rural Louisiana black man sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit. Set in 1947, the story pre-dates the Civil Rights days of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King (the only such benchmarks my students really know) by a decade, and chronicles the effort to see that the accused man dies with a sense of dignity.

Racism is a dominant theme of the story, and a concept that many of even my brightest students tend to incorrectly think is something in the past or, more sadly, not a huge part of their present.

During the discussion on where racism really ‘comes’ from, a black student stated firmly that racism is generally learned from one’s parents – ‘Even black racism.’ This idea was met with murmurs and nods of approval from those that are inclined to jump so forcefully into a discussion like that, but I wanted to point out that that might be a little over-simplified, noting that what parents think or believe doesn’t always transfer to a child and asking my students to think of things they disagree with their parents about. I told my students that I know of plenty of kids who aren’t racist even though their parents seem to be.

This idea was greeted with a few moments of silent indifference until one of the few white kids in the class chimed in proudly with an affirmation of my concept. “I’ve got proof of that, Mr. Lucker!” the kid said earnestly. “I’m supposed to be a fifth-generation KKK Klansman…

….but I’m NOT!”

“That’s…..good, Darren. Thank you for, umm…sharing that.”

The class stared at me, a few with quizzical looks that I can only assume were a reaction to whatever facial expression I had as I stared at Darren* for a moment. Aside from a few nods of agreement, nobody had a thing to say in response, and at first I was more surprised by the lack of reaction than I was the initial comment.

But I’m not. Just another day in the front of my classroom.

My students have a propensity for being obstinate – like most teenagers – but they will dig in their heels ferociously and adamantly defend their version when their take on a turn of phrase is challenged. Two examples from this year stand out.

The first was a sophomore who wrote about an essay commenting on her sister’s positive attitude, and the inspiration the sister provides her younger siblings, including Brenda, my student. She lauded, in worthy prose, her sister’s ‘self of steam.’

Even with provided context, I still had to read it a few times to understand what ‘self of steam’ meant for Brenda.

Discussing her paper with her, I was met with a puzzled look as I tried to explain that what she meant was her sister had a lot of ‘self-esteem’ – even going so far as to having her look up ‘esteem’ in the dictionary. Still, she contemplated, paused, looked at her paper and the dictionary, then looked up at me standing over her and said, distinctly, and with a definite correcting me tone of voice: ”Yeah, it’s her SELF. OF. STEAM, Mr. Lucker…how good she feels about herself.”

And the young woman’s ‘self of steam’ stayed that way in the final draft.

Maybe that’s what my students mean when they say, “Mr. Lucker…you’re blowin’ me!”

But I’m not.

The other top curious turn of phrase also came from a sophomore girl, who noted that when talking about literary point-of-view, it is not third-person-limited and third-person omniscient you need to understand, but rather ‘third- person limited and third person ammunition’ point-of-view.

She too, was left unswayed by logic, or the class handout on her desk we had been reviewing and discussing, or the textbook on her desk, all focusing on ‘third-person-omniscient’ narration.

Carlene was steadfast in explaining ‘third-person-ammunition’ point-of-view – which she actually did quite well.  If you overlook the fact that ‘omniscient’ and ‘ammunition’ are not synonymous. If you do that.

Even in New Orleans, I’m not sure ‘third-person-ammunition’ is a viable legal defense.

And finally…

I had a good chuckle to wrap up the last full week of the year with Ms. W, our school’s lead librarian. (The librarians love me because I bring all my classes there at the start of the semester to teach them about the library; apparently I’m the only English teacher who does that. Plus, I actually assign book reports – hence the initial library-orientation visit. They then know where to go to find the books for their book reports.)

Seems a student came into the library on Friday to return a book that he had checked out in October and found only now while cleaning out his locker. Aside from any pangs of guilt over depriving some other poor student of a book, the return of said tome also probably removed a financial hold from the kid’s record. Fortunately, the fines cease when the fine amount reaches the cost of the book; $16 in this case.

As Ms.W clicked away on the computer showing the book as returned and getting the kid’s holds removed, she said the running dialogue continued as follows:

“Well, at least I hope you enjoyed the book.”

“Eh. It was o.k. Mr. Lucker made us read a book.”

“But you liked it.”

“It was alright. Mr. Lucker made us read a book.”

All she could do relating the story to me was laugh about the kid’s ongoing ‘Mr. Lucker made us read a book.’ I shook my head and said ‘So, I suppose I should wear that as a badge of honor?

She continued laughing as she headed for the door, “Why not, Mr. Lucker? Why not?”

All this time I thought I was teaching English, not eastern philosophy. But I guess if the mantra “Mr. Lucker made us read a book” is the primary result of the year, maybe that will enhance someone’s self-of…Eh. You know what I mean.

Eh. You know what I mean.

Conversation

“How many students of yours have been killed?” Her tone was inquisitive, non-invasive.
“A dozen” I replied softly, taking a deep hit on my bottle of Coke.

She sighed, audibly. “At least nine” I clarified. “Nine that I have seen the obit on, story on the news, newspaper article about. Nine.” I was running through the Coke more quickly than usual; it burned going down.  I continued. “That’s one for each school year I have taught in New Orleans. On the plus side, it’s been three years since I added to the list.”

I finished off the Coke, raising the empty bottle. “Cheers.”

“Why’d you say ‘a dozen’?”
“Nine I am sure of, but I have heard of another two, three. Always running into former colleagues and students, always hear, ‘hey – remember x-and-so’? He got shot.”

