Why Kendrick Lamar, My Mom, and Mrs. Howard are Really Good Teachers

I have a confession. While the rest of the trying to be woke white millennial world was gawking at Kendrick Lamar’s last album To Pimp a Butterfly, I didn't understand it. When I listen to Kendrick I feel like I did when I was in 5th grade and tried to read the Hobbit because I thought the cover looked cool. Half a chapter in I got sick of looking up words and trying to translate elvish. The hobbit was above my reading level, I needed to stick with my boy Matt Christopher and be ok with that.

At 33, I’m a bit more appreciative of these types of challenges. I like the way that Kendrick has rearranged music and that sometimes midway through a song his word gymnastics are interrupted by a jazz band. I like that when I listen I have to google lyrics, look up who “Duckworth” is, and listen to interviews before I get an understanding of what is going on. Abstract metaphors, complex rhyme schemes, jazz beats, and non-repetitive hooks are a difficult grasp, but I like that it sometimes takes me a few months or years to appreciate it. I like that even once I think I’ve gotten it, I really haven’t. By reimagining a genre, Kendrick has forced me to look at something i've looked at a lot, like music, a bit differently.

Moms do this too. Maternal pedagogy is just as layered and nuanced as K. Dot.

Here’s an example. The last time I was at my Mom’s house it was getting late and time to go to sleep. I walked up the stairs to the room that used to be where my two brothers and I slept, which is now my parent’s guest room, and noticed my Mom did something she has done throughout my life. She tidied my room a bit and turned the nightstand lamp on. Nothing crazy, she just put my bag on a chair making it easier to reach, pulled back the covers on the bed, and turned on a light. It was simple, but somehow the low light and modest organization changed the shape of the room, making it feel more warm and loving. Her simple rearrangement made me feel as loved at 33 as it did when I was 11.

Oh, how nice Adam, you’re Mom picked up your messes, enabling you to become a codependent slob. Slow down...she didn’t do it everyday. Just consistently enough that it’s a memory; I’d say with the same regularity that you should eat scrapple.

Mom’s and educators are different in most ways; teachers shouldn’t be cleaning students with their saliva. If you are, stop. You’re crossing a line and your students might secretly hate you. But educators are similar to Moms in that we are both working with young folks during those crucial years where bad decisions can seem like great ideas, which means we should deal in the realm of creating memories and impressions.

Four years ago, a 7th grade teacher that I love named Mrs. Howard came to me with an issue. She was overwhelmed by how her homeroom of girls wouldn’t stop being cruel to one another. Mrs. Howard was heartbroken. She had done everything a good teacher is supposed to do given the situation; followed school disciplinary protocol, made parent phone calls, conducted lunch break mediation sessions, alerted administration, got the counselor (me) involved. Nothing was working. Finally I remember saying something to Mrs. Howard that at the time I wasn’t sure of why I said it. I said, “When in doubt, make a memory.” I remember after saying it feeling like I probably let Mrs. Howard down. I pictured her using at least 20 minutes of her 30 minute lunch period to curse me out to her grade team. The next morning I was walking the halls of our school and passed Mrs. Howard’s room. It was completely silent, aside from Mrs. Howard who was speaking to her homeroom of girls. I don’t know what she was saying, because the door was shut, but there was authenticity, disappointment, and love in her voice. I looked in the window of her door and saw that her face was red and tears were pouring out of her eyes. I saw 25 young women awestruck by the concern and love their teacher was sharing. It’s four years later and I still remember feeling the warmth that came from Mrs. Howard’s room that morning. Using what was on her heart, she shuffled the deck in a way her students weren’t used to and in the process opened some calloused teenage hearts.  

I don’t want to ruin the moment but it’s entirely possible that the girls in Mrs. Howard’s room were fist-fighting by recess of that same day. I should also point out that crying in front of 13 year olds has the potential to be a very bad idea. The ability to pull it off is the same as being a skier able to navigate a black diamond. In other words, if I would try it, there would be irreparable damage.

What Kendrick Lamar, my Mom, and great teachers like Mrs. Howard do well is rearrange things in a way that causes us to step back. They renew a sense of objectivity, allowing us to look and learn in a fresh way. Whether it’s Kendrick excursion in jazz, my Mom turning a light on, or Mrs. Howard’s earnest tears and thoughtful words; they each prioritized interruption of business as usual.  

Late in the school year, this is something particularly helpful for me to remember. It’s a time when I often want to coast. I want to zone out and listen to a Drake song. I want Hotline Bling.

But Kendrick, my Mom, and Mrs. Howard have made me think differently about that.