Monday, March 28, 2011

Religulous conversation at the mall

This past Sunday afternoon, I managed to tear myself away from The Tale of Genji (oh, the costumes, the poetry, the misogyny!) for a couple hours to go take my usual people-watching stroll through the local mall. I'm always on the lookout for dykey lesbians, dapper gays, hipsters, and stunning women of all stripes. That day was a lucky one because I spotted all categories.
Anyway, a brown-skinned boy in a fitted lavender dress shirt and nerd-goggles caught my eye. A tall, slim black prepster: potentially interesting. We made eye contact as we passed each other; when we passed each other again, he smiled and we struck up a conversation. I should have walked away when he said he had dropped out of an HBCU and ITT Tech and was currently a minimum-wage slave with plans to join the navy, but he seemed good-natured and earnest and I had time on my hands, so we got on to the topic of religion. Given his attire, I guessed that he had come from church, so I asked him about his faith -- partly for shits and giggles (since Christians, in my experience, usually turn out to have little actual knowledge of the bible and little adherence to its moral laws), but also to see how he would answer. 
He responded in almost exactly the same way as the uninformed, blissfully delusional Christians in Bill Maher's film "Religulous": he claimed to be a Christian and to have perfect faith in Jesus, despite not going to church regularly, not having read most of the bible, and not even agreeing with all of its doctrines, especially the ones about forbidden pleasures. He unabashedly admitted to engaging in premarital sex, consuming alcohol and soft drugs, and even being bisexual -- all of which are anathema to his god. But here's the kicker: he said he wanted to eventually become a minister. I immediately took the liberty of telling him he wouldn't make a good example for his flock. Then I told him that instead of being an apostate Southern Baptist, he should look into Unitarianism because it's the least dogmatic Christian denomination, but he had never heard of it. He had also never heard of agnosticism and was scandalized when I told him I don't necessarily believe in god. 
Since he seemed still interested in continuing the conversation, despite his moments of reflexive pearl-clutching, I tried to understand the mass of inconsistencies he had just handed me, but the deeper we got into his beliefs, the more defensive he became. He eventually attacked me with a snide remark that the reason why atheists/agnostics have read more of the bible is that god didn't speak to them, so they keep reading in search of god... in other words, a true Christian doesn't even have to read a whole verse because god will speak to them almost as soon as they open the holy book and basically tell them telepathically what they need to know, thereby saving him the trouble of actually studying the holy word. It's like spiritual cliffnotes. Or something.
Having drawn this absurd rationalization, this pearl of anti-wisdom, out of him, I finally felt free to leave and enjoy the rest of my lovely secular Sunday.

Monday, March 14, 2011


Though a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet, a child with a deliberately difficult, made-up name will have a chip on his shoulder for having to explain its spelling and pronunciation ad nauseam and will, therefore, be an asshole.
I understand the desire to show the world how unique and special your child is, and it seems that most parents do this by dressing their kids up in cute little outfits and trying to give them the best educational and social opportunities in life. A certain class of black people, on the other hand, resort to making up outlandish names for their kids -- names that are often neither euphonious nor phonetically spelled, so that when I call roll in the morning, I'm presented with a string of unlikely letters that I invariably mispronounce. Unfortunately, these students are usually the ones with the worst self-discipline, so I have to memorize their bizarre names in order to call them out for misbehavior. Add to that the serious insult in the black community of "calling someone out of their name" and it's a recipe for disaster.
Kids with foreign names -- whether because they are recently extracted from a non-Anglophone culture or just because their parents thought it sounded cool -- are no problem. They either correct me politely or offer a simple nickname I can call them. Problem solved. But ebonic names? With random apostrophes and capitalization? Examples:
Le'Frederick (An attempt at a posh French name? At least they got the masculine pronoun right, I guess.)
Jertarvious (Just... no.)
Melquon (Again, it doesn't even sound good.)
A'Miracle (Sounds like a stripper name. Very sweet girl, though, and she reads well above her grade level.)
Saporia (Sounds botanical, and vaguely unpleasant.)
Jaquon (I've heard it pronounced both "Juh-QUON" and "JAY-quon.")
Jebriel (An icky-sounding name for a nasty-mouthed girl. "Juh-BREEL")
Lamarrica (Rhymes with "America.")
Atrayu (A misspelling of either the hero from "The Neverending Story" or that emo/metal band. I didn't think it tactful to ask him which one.)
I know it's wrong to judge someone by something over which they have no control, but think of these kids' college applications, their resum├ęs... Who wouldn't pick a John or a Mary over a Kelchino or a La'Tasia?