She sighed again, more uncomfortably. Her voice took on a nervous edge. “How’s that make you feel?”
“I don’t know how that makes me feel.” Easy to answer frequently asked questions.
“Sad.”
“Sadness is part of it.”
Sighing can be far more communicative than one realizes. “It’s not what you signed up for, huh?”
My turn to sigh. “Even if it was, who would believe it would really be…this.”

She took a deep breath, then exhaled. “You saw some of them on the news?”
“Yep.”
“Wow.”
“Ten o’clock lead story, one kid. Morning paper is worse, though.”

This seemed to puzzle her, and I think she had run out of sighs. “Shocking to see a student of yours on the front page?”
“Ahh! My front page students have been perpetrators. Victims inside. Open up the metro section like the bomb squad handling a suspicious package. THAT”S what you want to do along with your morning coffee.”

“Your students ever kill each other?”
“Ohhhhh, no!  My front page alums are in a whole different class. Some are doing hard time, a bunch are doing -various times for various…infractions.”  Gallows humor isn’t always funny.
“How many of those?”
“That, I stopped counting.”

I was drumming my empty Coke bottle against my leg. We stood there, relative strangers, friends of a mutual friend making small talk because we really had nobody else to speak with, both being from somewhere else, originally, and finding our adopted environs to be quite different than anything we had experienced elsewhere. We had hit upon a mutual topic – careers in education. Now, we were each getting one.  Some party.

“Roughly how many kids in ‘I stopped counting’?” she asked, with trepidation.
“Really, I stopped counting. I meant that literally.”

There was nothing more she could ask, nothing more I could say. I could see in her eyes that she was looking for something in mine, but wasn’t finding it. Whatever it was she DID see, she seemed ill at ease with. Not seeing anything resembling an answer, she apparently thought it best to go looking for one.

“How does all that make you feel?” she prodded.
“Angry discouraged pissed off.” It wasn’t so much a varied list as it was a newly-coined, matter-of-fact adjective. “Disturbing thing is, ‘surprise’ isn’t part of it for me anymore.”

That was more than she seemed ready to digest. She found a fresh sigh, punctuated this time with a disbelieving shake of her head. We stood there, awkwardly filling the void of incredulity that permeated the whole concept of what it meant to be an inner city high school teacher. We watched others mingle, laughing at told jokes, work anecdotes. A few seconds passed, maybe an hour – who knows?

I started to speak and she looked at me intently. “I say the same thing every time I see a former student in the news – only thing I can think of to say: ‘What a fucking waste’.”
“Yeah. I bet.” Her voice was barely a whisper.
“Yeah.”
“Thanks for the insight.”
“Yeah. Nice meeting you.”

What a waste.

Dressing the part

Friday was a ‘dress down’ day at school – pay five bucks for the privilege of wearing your favorite pro or college team jersey and jeans. Yee-ha!   My inner city New Orleans high school kids know img_20161007_155732nothing of hockey, so I was interested in gauging their response to me wearing my U of M hockey jersey.

With the exception of one kid who said, “Ummmm…Michigan?” (detention, AND an automatic ‘F’ for him) the kids mostly got the ‘M’ for Minnesota part, because they know me well enough, but my favorite interaction was with one of my more thoughtful tenth graders, a gregarious kid who always shares his writing with the class, and who often ponders things before speaking – a rarity in my classroom.

“So, Mr. Lucker…Minnesota, right?”
“Yep.”
“That’s where you went to college?”
“One of the places.”
“That a hockey jersey?”
“Yes it is.”
“You were a hockey player?”
“Nope.”
“You played football.”
“Nope.”
“Baseball.”
“Nope.”
Pondering pause, trying to fathom, “You weren’t a basketball player?!
“Nope.”
Pondering pause, ‘I give up’ head shake, shrug.
“I was a mascot.”

Pondering pause, eyes growing wider.

“You mean, a suit and everything? A costume?”
“Yep.”
Pondering pause, eyes still wide.
“Costume, big fiberglass head. I was awesome.”
goldie4Pondering pause, scrunched-up face, look of confusion.

“What Minnesota is again?”
“The Gophers.”
Pondering pause, head shake of incredulity.
“Damn, Mr. Lucker.”

He smiled, still shaking his head as he went back to his writing.

“Texting, one, two…really?”

For those of you who have followed our saga as teachers the past eight-plus years, and for those who have read my book (‘Do You Know What it Means, to Teach new Orleans?’ http://lrd.to/do-you-know-what-it-means ) know that we have our share of offbeat stories to tell. Classroom stories and oddities galore, to be sure, but also parent stories.

The latest will be hard to top, and will definitely make it prominently into book two.

The other night I called a parent to discuss their child’s rather odd classroom behavior, and I got a recoding stating, ‘this customer’s phone is not currently set up to take incoming calls’ – inexplicable to me, when it is the phone you put down as the contact for your kid’s school, but not unusual in my parent-interaction experience here.

Being incommunicado is, apparently, a common thing.

As that was the only number I had for this student, I hung up set the phone down, and went back to my laptop for the number for the next kid on my list. Almost immediately, my phone buzzed, as I had a text; the number was the one I had just called, and the terse message I saw caused me to catch my breath:

‘My momma was killed today’.

I had no idea how to reply. I have dealt with an inordinate amount of death with my students during my eight years in New Orleans classrooms – and with the number of students I know who have died as victims of violence keeping an even ratio with my years of experience – I have sadly become a bit jaded hearing such news. But this was new, this was different: a text message, in response to a call from me. And all the message said was: ‘My momma was killed today.’

