Tag Archives: Don Imus

The N Word

6 Nov

I had been working at a middle school that shall remain nameless, to protect us all, since October. I was ready, willing and able to step into any circumstance, and this made me an invaluable commodity among the lesser gods and goddesses of education, the soldiers of psychological and physical warfare that were enacted daily on the battlegrounds of each classroom. Ready to take the slings and arrows, spitballs and well-aimed arcs of hard-cover books in order to further the education of those whose projectiles meant to do me bodily harm. I had just finished a day filling in for a literacy teacher whom I learned was just about to take a maternity leave. I requested, and was accepted, to take over the class for the entire semester– thereby becoming a permanent sub.
The first battle I was facing became one that took up a lot of time and energy – convincing the kids who knew me as a lowly sub that I was now their official, grade-giving, parent-contacting head of the class teacher, so you can’t ignore me anymore, and you have to take my lesson plan seriously. The first thing I did was rearrange the room. The desks were in clusters of 4 or 5. I set them up in rows, facing my desk, for a more traditional setting. I also hung up pictures and quotes of contemporary hip-hop and rock stars, along with images of Poe and Shakespeare, and called it the poet’s wall. I encouraged contributions. Of course to a lot of these kids none of it mattered. To them I was the sub, and they were going to bide their time until the regular teacher returned. On the other hand one kid was so outraged he single-handedly tried to move the desks back to their original places. More on this guy later.
Before each class starts, 3 bells (more like buzzers) ring. One to end a class, one that served as a 5 minute warning, and one to begin the new class. Right after lunch, between the last two bells, a heated discussion was evolving in the back of the room. The day before, radio personality Don Imus made his racist comment about “nappy headed ho’s.” The discussion boiled down to what’s funny, and in what context racial comments can be made. I had to be careful, being a teacher. Kids can say anything, but teachers, if they are smart (and you’d be surprised how many aren’t) really must pick and choose their words very wisely, if only to set a good example.
So it came down to Chris Rock and his routine; it’s OK to be racist if it’s presented in a funny way. So Chris Rock, we all agreed, gets a pass because he’s funny. “What about Michael Richards?” I asked. “Who?” They answered. “The guy from Seinfeld. Kramer?” “Oh, him. He wasn’t funny. He was funny on the show, but not when he was doing that ‘nigger’ thing.” So, then what about Don Imus? Again, not funny. Ah. So if a white guy is funny about it, he can say it. “Yes,” they agreed. Hmm.
Out of nowhere Ed, a student of color, shouted out “You can say it Mr. Vok.” “Thank you. That’s a relief. But I never will.” “it’s okay, “ he insisted, “I give you permission.” “Put it in writing,” I told him.
I started the class officially. We were reading “Out of the Dust” in conjunction with the social studies class. This book is one of most depressing books you can force a kid to read. It portrays the tragic part of American history; life in the dust bowl during the Great Depression. On the cover was an impoverished little white girl wearing a dress made out of a horse blanket. I wanted them to study the cover, and imagine themselves in her position, and also put her into their lifestyle. “If she were here today, what would you do, what would you say to her?” “I’d give her a make-over,” offered one of the heavily made-up and well-dressed girls.
For the rest of the period we discussed being in a position where you would have to sacrifice things in your life that we all take for granted. Cell phones. I-pods. Video games. “What about food?” I asked. “Mr. Vok, this is getting depressing.” “That’s why they called it the Great Depression.” This came from Eddie. I shook my head and the rest of the class laughed. A joke isn’t old if you never heard it before.
Three minutes before the bell rings, the students have an uncanny sense of migratory instincts. Coats are gathered, books packed away, they start inching towards the door. When the bell finally rings it only takes 3 seconds for the room to become empty. I learned not to fight against that tide, and let them settle into the routine of their exodus.
I turned away and sat down at my desk just as the bell rang. As they were squeezing passed each other in the doorway I look up to see Eddie approaching me. “Here you go, Mr. Vok.” And he hands me a piece of loose leaf, carefully folded. “Thanks.” I said, puzzled. The room was empty and I unfolded the paper. This is what it said:
“Dear Mr.Vok. You can say it. Signed Eddie G- and Tahisha D.” It even had the date on it. I have it stored away in a very safe place. It is one of my most treasured documents.