Sunday, March 13, 2011


As a rather masculine woman, I'm used to being sometimes addressed as "sir" by strangers, so I was prepared to have my gender presentation questioned by some impertinent or merely curious child. Aside from the deeply troubling policing of masculinity that's behind the "gay"-as-an-expletive phenomenon, I've found that kids are a lot less offensive when pointing out differences and deviations from the norm than most adults... at least, if they like you.
Adults can be cruel. I've had people say either to my face or within earshot for my benefit that women should wear "pretty, feminine clothes;" women shouldn't wear short hair; that women shouldn't get their hair cut at men's barbershops; that I look like a dyke. When I worked in food service, one bovine, unkempt member of the fairer sex insisted on calling me "sir" even after I and my co-workers had corrected her, since apparently my short hair and lack of face paint was an affront to her sensibilities. (If looking fuckable and arousing the male gaze is the correct performance of femininity, though, she wasn't doing it any better than I was.)
But kids, on the other hand. There's a particular elementary school that I love working at because the atmosphere is really laid-back, the teachers/staff are friendly and helpful, and 80% of the kids are so incredibly, heartbreakingly sweet. The older kids write me notes with little poems and drawings, and the younger kids draw pictures for me and make me paper bracelets. When they see me in the hall, they yell my name and run up to get hugs. They vie for my attention, to sit next to me at lunch or story-time, to be my helper for the day. It's the luck of the draw, but some classes are filled with kids like that, and for those classes, I would gladly teach them without pay because seeing their tiny faces smile up at me is payment enough... Until I see my monthly paycheck. I make $70 a day.
Anyway. As I'm walking the hallway at this school, I sometimes hear one child ask another, "Is that a man or a woman?" And I want to turn to them and say, "Does it matter?" because my two women's studies classes and extensive skimming of Foucault and Butler make me think that it really only matters in 3 situations: sexual intimacy, healthcare, and choosing the appropriate pronouns. So, unless you want to have sexy-time with me, give me a physical, or refer to me in the 3rd person, whatever sex/gender I am is not necessarily your business. But I know that's pure idealism, and even I enjoy playing the male/female/other game when people-watching.
But on the other hand, I don't know what's so confusing about me. I don't wear men's clothes; I'm tall and slim, but I do have breasts and hips and my clothing does not camouflage them. My personal style for this job is like a more colorful version of Rachel Maddow: a boyish haircut, nerdy glasses, and a candy-colored button-down under a pantsuit or slacks and cardigan. Every other female teacher in this city wears dresses, skirts, or skin-tight dress pants along with a face full of make-up. The only teachers who dress like me are the 2 fresh-out-of-college young black men with a serious case of role-model syndrome. Instead of khakis and a sweater or polo shirt, they wear immaculate, dandy-prep ensembles so black students will see options other than thug fashion and the associated lifestyle; I covet their casket-sharp style, pastel palettes, well-tailored suits, and bow-ties.
I guess if everyone has to be thrown into one group or the other, I would probably look more at home on the men's side.
During story-time with a really adorable 2nd-grade class, one child asked me if the kind of ambiguously gendered kid in one of the pictures was a boy or a girl, and they had a little debate about it.
"But his hair is short like a boy!"
I interrupted to remind them that I have short hair, and I'm a girl.
"No, you're a woman," said the class smart-aleck.
"And we knew you were a girl anyway because your name is Miss Blank!" After this incontrovertible proof of my femaleness, they returned to arguing about the picture.
"Um, her hair is short, but she's wearing a girl shirt."
"But it's red. And it's plaid."
"No, it's pink, and look at her sleeves."
"His hair is kinda longer than a boy's..."
I let this go on for a while because it was funny to hear them so emotionally involved in gendering an image of an unnamed, minor character in the story, but finally I said, "Sometimes you can't tell by the hair or the clothes. Girls can have short hair, and boys can have long hair. And boys and girls can wear the same clothes. I don't know, and you don't know, so why don't we finish the story?"
They all shouted, "Yeah, let's finish the story!" and scooted up closer to my rocking chair.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Sympathy for Teachers