Sitting there, mulling over how to respond, I quickly clicked onto a couple of newspaper and TV station sites to check the latest local crime news – nothing 100_6230posted there that seemed to fit this situation. After a minute, I decided on, and typed, a very simple response:

‘I am so sorry.’

Within moments of clicking send, I got an odd (seemed to me) response: ‘Who you looking for?’ I quickly typed out the name of the woman I was trying to contact, mentioned the school, and finished it up with ‘But it can wait’ – figuring the woman had enough going on without having to deal with the triviality of her daughter being a classroom problem. I put my phone down, and went back to my laptop to get another number, when my phone suddenly rang. It was the woman I had just texted.

“Hello, Mr. Lucker?” she sounded cheerful. “This is xxxxx’s mother, I saw you called and you got my message. I use that when I get calls from numbers I don’t know, so I don’t have to deal with people. What can I do for you?”

Her ‘I use it when…’ combined with the rapidity that she responded to my initial message led me to believe that she has this as a ‘canned comment’ in her phone – and her matter-of-fact nature leads me to believe she uses it more than occasionally.

I explained to her why I was calling, what her daughter was doing. She was attentive, seemed concerned, stated that her daughter’s cellphone use and texting in class had been a problem previously, and that she would certainly talk with her daughter to see that it didn’t happen again.

I thanked her for her time, and that was that.

It’s all the rage

A few years back, prompted by the writings of my erstwhile high school seniors at the time, I coined a new phrase for a phenomenon I never knew existed.  Two-plus years later, the spectacle I envisioned then came back to my classroom (an entirely different locale and temperament than where the original story occurred) via a conversation amongst some of my  new crop of students – sophomores.   The phrase?

‘Sprite Rage.’

It all started with a simple start of class, ‘Do Now’ writing prompt. When my students come in, there is a DONOWEXampleprompt up on the smart board that they are to quietly write on in their journals for ten minutes. Sometimes I post a simple statement or quotation as a brain jump-start, or it could be a multiple-part question, sometimes it is something visual. Most days, I post  a visual along with an idea. Usually the prompts relate in some way to whatever we happen to be working on in class, though some days they are just (meant to be) thought-provoking or just a humorous day starter.

As we transition from the daily ‘Do Now’ into the meat of the day, I replace the writing prompt on the screen with the daily agenda, which my students are supposed to copy down. While this is going on, I collect the notebooks and invite students to verbally share their responses to the Do Now prompt.

Sharing is a hit-or-miss proposition with my students; truly feast or famine. Mostly, we starve. The main reason I chose the picture below with no caption was that we had been in a bit of a sharing dry spell and I thought they could have some fun with it.

A few did, though a significant number of my street-smart, urban teens saw the event portrayed a less than humorous – some to the point where they refused to write at all about what some of their classmates saw as amusing, though not uproarious.

RonaldMcDonaldStatueArrest

Ronald McDonald getting arrested was apparently not all that funny to my students – even if it is just a statue of him.

The ‘why’ is what got me.

I may have become a bit jaded after six years of teaching here: the visceral vehemence with which some of my students approached this one did not strike me as all that unusual. At least at first.

Who knew?

My rather over-the-top third period group of thirty-three students saw at least six of them tell essentially the same story in different ways. Once one student shared their story, two others wanted to give their take on the situation portrayed. My fourth period group of twenty-five had roughly the same ratio of similar takes on the same theme, though only one felt compelled to share his out loud.

The situation my students saw (with some notable variations) in this picture was that of Ronald McDonald being arrested after either confronting and/or assaulting a restaurant customer for the apparently commonplace-but-much-frowned-upon practice of…

…getting a water cup, then going to the fountain dispenser and putting Sprite in it.

The first kid who shared his version of Vigilante Ronald told it humorously, but with a fair amount of physical violence. The offender, in this kid’s version of the prompt response,  was an “old lady who should have known better” and Ronald took care of her after jumping over the counter, leading to his arrest. It was cartoonish, but with some serious and very violent overtones. This prompted a girl in the class to share her version of Ronald and a soda scofflaw; hers lacked any humorous subtlety and while there was less physical violence, Ronald apparently can have quite the mouth on him when provoked.

I chuckled warily in response to both versions of the story. “Ohhhhh-kay, anybody else have a take on this one that they want to share?”

Two more students imparted their perspectives on customer’s pilfering of pop, and Ronald’s subsequent arrest-inducing response.

“Seriously? Is ‘Sprite Rage’ really such a big deal?”  I was asking only semi-rhetorically, though; I was curious to see how much of a big deal this really was to my students.

waterspritesidebyside“Mr. Lucker! Why you laughing?”

“Because I think it’s funny.” I started picking up notebooks. Uh-oh.

“You never seen that?!”  The kids eyes showed great surprise, as did his tone of voice.

“Seen people putting Sprite into a water cup? Yeah, I’ve seen that, but I’ve never seen anybody get all bent-out-of-shape about it…”

The resulting tumult was instant and incredulous.

“WHAT??!”

“Mr. Lucker! You serious?!”

“Mr. Lucker, where you been?”

“I work at McDonalds, Mr. Lucker; we got to do that all the time! My manager jumps over the counter yelling at people when he sees ‘em doing it!”

“Oh, man, that happens all the time, Mr. Lucker!”

“Mr.Lucker, man, don’t you ever eat at McDonalds?”

“I do, but I have never experienced ‘Sprite Rage.’” I continued picking up notebooks, more slowly.

There was a pause.

“Mr. Lucker – why you call it that?”

