I sat with the dean on one side of me, and this lady from some administrative office (I don’t quite remember her function) on the other, and as the last syllable of the word reverberated throughout the room, it seemed that something else entered. It seemed as some awful miasma filled the room. It caused the dean to turn beat red. It caused the lady to gasp and clutch at some imaginary pearls. And it caused my mind to suddenly pitch backward to another incident.
This is the very first time that some student called me a nigger, though I feel as if I have almost been called a nigger, or I have at least been called a nigger in so many words, many times since I began teaching.But my mind went back to the first year I taught.
I taught high school English then. I wanted to teach at an inner city school, an urban school, but because of integration mandates, the district assigned me to a suburban school filed with spoiled, snotty rich kids.
And every time I stood up before them, it seemed as if they were accusing me with their eyes; every smile seemed to be a smirk; in my imagination, every chuckle turned into uproarious laughter at my expense.
But there was this one student in particular. Every day he arrived in class with glassy bloodshot eyes without books, without pencil, without paper—with nothing—and promptly put his head on the desk and went to sleep. And at the end of the semester I graded him accordingly.
Then his mother arrived at the school in a fit of pique. And when the two of us finally came face to face, she looked me up and down, and suddenly her lip curled into a sneer, and suddenly this look of triumph crossed her face as if she had already won some contest that I didn’t even realize we were engaged in. And she began to berate me. And insult me. And threaten me.
She questioned my mental acumen. My credentials. My reason for being there and not at some other school, one of those schools. She used her head to indicate the direction, due east, right back toward the center city.
But I did not relent. I would not change his grade. Besides, what did I have to grade him on? He had done nothing to receive any grade other than the one he received. So, with her closing remark, she declared her husband would be back to deal with me.
She didn’t call me a nigger, but she might as well had. She hurt me. She cut me to the quick.
And in anticipation of her husband’s visit, I drug out my diplomas. I drug out every award I had ever gotten. I drug out my Honor Society shingle. I even drug out a fraternity paddle. And I hung these all on the wall behind my desk like talismans to ward off any accusations or charges against my ability, my qualifications, my being.
And when his father arrived, he surveyed my wall of accomplishments, eyed me up and down, and then his lip curled into a sneer, and the same look of triumph crossed his face, and he launched into a similar diatribe against me.
But again I did not relent. And the principal said I had his full support. However, he asked if I would just compromise, if I would just work out some deal with the parents. Wasn’t I taking this whole thing just a little personal? He said he understood if I was, but surely they would take this matter before the school board, and ultimately they would win.
And the parents did threaten to take the matter to the school board, but before they could, their child was arrested for something, a drug charge I heard, and I never saw him again. However, I have always been haunted by this incident. I wondered if I defended myself, my actions, vigorously enough. But then I wonder if should have given any credence to their accusations by evening trying to defend myself and my actions at all.
And I chastise myself for dragging all those things out just to impress people who though they thought they hated me, though they convinced themselves that I was their antagonist, really despised themselves for their own impotence in dealing with the problems and challenges of the next generation.
But back to the moment in question. I could feel the dean’s eyes on one side of me, wondering, anticipating the action I would take. And I could feel the woman’s eyes on me on the other. But my gaze did not leave the eyes of the young man who sat directly in front of me. And momentarily his facial expression softened, and he suddenly looked defeated.
Surprisingly and perhaps inexplicably, I did not feel angry. I did not feel hurt. And I wasn’t the least bit surprised. I think I might have smiled just slightly. I may have even chuckled just a bit. Yes, I think I chuckled. I don’t remember. I do know I shook my head, gathered my paperwork, and dismissed the student who skulked ruefully out.
The lady told me how sorry she was, but her attempt at condolement only irritated me. The dean asked me how I thought he should handle it, but I left it to his discretion. I think the whole incident had more of a negative effect on the two of them than it had on me.
Yesterday, for the first time in my career, a student called me a nigger. But as I looked upon this scion of privilege, born with every advantage in the world, I could only feel pity. Because in her hatred born of anger and frustration because that privilege, those advantages, seem to be slowly becoming meaningless, he took his best shot, and that best shot was predicated and subtended only by worn-out, impotent rhetoric.
And I didn’t need a wall of sheepskin, plaques, and awards to remind me of who I was, to buoy my confidence; I was suddenly buttressed from a strength and assuredness that came from within.