This is my third month of substitute teaching, and, while I'm making progress in handling elementary-aged students, I'm dismayed to discover that something ominous happens to a lot of kids around 6th grade. They become surly, insolent, over-sexed, and violent. No amount of cajoling, threats, positive reinforcement, office referrals, or even corporal punishment (with a well-worn, vicious-looking wooden paddle) can reform them. With classes like these, my only goal is to keep them from injuring each other or damaging property; fuck the lesson plan, just maintaining discipline is a full-time job.
So when I run into the teachers who somehow manage to survive daily contact with such students, I pay homage. I repeat my incredulity at their students' apathy and lack of self-control; I praise them for being able to teach anything to an overcrowded room full of semi-literate youths; I commiserate with them over the devaluation of education and the future of our nation.
Lest you think I'm exaggerating, here are some examples of the behavior I'm referring to:
1) At a notoriously dangerous middle school, I wrote 3 office referrals before 9 a.m. for students who refused to do their work, refused to stop talking, and then walked out of class. While I was eating lunch in the teachers' lounge, the vice-principal dragged them back to his office and paddled them each one by one and then made them apologize to me for being so disrespectful. I was a floating sub that day, which means I went from class to class to cover for teachers doing in-service training. That afternoon, I had two of those same boys who I had written up that morning, and they were just as disrespectful as before. One of them divided his time between napping and antagonizing the other students; the other was rapping and beat-boxing the entire period.
2) This is why I don't sub at high schools anymore. There's apparently a new unspoken rule at public high schools in this city allowing kids to listen to their iPods as long as they stay in their seats and at least pretend to do their work. This means that sitting in a desk and not bothering others has gone from being the bare minimum requirement to being the paragon of good behavior. When I first encountered this, I expressed surprise and disapproval to other teachers, but they smiled sadly and said, "You'll understand." Without profane music blasting in their earbuds to mollify them, these students will pick fights with each other, talk explicitly about sex, break out a pack of cards to play spades, pull out a can of oil sheen and a rat tooth comb to play beauty salon, and basically act as though they are not in school under adult supervision. And it's not "senior-itis": this all happened in 10th grade classes.
3) Some students' prevailing attitudes toward teachers goes beyond simple lack of respect to an active hatred. I've heard students criticize their teachers for looking rundown and unfashionable. I've heard students say teaching is as respectable a job as flipping burgers, and, since teachers only make $19,000 a year (according to one student), they're not worthy of respect. I've even heard a high school kid lionized by his peers for slapping a teacher. This is not just a problem with older kids, either. A fifth-grader once got so enraged with me for repeatedly asking him to sit down and practice his multiplication that he went red in the face, started hyperventilating, and told me, "You can't tell me what to do! Get out of my face, you gay teacher!"
4) The word "gay" -- completely divorced from either of its two meanings and instead intended to mean all that is vile, loathsome, and Other in a fellow human being -- has infected youth language like a virus. It's like verbal herpes. Boys call each other gay to emasculate and belittle each other. Girls call boys gay for not being as warlike and hardhearted as them. As a queer-identified, slightly androgynous woman, I find it all highly problematic and disturbing and angry-making because, first of all, it's not bad to be gay. Somehow even by the tender age of 8, today's Bible Belt children have imbibed the idea that same-sex attraction is bad and that, by extension, being accused for any reason of even "acting gay" (whatever that may mean) is an unpardonable offense. The most recent and most egregious incident I've witnessed happened yesterday in a 3rd grade class. An unhappy-looking, overfed boy had apparently had a continuing feud with the "special needs" student in class. ("Special needs" is a catch-all category for kids with learning disabilities, physical disabilities, and severe behavioral problems. I've never been told exactly what's going on with any of the special needs kids I've had to work with, so it's always hard to deal with them, especially when they disturb the other students.) Yesterday, the special boy followed his apparently usual routine of wandering around the room, talking smack to other students, grunting, and hogging the pencil sharpener in order to sharpen all his pencils down to nubs. Fat boy got fed up and drew a disturbing sketch of special boy consumed in flames, chased down by what I assume to be a dragon, while fat boy looks on and says, "Die, gay [special boy]! Die!"
Kids are scary little creatures, and I'm glad that I have the choice to avoid certain classes if I know that I'm not up to the challenge. Teachers deserve respect for the bravery required to face such hellions day in and day out.