Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Yesterday, for the first time in my career, a student called me a nigger

A student called me a nigger yesterday. And he just didn’t call me nigger all quick and simple like, but he drew the words out as he said them, snarled them at me—neee-grrr—in such a vindictive, baleful manner that I knew he did so with seemingly the deepest hatred, the most malicious intent.

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.


Bohemian Chick said...

Excellent post Max! I love the way you handled the situation. My response would have been the same, I'm sure of it.

I think people that dance around the word nigger, but never actually say it; are a lot more insulting than those who just let it out, like it's some magic word that's going to kill me on the spot.

I have perfected a very condescending smile for those types of situations. It confuses them, and gives me time to suppress my first instinct...which is to go into attack mode.

Dylan B. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dylan B. said...

Max, as a child raised by teachers, you handled this with greatness in both situations. Karma came back to haunt the first kid and their family and You did not flinch for the second kid. I tip my hat to good teachers like yourself with stories like this.

Tiffany said...

I am glad you didn't flinch. They probably didn't know what to do with themselves. I am sure that they were embarrassed because you didn't go crazy as they thought you would.


joe said...

You should've just beat the crap out of him...

Me said...

Great post my friend. I agree with BC, that those who dance around the word are more insulting than those who have the courage to let it out too.

As a black man working in corporate America in a position that constantly exposes me to people who judge me, I'm constantly faced with the "I have to performed twice as good to be just as good as my contemporaries."

A.Smith said...



You did that.

There wasn't one thing you could've done differently to drive a point home.

I try to tell people that sometimes silence is DEAFENING.

I'm sorry that happened to you but I'm proud of you!

Anna Renee said...

Man, oh man, Max my man! Mr. Reddick! Soulbrother! V2! You have just encapsulated all that I rail against! I love you Soulbrother! You did do dat! If only black folks could understand that this nigger word coming from a white mouth is totally powerless, if we simply deem it so! I'm proud of you too!

Unknown said...

Brother, that is a GREAT sign of humility and love. Prayerfully, those parents have looked back on their actions and learned from it just as I pray the same for the students involved.

There is a lot to be learned from people who show humility. Everyone knows how to "Let folk HAVE IT" but not everyone knows how to truly show love.

I praise God for the example you set in your actions and PRAY that we all learn how to better handle ourselves in similar situations.

I know people that cuss folk out for FAR less! *used to be me!*

RiPPa said...

You shoulda pulled out your Memphis nigger sword n' go to work on the peckerwood!


Alissa Christine said...

I've never read your blog before. I linked to it from your twitter and this was....WOW. I don't think I've ever felt so many emotions when reading one thing: surprise, shock, irritation, amazement, and pride. I felt like I was *there* in both instances, thinking the same thoughts.

This part really got me:

"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."

I completely understood why you did that. And though I've never been called the n-word (to my face), after reading this, I feel that I've been called that time and time again.

I could go on all day complimenting this post. But I'll just say "kudos"! You handed both situations so well!!

Emerge Peoria said...

Ain't nuthin better than walking out of a negative situation with your self esteem and your character intact. Carry on.

Eddie said...

Man, that's some shit right there. It reminds me of one of my former mentors. She was Black. She spoke SEVEN languages fluently. Her academic pedigree was impeccable: Yale undergrad, Harvard PhD. Prolific author of tons of academic peer-reviewed articles, and several books.

she would let me assist her with her undergrad and grad courses, and the students, mostly spoiled brats, would ALWAYS challenge her. This woman, who was, like fuckin brilliant, never allowed this shit to bother her, but it used to bother ME. LOL Many of the students would defer to me even though I couldn't carry my mentor's academic jock.

One day I brought it up after a student did this shit again. She told me, "Eddie, i KNOW how good I am, I've paid my dues, I don't need to answer to some spoiled twerp."

I still wanted to kick some ass, or to humiliate a few of the students. LOL I understand her (and your) responses a lot better today, but back in the day? LOL Kudos, my friend, you make me feel proud to be connected to you.

-- Eddie

joe said...

I still say you should've kicked his ass....

J.S. Phillips said...

This post made my heart sink. I find it sad that individuals have to call black people nigger just to get a reaction out of us.

I like the way you handled the situation. You showed him you were a cool, calm, and collected brotha.

Prometheus 6 said...

I'm with Joe.

Alternatively I may have responded, "I am, and I'm the one that decides your future in this class. I'm your superior in this hierarchy...what does that make you?"

But I'm only a nice man online.

ProfGeo said...

Max, I was going to comment earlier but this was one of those posts that hit way too close to home. Oooh! Let's just leave it at this: I just hope I can maintain half as well as you did if/when that ever happens to me in an academic setting.

msladyDeborah said...

I commend how you handled the situation.

Lyn Marie said...

Love the post!

It's not what people call you it's what you answer to... and you didn't answer!

Anna Renee said...

Soulbrother, I had to reread this post! This is one of those experiences that one doesnt want to have, but when one has it, it redefines that person and shoots his confidence through the roof! I imagine that the word "nigger" being spewed from a racist's mouth can never hurt you again! You never have to fear it. It's a drawn gun with no bullets, a paper tiger, useless and with no real power that racists have been using for so long--I suspect they know it's really powerless, but they know that we DON'T know!! So they use it.

God Bless You, Max Reddick!
Hugs {{{Soulbrother!}}} Much love!

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised that the dean did not immediately take charge of the situation instead of sitting on his behind waiting to see what you would or wouldn't do as if the student's insult was only directed at you alone. I'm glad that you didn't try to plant your foot in that student's ass because he deserved a beat down and more. If, however, after 350 years this is the best insult he could come up with then you and the rest of us don't have much to worry about. There is nothing new in the United States.

credo said...

You witnessed in 2010 how powerful the N word still may not have made you flinch, but the other folks probably have a different take on the experience.

It is like a shot fired into a room full of folks, everyone touches themsleves looking for the bullet wound.

Someone was wounded by the word, even if it was meant to wound you.

Maya Angelou, stated when the word is use, gather up your stuff as if you late to catch a plane. LOL

Denisha said...

You handled this well and I like the honest feelings you were having as far as needing to display every accolade to prove you were indeed worth. Very real post.

lol @ joe

The Roving Reporter said...

Like everyone else said, I think you handled the situation properly. You didn't stoop down to that student's level. Having a stoic reaction to stupidity often throws the offenders for a loop. I bet this student was just trying to provoke you, but their attempt backfired.

rikyrah said...

great post. you handled it with class.

E.Payne said...

A few weeks ago I was at church and the pastor (frat, by the way) said the following: "When you know your value, there's no need to react to those things and people who would attempt to devalue you." (or something like that - I'm paraphrasing). Point is you were poised and dignified and above everything that happened in that moment.

As the son of two teachers, my hat goes off to you.

Kit (Keep It Trill) said...

Max, this was a mesmerizing, powerful post. It was like I was there with you as those hate crimes unfolded. That's what they were - an attempt to gain something free and undeserved, and rob you of your dignity and even your job, if that set of parents could have, as well.

I'm glad the administration had your back to some degree. As most black citizens know, it doesn't always work out like that.

TSR Admin said...

Bra *FREAKIN'* Vo...

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