Vivid Dreams and Hard Work

Jose Vilson Featured

“My dreams is vivid, work hard to live it …” – Christopher “Biggie” Wallace on Shaq’s “You Can’t Stop The Reign”

My kids call Biggie old school. That floors me every time I hear it. I’ve heard that said for the last 12 years. Every so often, I catch myself rhyming a Biggie lyric aloud to them, which always astonishes them. I get nasal right around “You heard of us, the murderous, most shady …” while the horns get blaring underneath. The young eyeballs turn to me, but I barely notice because I’m simultaneously keeping up with Mr. Wallace and bleeping out his curses. I don’t use the b-word; he does. I’m not better than him. I exhale after the verse is over and wait for a student to put me onto something they’d like to karaoke. Upon request, I might do another depending on how far back they’d like to go. They’re playing the hype people, finishing off every line.

It’s those non-academic moments that keep me doing the arduous work of making the seemingly irrelevant (to them) doable and accessible.

When I was their age, I admired the boom-bap in Biggie’s intonations, the authority with which he grabbed the mic. Contrary to the sublime raps of today, it seemed like my favorite rappers of yesteryear had every intention of demolishing equipment with their voices. He didn’t allow for the beat to take over his voice. There was little symbiosis. He gave us two options: either listen to him on this beat or don’t listen at all. While I enjoy Biggie’s discography, my students point to songs like “Suicidal Thoughts” and “Juicy” in a way I only understood recently.

For a multitude of reasons, they look at Ready To Die as a direct ancestor to the everyman raps of Future, Drake, and J. Cole. It’s weird. 

What’s more, Biggie’s most memorable line starts with “Yeah, this album is dedicated to all the teachers who told me I’d never amount to nothin’.” As a straight-A student, I needed that sonic chip on my shoulder in the public and private schools I attended. As a teacher, I genuflected to the sentiment, especially when it was expressed less eloquently by some of my students. Those who wish to be better understood. Those who are ostracized by their circumstances. Those who shout because they’re not heard at home. Those who comprehend why society values school, but don’t see their role in the day-to-day mechanisms as school currently works.

The easy thing to tell Biggie when he shouts out dismissive teachers is to say “I’m not one of them.” The harder part is to envision our students as deserving of their own righteous path. Success will look different for each of them. We as teachers have a role to play in helping students see themselves as successful, but if our students find a different path than what we offer, we could do better than telling them they’d fail at life. Their literacy does not have to be ours. Their numeracy does not have to be ours. Their histories don’t have to be our ours, either.

We give them the best of what we have to offer. Once they’ve left us, we hope they choose a path that takes them in a more positive direction.

I see Biggie in my kids, too. The ones who start the boom-boom BAP-boombadum-BAP on the table. The ones who crack jokes even at the most inappropriate moments. The ones who crack a smile whether they’re in trouble or not. The ones who don’t want me to call their parents for any reason whatsoever. The quiet ones, too.The ones that say rude things to one another. All of them, really. I carry them in my headphones in the morning, in the afternoon, and before a presentation.

The lyrics make me wince, but I’m willing to listen without judgment. I hope my students appreciate that skill.