“Just shut the fuck up, you fuckin’ bitch, what the fuck?”
“Hey, what’s that about?”
“No, it’s that they’re bothering me!”
“Let’s talk about it outside.”
“I’m not getting kicked out because of these two. I’d rather just leave!”
“Come back here! I need to talk to you!”
“No, I’m mad!”
And off he ran. This is a typical scene in the classroom. A student gets mad and the teacher, in trying to investigate, finds his or herself frantically trying to put together pieces to a situation he didn’t understand, only to infuriate the purported victim. The offended student was already 15 minutes late to class, and didn’t take out anything to write with in the least. Made more interesting by a fire drill and a re-lesson on transformation, the day might have ended badly on all levels if I didn’t sniff out the situation a little deeper. I pinpointed the students in question, but didn’t get quite what they said until I heard from the student, mad enough that he wouldn’t talk to me for a few periods.
But he did let out a little tidbit. They uttered two phrases I just cannot stand:
“You’re a homo.”
For the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on this ridiculous idea of “homo” and the quizzical relationship homophobia has with my students’ culture. I’m no ableist, and certainly I had a discussion with the young student who I addressed about his little insult that had no place in my classroom. I just had to handle the “homo” part quickly since that’s the insult that took the student over the edge.
In my teaching career, I’ve encountered a few students who some people considered as acting opposite of their sex (i.e. effeminate for a guy or masculine for a girl), and that characteristic alone sends a misguided message to the boys in the room that they can bully the student by proclaiming him (or her, in some instances) gay. This especially happens with the guys, who, unable to fully express themselves and what’s going on with them during their maturation, have to find their sexuality relative to other boys in their group. Because this society’s predominantly heterosexual, and I use even that term loosely since I don’t believe in the binary definitions of sexuality either, people learn that homosexuality is an aberration.
We only exacerbate that in our hoods. Looking around Washington Heights (and I’m sure this holds true for other neighborhoods around the country, and the world), I see hypersexualized figures all around me. Many men speak of checking girls’ IDs for ages, and many young mothers, a couple of whom I’ve taught. Crews advertise parties using women of consenting age but tender looks. The men dress in tight t-shirts and button-down collared shirts with gaudy jewelry with visible underwear and a bit of skin from the navel to the waist.
We look to the adults of these young boys and girls and the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I’m not saying that this is the majority of the neighborhood because it’s not. However, it’s too frequent for us to ignore. We can blame the media and the music, but without TV and music, these things may continue to happen. In this type of environment, with young men, there tend to be 2 cases: there’s no father at home to teach the boy how to be a man so he’s learning from other boys or there’s a father at home and he too is an extremely conservative man pushing his ideas of masculinity passed down to him.
Thus, the worst thing anyone studying this idea of homosexuality can assume is that “no homo” or simply “homo” is anything new. Even with some of the contradictorily masculine things these men stick to (i.e. wrestling, baseball, low-riding pants, following rappers who have had public homosexual encounters), these gentlemen need a redefinition of what makes a man. Yes, Barack Obama is cool, but for kids in the hood, he’s as far off as … well, he’s simply far off. Plenty of men in the hood want to build a world where, irrespective of these sexual differences, we can build better neighborhoods for all humans to live in.
Insert Mr. Vilson.
“So let me ask you a question. Why did you call him a homo? What’s that about?!”
“Because he looks like one.”
“What does that mean?”
“Iuno. He just looks like one.”
After noticing that I wasn’t giving in, he said,
“I don’t really know.”
“Me neither. Did he bother you?”
“Does he have anything to do with you learning math?”
“Does he have anything to do with you going home?”
“Does he have anything to do with you eating and sleeping?”
“So then why him? Why do you think that’s appropriate? I don’t know if you’ll understand this now, but when you’re a man, you’re gonna say Mr. V was right: just because you don’t like how someone else looks doesn’t give you the right to be disrespectful towards them, especially if it has nothing to do with your life. He’s living, You’re living. That’s what matters, man. I don’t want to hear that word outta you or you picking on him for any reason. If you don’t like him, leave him alone then, but if we have to go through this again, we’re gonna have to have this conversation again. Clear?”
I hope it was. I spoke to the student in question, and apologized for not recognizing that the students insulted him. He didn’t even know what “to apologize” meant, so I had to explain that. I said, “However, that’s not proper protocol. I need to know when there’s something going on so I can address it. And I will address it. Alright?”
In times like these, I wish I learned more about how to deal with these situations in this setting, but instead, I’m the one writing on it, not as some theoretical piece, but as a reflection of practice.
Ed school won’t teach this.
Mr. Vilson, who preaches tolerance wherever possible …