Not Another Think Piece

Childish Gambino released a video this week and I think everyone with the internet has seen it. And since the only way anyone would stumble upon this little blog post is through the internet, I’m assuming that you have already used 4 minutes and read one of the constant stream of think pieces that have already been written and are far better than anything I could offer.

The video has 100 million views in a week, so it should be abundantly clear by now that at the very least Donald Glover is brilliant and at the most he is some form of a pop-media Jesus chameleon who has all of our minds in the palm of his hand.

This isn’t a think piece about a video that, as Panama Jackson put it, “Donald Glover… dances a lot and some folks die and others don’t. Because this is America.”

This is a post about teaching high school and how things that get 100 million views always creep or explode into the classroom and we get to react and interact with those messages. In this case, the messages are kind of tailored to an English classroom that is constantly working to understand and analyze the array of arguments this world offers.

I probably watched the video 10 times this week and a few of those times were with classrooms of students as either planned or unplanned disruptions. Of course, the video is violent and shocking at times, but most of our young people have dealt with violence and shock in much more intimate ways than a music video, so the students didn’t seem too concerned with any of that. In other words, the hard shock Glover intended at the beginning of video lingers in 30 year old white guy minds more than it does in the minds of my students.

Instead, they talked a lot about the kids dancing, apparently ignoring the world exploding around them. I asked one of my more observant class of AP seniors what I thought was the obvious question.

“Are the kids dancing because they are unaware, apathetic, or just trying to stay sane.”

I won’t forget the resounding answer from the class.

“Yes. All of that.”

They said it depends on the person, the age, the nature of the explosion around them, and a host of other things that might make up the dance that plays out as a celebration and a coping mechanism all at the same time.

I could relate to that on some artificial level. In my 9 years of teaching, I have taught in some pretty frustrating situations. When the hallways are loud, the standards around me are low, students are showing fear and insecurity in a whole range of ways, and the school building isn’t meeting the basic goal for which it was created, I tend to want to close my classroom door and focus on what I can control. I can teach in my classroom and try to ignore the outside noise and that dance brings me some kind of sanity. It isn’t really the best response, especially when I can offer something that may help the whole school experience, but that dance, or in my case closing the door and teaching, is a tempting reprieve.  

But this post isn’t completely about teaching either.

In that same senior AP class, I asked them to play around with their own definitions of America. It is the kind of creativity and flexibility that is finally possible the week after they have all taken the AP exam and we can relax a little bit. This is what they wrote. They made clear to me something That they have all known forever: America has been looking away and ignoring chaos since its inception. It’s kind of what we do best.

 

“This is America where the people up there pretend to care but really put me on an endless uphill battle. When I think I made it to the top where THEY are, I’ve really only made it another inch and they know that I can never reach them. It’s how they have made it for people who look like me. I’m just used to make THEM look better rather than actually benefiting myself or my people.”  

“This is America where we talk about walls to keep Mexico out, when there are so many of us who live here who haven’t figured out how to get ‘in’ yet.”

“This is a country where everyone plays on teams of one; a country with such selfish values. Every man for themselves.”

“In America we are lead to believe that there is nothing we can do to prevent what is going on around us. Every day we see real struggle, but we are brainwashed to accept the unacceptable.”

“This place where cops can simply violate you, your personal space and belongings, and kill you just because they have some authority. The America we see isn’t the America you ever see on television.”

“It’s a mind game. They told us all to be scared of black men with a gun so we would be distracted.”

The last paper I read just told a personal vignette of a girl sitting downtown at a bus stop while all the folks in ties and evening gowns left a swanky theater. It talked in striking detail about how hard some of the white theater patrons try not to look at her, a 18 year old black girl in a oversized hoodie sitting on a curb. There was a grown man hitting on her while a young couple walked by and the man looked ahead and touched the small of his wife’s back. The girl thought to herself.

“I feel you trying so hard not to look at me. Not because you don’t want to be rude and stare accidentally, but because you actually think I don’t deserve the attention. I wish I could say it doesn’t bother me, but it sits in the back of my mind as you slip into your expensive coat. I know you’re scared, but I am too.”

And in the week of This is America, I think so many of us are the kind of the person trying not to watch as we slip on our expensive coats. It’s tempting to just keep looking forward and not notice the person waiting for the bus. In a more corporate sense, it is really easy to forget about the things that don’t impact our own lives. It’s the allure of that blissful ignorance that allows those around us to be uncomfortable while we slip into our luxury cars.

I have a civic, I don’t go to fancy downtown shows, and my coat wasn’t all that expensive. But the girls writing convicted me. Her and I are different, and America has served each of us vastly contrasting experiences.

She and her classmates have known that for a long time. I continue to learn that more every day. This, for better or for worse, is America.