“Because that’s what y’all are telling me. If somebody at McDonalds gets a water cup and puts Sprite in it, somebody goes off on ’em. It sounds to me like road rage, only in McDonalds, not in cars.”

“It aint funny, man. I seen people get beat up for that s***!”

“I’ve seen other customers beat up people for that!”

“Seriously?” Now it was my turn to be incredulous, though I should know better by now.

Nods of approval came from all corners of my classroom

“Seriously?” I repeated. It was all I could think of. I stopped and stared at them. Had it been April first I would have felt like I was being punked, but there had been no time for coordination, or even jumping on a lets-jerk-Mr.Lucker’s-chain-today bandwagon. This was purely spontaneous, and heartfelt.

Struck a nerve, I did, with one of the most innocuous of visual writing prompts.

Interestingly, Sprite Rage seems to be a very commonplace shared experience amongst my students, and the circumstances don’t change much: In all but one case, the stories they wrote portrayed older women as the pop-for-water perpetrators and resulting recipients of Ronald’s (to me) overzealous response.

Calling Dr. Phil.

As my students completed their agendas and I finished picking up the notebooks, the daily writing coup de grâce was delivered solemnly by a kid who normally writes a fair amount but doesn’t say much in class:

'Youdaman!"
‘Youdaman!”

“I’ve seen it happen at Burger King, too.”

Apparently,  I need to get out more often.

When I do, I’ll play it safe…and just order a shake.

Shakespeare: tragedy, comedy…and whatever it is my students do with it

william-shakespeareWhile getting my sophomore English classes ready to tackle Julius Caesar, we spend time wrapping up our unit on poetry with some Shakespearean sonnets, and then dive into a two-day crash-course in Elizabethan English, in part using a series of Elizabethan-to-Contemporary English ‘cheat sheets’. It makes for a nice segue from unit to unit and I have discovered that a few days focused on learning the language is worth the effort from a comprehension standpoint.

Some classes really get into it, some don’t – but there is one particular phrase that we always have some issues with: ho.

From one of our Elizabethan-to-Contemporary English glossaries:
ho—hey (roughly equivalent). “Lucius, ho!” [Brutus calling his servant]

There is, of course, some tittering the first couple of times this is said, but it is a very common phrase in Shakespearean language, and very soon the snickering becomes a natural, more comfortable, street-inflected ‘Hoe’ as opposed to the Elizabethan ‘Ho’!

juliuscaesar1953“Lucius, ho!”
“Lucius! Hoe! Come hither”!

The distinction is not very subtle, and adds a whole different layer of linguistic oddity to my sojourn through the Bard, as there is a vast difference between summoning someone and calling someone…

something like that.

Thou hast noooooo idea.

I always end our pre-Caesar or Macbeth week by having my students rewrite one of their daily start-of-class journal entries into a Shakespearean epic. The prompt I use is imagining or remembering a weekend outing with a friend, including a lot of dialogue. After the writing, we then share some of the results out loud – usually to a mixture of laughter and bewilderment, whether they read what they have written or have me do it.

Here are some of my favorite dagger-stabs at Shakespearean ignominy and glory – verbatim from student papers.


“I stood wall-eyed, “Whence did thee get that zany idea” I said, lapsed. “Thou art mad” I informed him. He discourses. “Thou shouldntst hark. I woo her”. I cursed him. I shook my head. “What are thee going to dost? Thee have a foe”’.

Heavy, he said “I know, come hither. Thou art verily something”. Balked and mated, he didn’t have the addiction of discourses words such as these”.

I am quite sure of that, actually. I think.

edwinbooth“Today, Friday the 13, my friends and I heard tidings that we had to go appoint to the mall for some hours”.

“My best friend hark me Friday, doth thee went to hie eat out”.
“Perchance, an I doth not have anything to doth”.

For which we can all be grateful, I suppose.

This next one from a kid who rarely writes more than a sentence or two…again verbatim:

“It’s Friday e’en, methinks perchance I should call my friend to see an thee wants to skate. Methinks also about thee girlfriend.  An thee hie hither, thee nots going to have a ride back home. I should privy the mom for a ride back home, but that’s too much. Adieu that idea, so thee calls my friend to come over. Soft, I left thee board in thee mom’s car”.

Hopefully, she’ll find it and give it back to the kid.

Some stray entries from our you-have-to-admire-the-honesty (HATH) department:

HATH #1 “Oft my morrow I am alone and maybe retired because I am an introvert. But were to I discourse and visit with my friends, we off hie to World Market and Barnes and Noble”.

HATH #2 “Today I shall couch. I fancy some chicken for today. Perchance even some tacos. Were I for my dad wrought me the money. I don’t want to woo a job with my friend”.

HATH #3 “Twas a quaint morrow and methinks of a cunning idea. The idea was to mate with a friend”.

The writer of HATH #3 and I had to have a little, um, sidebar conversation.

Moving on, as many of my New Orleans students and colleagues frequently say: “We were conversating”:

We couldn’t think of anything to do. So finally something came to me.

Hitting a bowling strikeCarla: Natalie, I thought of something
Natalie: Aye
Carla: Hark, the bowling alley.
Natalie: Perchance.
Carla: Okay because I couldn’t think of anything.

 Later that e’en we got dressed and my mom brought us.

Natalie: I bet I can rap a strike before thee
Carla: Methinks not.

Hair is always a popular topic with my students. ‘Going Shakespeare’ changes that not.

hair“It’s like this every Saturday night. Addiction hath I curl my hair. We go out after about two hours of unpregnant babbling”.

