Dan Namingha, September Cloud, Acrylic on Canvas, 20"x24" ©2018
Much of my first year as a high school geography teacher in inner city Denver I spent debating whether or not to pick the stapler up off my desk and throw it through one of the classroom windows. Would the violence of intentionally shattered glass regain from my students the attention I had lost? Would it somehow assert the authority that the professionally framed master’s degree on the wall behind my desk did not? Or would it just get me fired and likely jailed? Was prison really that much worse than teaching ninth grade?
For the first 88 days of the school year, I arrived in my classroom at 7 a.m., left at 7 p.m., drove to Chipotle, bought a chicken burrito, ate a chicken burrito, went home, walked my lonesome hound dog, graded papers for a few hours, wrote lesson plans until I passed out on the couch, then descended into fitful nightmares as I slept. In my dreams I stood in front of the same whiteboard on which I wrote neatly bullet-pointed lecture notes in real life. In my dreams I addressed the same low-income Latino students who I taught in real life. In my dreams I wore some combination of the same five dress shirts and the same five neckties I wore to class in real life, all while being strangulated by a half-windsor noose and slowly dying of embarrassment while lecturing to my students and not wearing any pants.
I was a teacher, but if my skinny, spike-haired students thought of me as such, not one time in those first three sleepless months did they ever let me know. On good days, I was bato or güey—dude. On bad days, or on quiz days, and certainly on test days, I was pendejo—asshole. Cabrón—bastard. Sometimes even puta — probably best to just Google that one—at least until the day I revealed that I knew more Spanish than my students thought I did. Amongst each other they whispered and muttered their vulgar nicknames for me. To my face, though, my students always called me the same thing: mister.
Not Mr. White, as I had introduced myself to them.
Not even Mr. Rick, which I would have accepted and might have even preferred.
No, just little-m mister, like they were looking to bum some change off me, this stranger strolling down the sidewalk of their lives.
"Hey, mister!” Fernando called out one day, his voice at age 14 already an octave lower than mine at twenty-seven. Fernando carried himself with the casual confidence of a bato who had always been big for his age. He had a good 20 pounds on me and proudly sported a tuft of stubble on his chin, which jutted upward on the rare occasions when he spoke, usually to crack a joke. The tone in Fernando’s voice that day, though, suggested genuine curiosity, as did the pensive squint of his eyes. Although I was wrapping up a particularly riveting lecture on latitude and longitude, I was at first surprised by his interest, then concerned, for curious students were rare enough in my classroom to be considered a kind of endangered species — or, as we in capital-e Education might say, “at-risk.”
“Yes, Fernando?” I said.
“Mister. Who you think is better: Messi or Ronaldo?”
In case you are wondering, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were not the world’s two
most famous geographers. They were the world’s two most famous soccer players.
The stapler was but an arm’s length away.
The expectation from the school administration was bell-to-bell instruction, so bell-to-
bell instruction was what my students got. Four-page daily lesson plans. Exit tickets at the end of every class. Six formative assessments and one summative assessment every other week. This, the studies said, would “close the gap.” This, my principal said, would get my low-income Latino kids to college. This, the wealthy founders of the high-performing charter school network said, would deliver my students to the Promised Land, that mythical paradise of co-ed dormitories and full-ride scholarships and all-you-can-eat cafeteria buffets. Paradise from which I had recently graduated summa cum laude. Paradise that one enters as a timid, unsophisticated frosh, then exits some years later, presumably, as an erudite intellectual with a bona fide college degree. That golden ticket to the joyride of the American middle class. That prized piece of paper signed, stamped, and guaranteed to get you the job of your dreams. The job that gives purpose and meaning to your otherwise purposeless and meaningless existence. The job with a six-figure salary and great health insurance and a supportive work environment governed by a fun-loving boss who prioritizes work-life balance over all other things. Or something like that.
In that world, the world of so-called higher education, I had been something. In my students’ world, though, or at least at that curious intersection where our latitudes and longitudes met, in that world, in my classroom, I was just a rookie in a roomful of hardened vets. Whiter than a saltine cracker and greener than the left side of the Mexican flag. So I had a few letters behind my name. Those letters and all that they signified of what I had earned, or thought I had earned, mattered less to my students than did the name preceding them. And my name was not Xochitl, the name of both a Toltec queen and a feisty freshman girl with thick black eyeliner who sat in the second row of desks. Xochitl—the girl whose name her Spanish-speaking friends had trouble pronouncing, as did her whitebread teachers, so she had shortened it to Sochi a few years earlier, sometime around when her cousins and uncles started getting gunned down in Mexican border towns, casualties of the escalating drug war there. No, Xochitl was not my name. Neither was it Rogelio, and my father had not been deported in September for failing to signal for a left turn. My last name was not Guerrero, not Trejo, not Álvarez, and my U.S. citizenship was so secure that I could not have even told you where my Social Security card was, nor would I have needed to. The name on my school ID was not Alicia Martinez, and though I did not go to the house parties that my non-teacher friends invited me to each weekend because I spent all my so-called “free time,” including weekends, writing lesson plans and grading papers and dreaming about writing lesson plans and grading papers, had I chosen to go to such house parties, I could have gone on any given Saturday without fear of being murdered and dismembered and stuffed into plastic garbage bags in some pendejo’s garage. I must have missed that lecture in graduate school, the one in which my professor explained the proper classroom management technique to employ the Monday morning after every kid in class has just seen the picture of their friend and classmate Alicia Martinez on the Sunday evening news.
No. My name was not Xochitl. It was not Rogelio. Not Alicia Martinez. My name was... “Mister.”
“I’m serious, mister. Messi or Ronaldo?”
Fernando’s adoring audience gasped. Snickered. A few even wheezed. Mr. White. In the classroom.With the stapler.
“Fernando,” I replied. “Your question could not possibly have less to do with today’s lesson on latitude and longitude. For that matter, your question has no relevance whatsoever to any of the means of geographic navigation and orientation that I have tried to teach you this week. Actually, come to think of it, not Lionel Messi of Argentina, not Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal, not even Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez of Mexico has anything to do with the subject of geography at all. None whatsoever. But the answer to your question, clearly, is Messi by a mile. And if you’ll open your textbook to the world map on page 456 and give me the coordinates of Lisbon, Portugal, Mexico City, Mexico, and Buenos Aires, Argentina, I’ll give you and every other güey in class a perfect score on your exit ticket, and we’ll call it good for today.”
And so the nightmares ended then in early November, just after Dia de los Muertos, on the day I learned to meet my students where they’re at—the day my education began.