Well, tonight was really, really awkward.
Really, really, really awkward.
The usual teacher wasn't there for reasons, so we had a substitute. And the substitute was getting ready to give one of the unit tests to the group who were in the "senior" group. She mistakenly thought everyone was part of that, and was reviewing the material to the test.
So she basically kicked right in asking the review questions for that test, one at a time, to each of us in turn, waiting with very, very long and awkward pauses until there was an answer from someone.
I was asked to give a chemical term's definition. I knew it, even though I hadn't read the book at all, and she nodded. She then asked for the next definition, and there was a long, long and awkward pause while the student looked for it in the text.
For me, this was basic. I struggled to keep up with the Asian kids in my school back in the day (sorry about the stereotypes, he says, wincing). I had to balance equations, do redox stuff, and figure out molarity and so forth. Simply asking me to define basic chemical terms is in my vocabulary.
It wasn't in theirs. By "theirs" here, I mean inner city Atlantans. Don't get me wrong or get it twisted.
I'll stress: these folks aren't stupid. They're bright, entrepreneurial. One of them showed me a prototype of a new tool he had manufactured overseas and was going to sell. I want one of the first of them, and I want him to sign the inside. He's going places.
I don't blame them one bit for not having that at the tips of their fingers, like I do. And I say this as sounding pretentious, condescending, or even racist.
The Atlanta school system scandal recently wrapped up. The ringleader escaped punishment only by dying of breast cancer before the trial was over. She was absent during the final weeks, and was dead before the verdict was read. Other teachers involved got decade-plus jail terms for falsifying test results, speeding kids through the system and making them and everyone else feel like they were educated. They collected tons in No Child Left Behind and merit based bonuses. The reason the judge gave for the harshness of the sentences was that the kids that went through the system were cheated and robbed blind of the chance to prove themselves and/or to learn something. More importantly, to learn how to learn. I knew intellectually that their schools were shit, their teachers incompetent and unconcerned, but this brought the divide between the two groups in the room into real razor sharp focus.
It's pure conjecture, and if any of you are reading this, I could be wrong, and I mean no offense.
But when I took the time to explain, in a few words, what the big words and lists of shit actually meant, they got it. Again, they're not stupid people, I have nothing but mad respect and they're fast becoming good friends. But as time wore on, they got really quiet and suddenly it was my job to answer things, or we just sat there in very very long silence. Someone knews this, someone say it so we can move on.
As time wore on I was sotto voce apologizing for showing them up, and they were like, no, it's good, I'm learning this way. And they meant it. So I answered. And we went on and we completed it all.
I'd like to apologize to my childhood classmate Kenichi, and Tony, both of whom we tended to shove to the front of any questioning, quietly mumbling behind them. Our parents blamed them for fucking up the curve. And with hindsight, I apologize for putting them in the harsh spotlight.
On my way home, blasting The Star Spangled Banner by Boston out the windows of my car, I happened upon a young man standing in the middle of the street. I'd seen him selling something before, and I motioned him over with a "come here" gesture. He walked up, and as he got closer I recognized the beaded cap and bowtie of a member of the Nation of Islam. He had a copy of Salaam in his hand, the script across the front in black all-caps Gothic calligraphic lettering like a backpiece tattoo. Their monthly newsletter.
"How much?" I asked him, him not sure how to respond to a "come here" gesture from me. I was polite and smiling.
"It's by donation" he said simply, "whatever you can give."
I gave him $2, saying genuinely, "I know it's going to good use" -and thanked him with the NON-Muslim greating. "Salaam", I said, simply.
"Wa Alaikumu Salam", he answered back, giving a more formal greeting usually reserved for other Muslims. I smiled at him, and he wasn't quite sure what the game was, but he smiled back, man to man, and resumed his post.
For those unclear on the Nation of Islam, what you need to know to understand how weird this was is that a primary tenet of the Nation is that white people are blue eyed devils, a failed genetic experiment by the scientist Yakub, who corresponds roughly to the Bible's Jacob. That we are (the author is white) generally evil towards people of color and were designed to rule them by tricks and lies, but only for six thousand years and that this is far from a good thing. Though they believe in black superiority, they are generally open to the idea of sympathetic, even Islamic white people. And given in the South they take a certain kind of glee in some circles at people in the crowd having gotten away with shooting the ever living fuck out of them for minding their own business, I can see how that can take root hard.
They also want segregation - to be left alone to pursue their own future unfettered by our presence.
Their core argument is, the system we have going really fucking isn't working for them.
Salaam, my brother. Salaam. And Ameen.