“This Friday I’m going to doth my best friend hair
It’s going to take all day but I don’t care
Thee will hie to the movies
whence everything is groovy”.

 

Stupendous efforts, all. But nobody else went quite in this direction:

One young woman, a recent transfer into my class and a very good, prolific writer, allowed me to read her lengthy and detailed entry, which centered on her mother, who suffered from a long-term illness,  giving her and her friends money to drive to a neighboring community to run an errand.

“Speaketh to Mary, Liz, Kenny and Jame” I told her as we got onto the bus. Charlene nodded, pulling out her cellphone and texting all the names listed. I called mother telling her we’ll clean the home, also that we made plans for the morrow. Mother insisted we’d deliver money to Sir Bradley for some of his homemade brownies”.

She went on, making good use of ‘forsooth’ and ‘hither’ among others in describing their nervousness in being followed (innocently and coincidentally, it seems) by a police officer as they returned home with the purchased baked goods from a neighboring suburb.

I read the entire piece, looked at the girl, asked if the story was true. She nodded. “Really? YC&Cfiberonebrowniiesou drove that far for brownies? Those kind of brownies”?

“You knew what I meant”?

“I grew up in the sixties and seventies. I know exactly what kind of brownies you meant.”

“Cool”.

Verily. Shakespeare with my students always is.

Shades of Black and White

It was late summer, 1979, and my friend Johnny was dying.

Our star fullback in high school, heavyweight wrestling champ, all around BMOC sat, slumped, in a wheelchair in his parent’s Denver living room. His once chiseled, athletic frame was basically down to half of the 215 pounds he burst through opposing defenses with just three Johnny 6autumns before. His purple South High jersey with the white number thirty-three hung loosely over him. He looked more like a man holding a purple tarp.

A virus he had contracted had attacked his heart, and he was awaiting a transplant. He looked old – sounded very old. To my twenty-year old self, the raspy, croaked out whisper was more jarring than the visual. That Johnny Wilkins voice – Barry White-like booming bass, full-throated and billowing in laughter – was unrecognizable; a voice that, added to his physical maturity always made him seem much older than the rest of us, was now the gravely crackle of an old man.

But the perpetual Leprechaun-mischievous glint remained in still vibrant eyes.

Johnny2It was only when I sat down in front of him and he smiled, his eyes joining his mouth in playfulness as usual, that the Johnny I knew like a brother was again visible. His smile was even more pronounced, as it split the sagging skin of his jowls that had lost their elasticity, into something approaching Johnny normalcy.

We talked.

I cannot tell you what about in any detail. My travels since we had graduated in the spring of 1977, and update on the whereabouts of some mutual friends. His mind was sharp; whatever medications he was on had not dimmed his intellect or humor. He was still Johnny.

I was one of two classmates who had come to see him since his illness; the other was Terry Tuffield, a kind and beautiful girl who Johnny and I shared a bit of history with. Knowing I had a crush on her, he had begged me to let him set us up on a date, but I had adamantly ordered him not to intervene, preferring to ask her myself and never having to think of her doing him a favor by going out with me. This became a running joke through our senior year and is still one of the more bemusing episodes and fond remembrances’ of high school; especially his insistence in asking me to let him talk to her and my repeated, publicly made threats to kick his butt if he acted on my behalf.

The absurdity of the 145 pound white dude threatening his black, locker-partner Adonis drew more than a few raised eyebrows on many occasions. These exchanges were always punctuated with a stern look from me and a sonic-boom laugh from Johnny.

We were, in almost every aspect of late 1970’s high school life, an odd couple.

The irony of sitting in the Wilkins’ living room, knowing that Terry was the only other visitor from our high school days was not lost on me then 0001or now. That Johnny died less than a month later has always left me thinking that the Rebel visitor list ended with the two of us.

Life is funny like that.

I had been to Johnny’s house once before, in March of our senior year. I picked him up at his house and we went to Denver’s City Park to hang out for the day. We were preparing to graduate and we discussed plans for the future; college football and eventual marriage to his long-time girlfriend Gloria for him, my summer departure for a year of broadcasting school. Our senior prom, various escapades to that point were bantered about while cruising City Park Lake on a rented paddleboat.

One small piece of our conversation stands out to me to this day: Johnny’s casual mention that I was the first white friend that had ever come into his home. It was an observation, nothing more. My response, I believe, was no more than ‘Oh’ and it was left at that. At least until a year later, when Johnny, who had erroneously learned that I was back in town and dropped my parent’s house.

As he later related the story later in a phone call, he walked up, rang the doorbell. The door opened, and there stood my father, middle-aged white guy with glasses, all of five-five, who looked up at the hulking black dude with the bushy beard in front of him and said simply, “Oh, you must be Johnny.” Acknowledging that he was, my father than said, “Well, come on in.”

Johnny roared with laughter recounting the story later, finding my father’s initial statement both jarring and hysterical. His being asked in and hosted by my parents with conversation and lemonade for the next hour was stunning to him. Mine was the first house of a white friend that he had ever been asked into, and I wasn’t even there for the party. Johnny roared with laughter when I explained the obviousness of my father’s initial assumption/greeting: “You are the only big, bearded black guy I know.”

Life is funny.

Our personal string of racial firsts ended with Johnny’s death in August of 1979. He was twenty-one.

I am thirty-five years removed from that Denver living room and this story has come rushing back to me today. At mid-life career change and I am a high school English teacher at an inner city high school in New Orleans. It is my seventh year of teaching here and I have pretty much encountered every issue that traditionally plague poverty-stricken communities.

