March 21, 2012
I never lack for reasons why I love my job, but none of them ever supersede the privilege of seeing young women and ment take hold of the views and positions they will carry with them into their adulthood. In rare cases, I get to bear witness to a student who not only attains a mature and nuanced understanding of a complex issue, but finds her voice to share that position with the larger world.
Earlier this month, Amani A., whom I am proud to be able to call my student at the Academy for Young Writers, took third-place at the annual Knicks Poetry Slam at a sold -out Broadway theater. I am hardly an aficionado of performance poetry, so I won’t comment on the quality of the poem nor its performance (though I can only assume she was robbed of first place), but I do want to engage with the content of her poem: the education of young men of color. There is much to admire and love in her message.
Amani starts by juxtaposing the media attention given to acts of violence committed by students against teachers with the lack of attention given to the violent results of abdicating the responsibility for actually educating young men of color. She notes that a Google search for “students hitting teachers” leads one to read, “A student hitting a teacher is a serious incident that merits a serious response.” Yet when searching for “teachers miseducating students” all she found relevant was “Lauryn Hill” (an allusion to Hill’s 1998 modern classic, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”). It is a powerful and attention-grabbing opening.
Amani then goes on to describe the young men she has observed throughout her education, who “think fists are words” and that “they have to play God to make change.” This is the most powerful and effective stanza of the work. She rebukes the young men for their reliance on violence as she simultaneously calls to question society’s failed attempts to promote role models in the guise of Great Men (Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, etc) who are taught typically as saints, or naturally gifted, or the product of remarkable circumstances, but nonetheless, as people who are far greater than you or I ever could hope to be.
Later in the poem, Amani attacks the classroom culture of criticizing mistakes. This leads young men to build up “tension in his body” when condescended because of a wrong answer (something I hope I rarely do when it comes to my content, but must plead guilty to the crime when it comes to lack of math skills in my students), or worse, leaving the anger “caught in their throat.” This leads them to “package the silent treatment into their fists/ [to] make sure they’re heard.” One could easily extrapolate that experience to apply to binary standardized tests that tell students they are wrong or lacking in skills. Good teachers know that mistakes are wonderful, because they are the most powerful opportunities for learning and growth. It’s disheartening to see that Amani has witnessed something different throughout her education.
My lone criticism of the poem is that the solution it posits is slightly simplistic; her diagnosis is far more sophisticated than her prescription. Amani calls on her audience to “Call these boys / Call their voice / Tell them it’s time / Tell them we’re listening.” Giving students more voice in and outside of classrooms is an important step, but it is only one of the panacea of steps that are necessary to actually improve the 400-year history of individual and structural racism in this country, let alone the educational component of it.
The full text of the poem is below, which Amani generously shared with me to publish, but this is a poem meant to be seen and heard, so please watch the video, and share with others you know.
Education (Calling) by Amani A.
When google searching ‘students hitting teachers’ – relevant results:
- A student hitting a teacher is a serious incident that merits a serious response.
- Students’ assaults on teachers hit high in 2006.
- It’s also important to keep in mind that if a teacher or other staff member tries to break up a fight and a student hits that adult accidentally, that’s a serious issue.
- 6-year-old student suspended for hitting teacher
This is all the power us students have.
When google searching ‘teachers miseducating students’:
It’s about the poor
It’s about the ideology and identity
It’s not the teacher’s fault because…
- As a consequence of lower teacher expectations, poor students are more likely to be less able
When googling ‘teachers miseducating students’
The only thing found relevant is Lauryn Hill.
I live where children think fists are words
Think they have to play God to make change
They rather be wanted for murder than nothing at all.
There’s a boy
In the back of every classroom I’ve ever been in
He’s plastered to the wall.
Does no homework
Doesn’t have enough home
The tension in his body mocks the way the teacher condescends.
He doesn’t know the answer to the question.
But he knows of the pompous remark he gets
When he is incorrect
And the hands he has to shove it back down
If the only thing miseducated about this
Is Lauryn Hill
You’d think there’d be some mending melody
To these boys
But their anger is caught in their throat.
They are too coughed aggression to make sense
So they package the silent treatment into their fists
And make sure they’re heard
To these boys
Fists are words
Have replaced the melody of their voice
With the art and taunting they make out of other peoples’ bodies
Change is less democracy and more face arrangement here.
Here – their hands represent everything
Here – they have power for knuckles
This is for the anger we make them live with
The stillness we make them live in
The home of a boy full of tension has been misplaced
But he is still one of us.
And everyone that wants the action from us,
Cause they think it be louder than words,
Has to remember that action is still action no matter how it’s done
Because it starts
With something no one knows these boys have
Besides their fists
It has a name
It’s called a voice
Call these boys
Call their voice
Tell them its time.
Tell them we’re listening.