Gather ‘round boys and girls…I have a story to tell.
Growing up the youngest in my family, I had to learn how to do things on my own. People were not always motivated to show “the baby” the ropes, but it never stopped me from figuring things out.
Whether it was completing homework, teaching myself how to play the piano, or learning how to burn my first cd (which is ironic because I wound up working at a record label – don’t be like me, #BuyTheMusic), if I truly wanted something, my lack of resources sparked the intestinal fortitude to go after it.
As a kid, I did my best to excel in academics; but I wasn’t your average bookworm.
Both my sister and I were social butterflies, but our parents were strict about schoolwork. Imagine a short, spunky, African – American girl, full of sarcasm, armed with a backpack and textbooks roaming the school hallways with her friends. My sophomore year of high school, my family moved from the trendy and chic San Francisco Bay Area in California to the heat-stricken cornfields of Illinois. I had to learn how to adapt to my surroundings, but by second quarter, people knew who I was and what I was about.
I was very talkative and laughed a lot, but I always added to class discussion and ended up with a 3.8 or 4.0 GPA each quarter.
Although I was the only African American in most of my classes, I felt pretty comfortable in my new environment. That is until the time a substitute teacher walked in to my English class and knew nothing about me, who I was, or where I came from. That day, we were assigned to read A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings by Gabriel García Márquez.
In the book, an old man winds up in the backyard of a family appearing tired and unkempt. While everyone looks at him as a freak, one child recognizes his true angelic nature due to his representation of purity and acceptance (oh, the irony…just keep reading).
Now, here’s where the issue came: when asked how we would feel if a man with wings appeared in our backyard, I simply laughed and said, “Man, I would be trippin’!”
Upon hearing my jargon of choice, the substitute immediately scolded me in front of the class, questioning the seriousness of my response, and stating that she did not need “that” in her classroom.
When I inquired what the “that” reference was, she rolled her eyes and blew me off.
Now, every thought in my mind told me to completely let her know who I was. I had one of the highest grades in the class and everyone knew it. It was nothing to boast about, we all were a team, and I simply played my position – but I did it well. In between my thoughts to walk out of class for the rendered disrespect, a stillness came over me. I thought, “Why tell her who I am when I can show her?”
I sat through the rest of the story, not uttering a word.
Partly because I was still fuming, but also because I trusted that the time to speak up would come. By the end of the story, there were so many metaphors and symbolic references that it was easy to get lost. When the teacher asked what the underlining theme of the story was – no one had a clue…well, almost no one.
My friends looked to me to answer the question, but I waited. The class was still silent when the teacher prompted us again with the same question, as if she was waving a doggy treat in front of us. I slowly raised my hand and waited until I was called upon.
I sat up straight and when I opened my mouth, I intentionally did not try to adjust my vocabulary to suit the environment.
“Okay – look y’all…” I started, “Let’s break this down real quick. The kid can see the angel for who he is because of his child like wide eyed innocence. Everyone else is around judgin’ homeboy in the backyard because of the jaded perceptions that overtake us the more we are exposed to the maliciousness of the world. However, we shouldn’t judge because you never know…you could be talking to an angel!”
The teacher was shocked, but no one else was – they knew what I knew all along. We all nodded in agreement and went on about our day, laughing and joking as usual.
By the end of the class, the sub asked me why I was not in advanced English. I shrugged and replied, “Well you know, I don’t really have the time…since I’m in Advanced Calculus and Advanced Music Theory. I’m cool with this.”
There is a time and a place to let people know who’s boss.
However, there is also a sweet victory that comes in showing people who you are, especially when surrounded by others who reinforce your stance. Let your quiet confidence command the authority you seek. I could have walked out and complained about the unwarranted actions associated with the substitute’s ignorance, but instead, I was able to teach her a lesson – and I didn’t need to stand in front of a bunch of teenagers to do it.