After my 8th grade year, I went back to the summer camp I usually attended as a student, only this time in the role of a counselor-in-training, for whatever that’s worth. It was nice money, and really, I had little else to do in the summer. Plus, I enjoyed my 8th grade experience there, so why not? As a counselor-in-training, they still considered me too young to be a real counselor, so in turn, I had to take classes under another counselor. This “class” was a poetry class, and, most of you by now would rightly assume that I aced that class and breezed through verses in a breeze.
Despite, to that point, always maintaining star student status, working hard at everything I did, and having an excellent 8th grade year, I found myself utterly bored in the class, wondering if I’d ever be challenged to stretch myself beyond the mundane okey-doke this “teacher” tried to force upon us. My deepest criticism of this teacher wasn’t even that he tried to give me “another side” of poetry (at that point, the free verse we know as slam hadn’t reached its deafening popularity we saw in the later part of the decade). It was that he found it appropriate to say, “You know, Jose, you may be smart, but it was like, you were born lazy.”
As if I needed any more incentive to prove another person wrong. I took the “criticism” on the chin, but best believe when I got back on that high horse, I remembered that invective, and when I finally found my voice, I wrote my goddamn heart out. And I’d love thank him for that, but I dare not. I don’t consider myself on top of the game, but as a poet, I believe I’ve proven myself to be a good writer in my own right. Not that I have to prove myself, but there’s a sharp difference between constructive criticism and belittling language.
As a teacher myself now, I have a hard time looking at a kid in the face and implying that they’re not worth the skin they live in. You give them all you can, and chastise them when necessary, but giving them an impression that they’re worthless only adds to the culture of low expectations we’ve laid out for the students. The students can feel when they’re getting criticized because you want better for them and because you really hate them.
Many of the teachers around me get mad when my students sing songs like “Hi Hater” by Maino, and wear their extra-large, extra-long black t-shirts with the white handprint on it, inscripted with a “Hi hater” in the palm. They wonder how someone so young can have haters. They should also ask themselves if their names have a place inside that inscription.
Jose, who’s having a hard time getting that “first book” off the ground … struggles of a writer …