Friday, December 03, 2004

I had my Level 2 kids write acrostic poems about the Bronx. They sucked, but after we were done we wrote, with the help of a few leading questions and grammatical clarifications from me, a group poem that I quite enjoy. All the big ideas were the kids’ own, I just prodded them for more details.

Big buildings on the block
Racism between Blacks and Dominicans
On the
Nasty streets
X-men and the Incredibles will save the city

I thought it was funny that every single one of the thirty-something kids in the class used “X-men” as their X word, but it was even more telling that so many of the kids suggested “Racism” (or racismo, for the less English proficient) for R.

“Racism?” I feigned confusion. “What’s that? Who is racist against who?”

“Morenos, Meester, Morenos,”
the chorus of voices screamed back at me.

“Fucking Morenos, mista.”

“Black people?”

“I fuckin’ hate the black. Fuck dat shit, nigga,” said Roulo as he flexed and popped his collar. Roulo, a mocha-skinned, kinky-haired young man with a broad, acne-covered nose, gets away with a lot in my class. Roulo cracks me up. We get along well. Often in quieter moments Roulo will show me snapshots of his toddler-age baby nephew.

“I want son, Mista,” he will confide in me.

“You want a son?” I will laugh. “Are you crazy? You’re too young, man. You’re not even responsible enough to do your homework.”

“That’s stupid, Roulo,” I said when he told me how he felt about black folks. I was dead-ass. I never call kids stupid, felt bad, and quickly decided I hadn’t called Roulo stupid, I had called what he said stupid.

“Why do you hate black people, Roulo?”

“’Cause the fuckin’ black hate Dominicanos, nigga.”

The irony of Roulo’s language and dress, not to mention his appearance and biological make-up, was apparently lost on him. And maybe it’s really not that ironic after all, since what he said is true. Most of the serious violence at Shitty is Dominican on black or (rarely, since the Dominicans outnumber everyone else by a wide margin) vice versa, but that still doesn’t mean it makes any sense.

This is what they call a “Teachable Moment,” I knew, but had no idea what to say or do.

“You know, Roulo, a lot of people in the world probably think you’re black…”

“Fuck you, nigga. I not fuckin’ black!”

Ahh. Another “Teachable Moment.” Don’t say “fuck you” to your teacher, dumbass, no matter how casually it might flow off the tongue.

I pretty much let it slide, though. I was done talking to Roulo, but I didn’t write him up or anything. I shut up, sat down, and stared at Roulo long and hard. It wasn’t one of my usual stares. It was not my bemused, slightly annoyed “you’re acting like a fool, please stop” stare, not was it my seething, furious, “I’d kill you right now if I thought there was a chance I wouldn’t get caught.” This was more like “I know you, I know you know you fucked up, and I’m not about to let you forget it.”

Roulo pouted, puffing out his lips and blinking at me, before looking down at his desk.

“Why you look a’me li’ dat?”

I shook my head slightly, weary disappointment.

“Why not?”

“I don’ like it.”

“I don’t like it when you say racist things and disrespect me.”

“I not disre’pect you, Mista.”

I cocked my head a little, “oh, really?” He looked away ashamed.

That was that. Did Roulo learn a lesson? Will he thinks twice next time he and his boys are about to jump some black kid at the corner by the train station? Probably not, but maybe one day if and when he grows up a little and gets a job or something where he gets to know some black people, he’ll remember our conversation, and it will be a little easier for him to let go of his old prejudices. It’s possible.

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