As I write this, I am sitting in the front seat of a school bus rumbling down a highway in rural Louisiana. I am helping chaperone a group of our schoolbus seniors on an overnight retreat. There is another teacher on the bus with me, two others follow in a car. Of the forty-two souls on the bus, I am the only white person. I sit with my back against the window, looking over my shoulder at row upon row of young black faces, and I wonder.

I am new to this school. As a first-year guy, I get tested by my students on a regular basis. Most of them have not figured me out yet, especially those I deal with only tangentially. Another teaching newcomer to the school is Mr.K, a history teacher across the hall from me. It is his first year as a teacher and we share most of the same senior students, so we are able to collaborate and share notes on students, and I mentor a bit. We have come to be seen by many students as best of friends, and this idea has been cemented, I believe, by the fact that students constantly, to the shared bemusement of Mr. K and I, confuse the two of us.

Mr. K is tall, thin, bearded and wears glasses; he is half-my age. I am five-five with beard and glasses, old enough to be his father. Yet on nearly a daily basis, I get called Mr.K. and he gets called Mr. Lucker. Usually students correct themselves, and will often apologize – sometimes profusely and with a sense of embarrassment. Mostly not, but sometimes.

The confusion has become a running joke between Mr. K, myself, and a few other staff members – black and white – who don’t find the constant confusion at all odd.

Looking at the young faces behind me, swaying and bouncing up and down as we traverse a curvy two lane highway, I wonder. They are engrossed in every sort of electronic engagement, a few sleep with their heads tilted awkwardly on pillows against bus windows. I wonder if any of them had ever been a racial first for someone, as Johnny and I had been. There are a select few who I believe have contemplated such scenarios as they prepare to head off to college, although most of that is naiveté born of circumstance; outside of school, there are few white people with whom most of my students interact with any sort of regularity. Many of them will go off to college and be stunned with the diversity they encounter.

There are many firsts on their horizons.

Over the past six-plus years, when students have brought up the racial aspects of our teacher-student relationship it is usually brought up with a tone of curiosity rather than accusation. They are trying to figure me, or other white teachers out. At the (much larger) school I taught at the three years prior to this one, black students would occasionally ask me to explain white student behavior in some way, which I would usually try to deflect, and use classroom techniques to get them to do their own analysis of the situation on the premise (and observed belief) that teenagers are generally teenagers

Usually the biggest looks of surprise (and the rare verbal exclamation of surprise) comes when I very purposely counter any talk of stereotyping Johnny 5(‘white people don’t…’ or ‘black people are…’) with something along the lines of “Well, I think most of my black friends would probably disagree with your generalization.”

Even amongst the most stoic, nonchalant of my students, there is almost always a sense of astonishment that I have black friends. I would go so far as to say that the most common reaction to this revelation is incredulity.

I don’t know precisely why this all comes to mind today, during a kidney-busting bus ride through the countryside…then again, maybe I do. At least on some level.

Johnny, I hardly knew ye. But I’m still learning from our much-too-short time on earth together.

Color me contemplative.

It’s all the rage these days

Prompted by the writings of my erstwhile high school seniors, I coined a new phrase for a phenomenon I never knew existed.

‘Sprite Rage’

It all started with a simple start of class, ‘Do Now’ writing prompt one day a few weeks back. When my students come in, there is a DONOWEXampleprompt up on the smart board that they are to quietly write on in their journals for ten minutes. Sometimes I post a simple statement or quotation as a brain jump-start, or it could be a multiple-part question, sometimes it is something visual. Most days, there is a visual along with an idea. Usually the prompts relate in some way to whatever we happen to be working on in class, though some days they are just (meant to be) thought-provoking or just a humorous day starter.

As we transition from the daily ‘Do Now’ into the meat of the day, I replace the writing prompt on the screen with the daily agenda, which my students are supposed to copy down. While this is going on, I collect the notebooks and invite students to verbally share their responses to the Do Now prompt.

Sharing is a hit-or-miss proposition with my students; truly feast or famine. Mostly, we starve. The main reason I chose the picture below with no caption was that we had been in a bit of a sharing dry spell and I thought they could have some fun with it.

A few did, though a significant number of my street-smart, urban teens saw the event portrayed a less than humorous – some to the point where they refused to write at all about what some of their classmates saw as amusing, though not uproarious.

RonaldMcDonaldStatueArrest

Ronald McDonald getting arrested was not funny, apparently. Even if it is just a statue of him. The ‘why’ is what got me.

I may have become a bit jaded after six years of teaching here: the visceral vehemence with which some of my students approached this one did not strike me as all that unusual. At least at first.

Who knew?

My rather over-the-top third period group of thirty-three students saw at least six of them tell essentially the same story in different ways. Once one student shared their story, two others wanted to give their take on the situation portrayed. My fourth period group of twenty-five had roughly the same ratio of similar takes on the same theme, though only one felt compelled to share his out loud.

The situation my students saw (with some notable variations) in this picture was that of Ronald McDonald being arrested after either confronting and/or assaulting a restaurant customer for the apparently commonplace-but-much-frowned-upon practice of…

…getting a water cup, then going to the fountain dispenser and putting Sprite in it.

The first kid who shared his version of Vigilante Ronald told it humorously, but with a fair amount of physical violence. The offender was an “old lady who should have known better” and Ronald took care of her after jumping over the counter, leading to his arrest. It was cartoonish, but with some serious and very violent overtones. This prompted a girl in the class to share her version of Ronald and a soda scofflaw; hers lacked any humorous subtlety and while there was less physical violence, Ronald apparently can have quite the mouth on him when provoked.

