It came without warning. I was certainly unprepared and, moreover, shocked that a student like RT could utter those words from his mouth.
Near the beginning of 4th period, while instructing my ancy, heat-distressed students (it has been well above 80 degrees this entire week and the school doesn’t switch the the A/C on until May 15) to settle down for their Do Nows, I asked WJ, a perpetual talker, to redirect his vocal energies towards completing today’s Do Now. Cognizant that he had been off-task, WJ sincerely said “sorry.”
At that point, with little to no hesitation, RT matter-of-factly interrupted:
“Don’t say sorry to him. He’s nothing. He’s just a Chinese person.”
Those words cut right through my teacher armor and penetrated my heart. It hurt.
The moment RT made the comment, the entire class fell silent. RT immediately knew he had crossed the line. I made it clear that he had. I gave perhaps the most serious teacher stare I have ever given. I stared at him for what felt like 2 hours, but was probably closer to 10 eternal seconds. I told him that I needed to talk to him after class and I informed him that I would call his mother and write him up.After class, I explained to him why he had crossed the line. I helped him put himself in my shoes by reversing the situation: “if someone said the same thing about you but replaced “Chinese”–which, by the way, I am not–with “black,” would you be offended?” He told me no, as if I were making a big deal out of nothing.
RT’s mother thought otherwise. She was flabbergasted that RT had said what he said and told me that “we don’t allow that in our family.” She apologized over and over again and told me she would knock some sense into RT. I hope she did. I told her that I had relayed to RT that he had lost a large part of my respect for him and that it would take a lot to earn it back.
The irony here, of course, is that RT is one of the few students who shows up to school on time–swiping in at 8:00am sharp, the exact time the school doors open to students, and 45 minutes before class begins. Because his locker is near my classroom, he often pops in my classroom in the morning. It’s too bad that, at least for a “cooling off” period, I won’t welcome him in my classroom in the mornings.
As a racial anomaly–an alien of sorts–at my school (there are 2 or 3 Asian students here), I have gotten used to insults and comments of various kinds (I will refrain from listing them). This is more out of necessity than anything else, since, regardless of the circumstances, it is difficult to justify those types of comments. Indeed, for students who are so racially-sensitive (“why does criminal always have to be black?” or “why isn’t the main character ever black?”), it’s upsetting to think that some of them are either (a) naive enough to make comments like the one directed at me without realizing how wrong they are or (b) spiteful enough to level that type of remark at another human being. In either case, this doesn’t reflect well on humanity.
On the other hand, I am thankful that the students at my school don’t all think I’m the same Asian celebrity. Although the majority of students think I am Jackie Chan, I’m glad that some think I resemble Jet Li or Bruce Lee. It’s also humorous to hear students tell me that I “look like [I] came straight out of Gossip Girl.” I attribute this to the bowties I wear just as much as to my preppy style.
The lesson(s)? Prepare for and expect the unexpected. Sometimes the shell that protects teachers from the chaos of the urban classroom will break and poison will seep in. Furthermore–and oddly enough–teachers need to be as versatile and resilient as the students they teach in these settings.
I’m bouncing back. As a teacher, it is my responsibility to teach students when they err. Although I will not welcome RT into my classroom outside of class time for a while, this decision comes more out of my desire to show RT the wrongness of his words. He lost my respect and will now have to earn it back. When he comes back, though, I will let him try again. We teachers must never give up on anyone. It’s hard, but I will mend my armor and then turn the other cheek.