When they first meet me, to a kid they all think I am going to be mean. No reassurance I give–that I just have high expectations, that I’m pretty laid back–is enough to squelch the dismay at being in my class. I am immediately branded as “doing too much”, the “crazy black lady”, and (on a couple of tensely hilarious occasions) a “bald head black bitch.”
And I get it.
In a world of goals set to make them feel like failures before they ever taste success outside of dancing and signifying, what I demand seems so impossibly out of reach. I am asking for too much. the fragility in which they tiptoe around trying not to jostle lose their already broken hearts cannot take another “L”. Their not-quite-formed but already damaged little egos cannot take it. They don’t want yet another reminder of all they cannot do, will never be.
My life’s work is to prove them wrong.
I eat bad behaviors like nachos and hot wings, sip attitudes like a fine chianti. I challenge mindsets that cripple, remind them daily that what the world keeps trying to affirm is a lie: they are not animals, and I am not their handlers. There are no monkeys, no circus, no foot on their necks or whips on their backs or no chains on their ankles. There is only knowledge and skill and talent and possibility, and I am that looking glass that they can fall through and see themselves in me, see what I see. Life. Ability. Power. Legacy.
They call me mom. auntie. favorite teacher.
They learn me through side hugs and hey honeys and what you not gone dos and that’s good but you can do more and eeeee look at yous and you irks and you are not acting like the intelligent people I know you ares and wow what are you on todays and try agains. They come to know me wild hand gestures and frowns broken in gushing laughter and hard conversations in dim hallways and secrets kept behind closed doors and tears caught on understanding shoulders and moments of discipline that hurt me more than they know.
And they achieve for me, walking by my faith until they can claim their own. They realize that I have been right all along when I say: you can, you are, you be. Their fragmented dreams began to take shape, running to me to show me each new small but hard won success. Then they listen to me in earnest. Your attitude has got to go. You don’t have to like a teacher to listen and learn. Grow up! Get outcho feelings.
This is how I love, injecting small doses of self awareness and self efficacy into kids who have all but given up by making it impossible for them to lose. I