I chuckled warily in response to both versions of the story. “Okay, anybody else have a take on this one that they want to share?”

Two more students imparted their perspectives on customer’s pilfering of pop, and Ronald’s subsequent arrest-inducing response.

“Seriously? Is ‘Sprite Rage’ really such a big deal?” I was asking only semi-rhetorically, though; I was curious to see how much of a big deal this really was to my students.

waterspritesidebyside“Mr. Lucker! Why you laughing?”

“Because I think it’s funny.” I started picking up notebooks.

“You never seen that?”

“Seen people putting Sprite into a water cup? Yeah, I’ve seen that, but I’ve never seen anybody get all bent-out-of-shape about it…”

The resulting tumult was instant and incredulous.

“WHAT??!”

“Mr. Lucker! You serious?!”

“Mr. Lucker, where you been?”

“I work at McDonalds, Mr. Lucker; we got to do that all the time! My manager jumps over the counter yelling at people when he sees ‘em doing it!”

“Oh, man, that happens all the time, Mr. Lucker!”

“Mr.Lucker, man, don’t you ever eat at McDonalds?”

“I do, but I have never experienced ‘Sprite Rage.’” I continued picking up notebooks.

There was a pause.

“Mr. Lucker – why you call it that?”

“Because that’s what y’all are telling me. If somebody at McDonalds gets a water cup and puts Sprite in it, somebody goes off on ’em. It sounds to me like road rage, only in McDonalds, not in cars.”

“It aint funny, man. I seen people get beat up for that s***!”

“I’ve seen other customers beat up people for that!”

“Seriously?” Now it was my turn to be incredulous, though I should know better by now.

Nods of approval came from all corners of my classroom

“Seriously?” I repeated. It was all I could think of. I stopped and stared at them. Had it been April first I would have felt like I was being punked, but there had been no time for coordination, or even jumping on a lets-jerk-Mr.Lucker’s-chain-today bandwagon. This was purely spontaneous, and heartfelt.

Struck a nerve, I did, with one of the most innocuous of visual writing prompts.

Interestingly, Sprite Rage seems to be a very commonplace shared experience amongst my students, and the circumstances don’t change much: In all but one case, the stories they wrote portrayed older women as the pop-for-water perpetrators and resulting recipients of Ronald’s (to me) overzealous response.

Calling Dr. Phil.

As my students completed their agendas and I finished picking up the notebooks, the daily writing coup de grâce was delivered solemnly by a kid who normally writes a fair amount but doesn’t say much in class:

'Youdaman!"
‘Youdaman!”

“I’ve seen it happen at Burger King, too.”

Apparently,  I need to get out more often.

When I do, I’ll play it safe…and just order a shake.

Admonition

“Go forth…and don’t multiply!”creationofadam1

That was my pre-emptive rebuke to my students as they departed my classroom each period on Valentines Day. I would say it as I opened the door when the bell rang, using a tone of voice I intended to be ‘firm’ but after ninety-minutes with each group, my tenor may have leaned more toward exasperated crankiness.

“Hey, you kids! Get off of my lawn…and don’t multiply!”

Having Valentines Day on a Friday was both blessing and curse. Our students are usually pretty wired on Friday anyway, but with all the exchanging of gifts and the anticipatory lust wafting loudly and graphically through five-of-every-six conversations, It made for even shorter attention spans and less productivity than usual.

And the gifts.

I saw more large stuffed animals being lugged by/into/out of my classroom than a typical midway carnie . That might not be so surprising, but in a large, inner city high school where many of the students come from challenging circumstances, it is something else. (Zombie teddy bears, anyone? From Recycle-a-Bear Workshop, perhaps?)

The self-avowed gangbanger with an AK-47 tattoo and colorful profanity slathered up-and-down his arm lugging stbernardplusharound a stuffed St. Bernard roughly half his height is not something you see every day. Just to be clear, he was the recipient of said polyester pooch, though my understanding was he gave as good as he got in the stuffed animal department. That basic scenario was repeated an astounding number of times throughout the day.

Ahh, young…love?

Adding to the charged atmosphere was the fact that it was a ‘dress down’ day – pay a dollar, get a sticker, and you could come in street clothes for the day. Pay a buck to not have to wear a school uniform for a day? You bet! Get a chance to dress up for a dress down? Oh, baby…

Restraint is not a hallmark of our student body. Bourbon Street probably had a more casual vibe than our hallways did on Friday, especially fifth period, post-lunchtime. With the day winding down, the sugar from the truckloads of exchanged candy and baked goods kicking teen libidos into high(er) gear, the end of the day was…boisterous.

Glad fifth period is my planning period, as I was done with most of the craziness by lunchtime. Also in the ’pro’ column for a Friday Valentine Day? On Saturday, I don’t have to deal with students who are hung-over.

“Go forth…and don’t multiply!”

My speech class didn’t seem to get it, though it was early in the day and most of them just want the hell out of my classroom anyway. My third period English class of thirty-five seniors was mostly intact, and as usual they had found much to complain about with Friday’s class offering. They seemed mostly oblivious to my exasperated directive as I flung open the door – though a few stopped and stared at me with puzzled looks, and at least two of them seemed to have a light-bulb moment with it.

My fourth period seniors, who are much more subdued and a bit more cerebral than their third period counterparts, rubens adam and evehad a much higher percentage of kids who stopped, contemplated my words, and at least registered some recognition.

“Go forth…and don’t multiply!”

