When “N*ggas” Can’t Read…

[Immediate disclaimer: I feel totally uncomfortable using the n-word in any form. I used it here because it was used by a student and I am quoting him.]

I am friends with many of my old students on facebook (Although a large percentage of them are hidden from my feed due to photos of them smoking blunts or inappropriate status updates about hooking up at the club–Oh, one’s twenties!), and friends with a few on Instagram. One in particular posts many photos on Instagram that have made me a little uneasy (lots of drinking and smoking), but at the same time my love for this kid–who is now a young man–supersedes his questionable content.

See, this kid was a sweet little geek in a pretty rough urban school, but instead of being an outcast, he still managed to wiggle into the cool kids circle. He got beyond the periphery of cool (how I describe myself and my friends in high school), but he got stuck  in the outer layers of cool, and, no matter how hard he tried, could not get into the inner circle. Just as well, in my opinion. We all know, as adults, that those cool kids in high school peak at age 18 and that the rest of us peaked 10+ years later after a long, painful, and beautiful climb through early adulthood. And when we peaked, we were cognizant enough to recognize the arrival, whereas when you peak at 18 your meta-cognitive skills aren’t developed enough to recognize that your position at the top is glorious yet temporary.

Back to my student. He is now very successful. He has his own business. He knows celebrities. He is amazing. On Instagram the other day, he posted this:

20130226-112032.jpg And for some reason it kind of broke my heart. At first I didn’t understand why it made me sad, but sadness was definitely my first reaction. I guess because I have experienced this a lot. I have seen the coolest kid whose swagger was so potent it could knock you over completely crumble when asked to read aloud, or, instead of crumbling, he would get oppositional and begin to curse, “Fuck this…I ain’t gonna fuckin’ read this stupid fuckin’ play.” (Insert tossing the book here, or walking out of the room, or putting head down on desk.)

But then I got sad because I felt like this student and his peers who commented with things like, “Generation is all fucked (emoticon of sad face)” and “Saddest shit ever! I was in an officiating class, all guys, they said “(Name), why don’t you read since you’re the best reader.’ I read everyday and no one was offended. Smh” and “Lmfao” and “Lmao” and many other emoticons of laughing/crying faces, don’t realize that THIS IS A SERIOUS PROBLEM.

Serious. Problem. That. Involves. All. Of. Us.

To quote Tupac’s “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” young men of color who cannot read,” affects the whole community.”

And I am not talking about the Black or Hispanic community, I am talking about our city, state, nation–our HUMAN community. It affects crime, jobs, education, poverty, domestic violence, mental health, the economy. The reverberations are immense. Low literacy rates create serious  and lasting consequences.

I would like to propose a call to arms to this student of mine. He went to a rough school, but he came from educated parents and relative privilege. He is a successful young businessman  now. I know those kids in our high school, those with the swagger who were popular and tough but couldn’t read like him, probably gave him grief back in the day. He has proven them all wrong with his success–the sweetest revenge of all. But now that he’s proven that he is awesome (both to himself and others), start to give back, my friend. Support literacy work in inner city communities, prisons, or schools. DO SOMETHING.  Please.


Your High School English Teacher Who Knew You’d Grow Up & Be Amazing,

Even Back in the Day