The end of the day did provide me with some redemptory satisfaction, though. I was standing in the doorway of my classroom as the kids were streaming out, many yelling out to me as they passed, which was normal for a Friday. Some tell me to have a nice weekend, some respond with muttered expletives when I tell THEM to have a nice weekend. Rinse and repeat. Mostly it’s jovial stuff, but this Friday was something else.

“Mr. Lucker! I’m going out tooooooo-NIGHT!”

“Mr. Lucker! Its goin on tonight!”

“Mr. Lucker! You be wishing you were me tonight!”

That’s a fair representation of the last five minutes of the day, and as usual I could only respond with a series of smiles, head shakes and, on this day, “Go forth…and don’t multiply.”

As the crowd thinned out, one of my favorite students, a bright young woman named Sandra* walked by, told me to creationofadam1Photo0407have a nice evening and weekend as she usually does. At the same time, two boys ran by yelling out to me that they were ‘Gonna have some fun toooo-NIGHT!’ and I responded with my plea du jour.

Sandra, stopped in the middle of the hall, looked at me with a quizzical smile, and said “Mr. Lucker, what’s that mean…’go forth and don’t multiply?”

“It’s a take on the Biblical directive from G-d to populate the earth – you know, ‘go forth and multiply.’”

She stared at me. The bulb clicked on, and she nodded as the remaining kids in the hallway whizzed by, headed for the buses.

“Mr. Lucker” she said with a knowing sigh, “Around here, that’s good advice to give.”

“Go forth…and…”

Kids these days

You just never know how my students are going to react.

The new semester began this past week, and I have two completely new sets of senior English students to deal with and hybrid speech class of holdovers and newcomers. I like the freshness of two new classes – especially since this is the final semester for my seniors. It should be interesting.

Sure is starting out that way.

Two week one incidents at relatively opposite ends of the spectrum stand out to me in large part because I believe they both stem (at least in part) from a picture of my grandson.

Lucker_Opening_Day_Pp SLIDE 1On the first day of any new class I show a PowerPoint presentation that outlines my classroom policies and procedures; it also has some personal info about me, contact information and a few stray tidbits of stray oddities or bits of humor, just to keep my students attention.

This year’s version features a couple of pictures of my grandson Felix, who turned two in November. The first shot is on the first slide: a close up of Felix waving WITH HIS LEFT HAND and the title WELCOME TO MR.LUCKER’S CLASS!

Felix makes it all seem quite inviting.

There are a couple of other Felix shots scattered through the twenty-one slide blockbuster, including a simply gratuitous slide labeled ‘OOOH – ANOTHER PICTURE OF MY GRANDSON!’ Not that I am showing any grandfatherly overkill here, but I also used the ‘welcoming wave’ shot as the desktop wallpaper on my laptop; OOH ANOTHER PICTUREwhenever I am hooked up to my Promethean board (all the time during the school day) and I have nothing else feeding, there is Felix waving at everyone.

The reaction to the PowerPoint was predictable: ‘awws’ and ‘ohhhh, what a cute baby’ predominate, along with the also predictable, “Mr. Lucker, that your baby?” Which then prompts the brief, personal background segment of our introduction, teacher-to-new class.

One young woman was not so charitably inclined toward my little presentation.

Upon running through my list of family notables, I simply note that I have three kids, “ages twenty-nine, eighteen and almost fifteen” which prompted a rather forceful “Why there so much time between them?” from the girl. A bit taken aback, I replied that my daughter is from my first marriage, the boy from my second.

“You should have stopped.” Her tone showed annoyance.

“Ummm…”

“You shouldn’t have done that. You should have stopped after the first one.”

“Okay…” Even some of the other kids were looking at her in bewilderment. I had obviously struck some visceral chord in the young woman, but I just kept on with the presentation, answering the mostly innocuous questions the kids had about me, asking some of my own about them.

The girl remained silent the rest of the class.

As for the other females, a number of them were quite animated upon leaving at the end of the period; two informed me point-blank (and with some pride) that they had babies, another mentioned her baby sister, a couple of more added random comments about liking babies, and wanting one of their own…someday.

That was all on Monday.

On hall duty outside of my classroom on Thursday, one of my new students approached me, smiled and directly but politely asked, “Mr. Lucker, do you have one of those little refrigerators, like a dorm-room size one?”

“No I’m sorry, I don’t.”Some more things about me

“Oh. Do you know of any teachers up here on this floor that do?”

“I’m not sure, but I’ll ask around. You need it to keep your breast milk in?” (I knew she had been using restroom breaks to pump.)

“Yeah, it only keeps for an hour or so at room temperature, so I am looking for a place to keep it til I go home.”

“Let me ask around a bit. I’ll see what I can find out.”

“Thanks, Mr. Lucker.”

We put this one directly into the ever-bulging ‘conversations-I-never-dreamed-I’d-have-until-I-have-them’ file.

DesktopwithFelixpicShe has refrigerator options in another building across our rather expansive campus, but we are working on getting something squared away in our building to save some time and minimize being out of class. She is genial and greets me warmly every day, a do a number of the other young women in the class. The other group of seniors I have is pretty much the same, though without the extremes in reaction – though one young woman in that class told me she had a baby, and another has mentioned her baby in conversation about other, un-child related topics.

I attribute my new semester’s surprisingly open and free-flowing dialogue with my female students to those pictures of Felix, and I figure I have maybe another year or two of classroom mileage out of his cherubic countenance and bonding with my teen moms and assorted others.

A picture is worth a thousand words – or, sometimes, just a few well placed, well-chosen ones.