Back in September, we had a week of orientation for the new students. In one of the final activities, students contributed to “awards” for each other, writing bits of praise or positive qualities on pieces of paper with each student’s name on it. I and another teacher circulated during the activity, trying to make sure that each student had at least three three things written on their piece of paper. It was all a bit chaotic, and the task was made more difficult by the fact that while we’d had a week of orientation, due to the way the groups were divided, we’d only interacted with most of the students for about two subjective days.
At the end of the activity, when people were coming back to their seats, one student walked up to me with a woebegone expression on his face — the future Mr. Articulate. We were a bit pressed for space, and he’d been sitting in a corner. His paper must have been obscured somehow, because it had only one word on it, and not a particularly good word, at that, but the sort of thing you say about someone when you don’t know them very well and don’t have anything better to say. “Nice,” or something along similar lines. Not the sort of word you want to be the best thing a room full of people can think of to say about you.
“Here,” I took the paper from him and looked at him for a while, trying to come up with something I knew about him that could compensate for and overpower the milquetoast “nice.” I knew him to be quiet. Respectful. Reasonably well-spoken. Slight. Polite. He seemed like a good kid, but none of the well-substantiated things I knew about him had much, if any, more weight than “nice.” And then, as I peered into his face, inspiration struck me in a white-hot flash, and I bent my head and wrote:
and gave him back the paper.
As he read the word, a smile broke across his face like sunlight sinking into deep water, and he uttered a soft, “Awww,” like someone who has just been handed a warm and snuggly kitten. When he looked up again, his face was filled with . . . hope. . . . pride. . . . determination. As if it was the nicest thing anyone had ever said to him. As if I’d looked into his soul and seen a person he knew was there, but no one else had ever noticed.
It’s not a big word. But we all want other people to see and appreciate our talents. And a lot of urban young people see talent — at sports, in music — as one of the few things that will lift them out of the narrow little worlds they find themselves in.
Later, Articulate seemed particularly comfortable opening up to me or asking me for help. Maybe he’s just a good kid. Maybe our personalities meshed well. Or maybe something happened in that moment when I looked in his face and called him talented.
I firmly believe that young people will meet the level of expectation set for them (note that this is in reference to groups, not necessarily individuals in specific situations. Case by case, the mileage can vary widely). If their community holds them to high expectations, they will meet those expectations, or at least come close. If they are held to low expectations, well, they’ll meet those, too.
There is a lot of discussion about the failure of urban youth, about the incarceration epidemic, about unemployment and hoodlums and teen mothers. We’re happy to blame the teachers, or the parents, or the churches, or the “bad crowd,” or the drug dealers on the corners. Even if they do succeed, many of our young people have very few options and nowhere to go, which is certainly a contributing factor. But sometimes, I think that if we want someone to blame, we should look at ourselves, because as a society, we have bought into the lie that if we are successful, we are successful purely on the basis of our own merit, and so accept the corollary that anyone who isn’t successful doesn’t deserve to be so. We are so ready to interpret the effects of centuries of racial, economic, and social oppression as the fault of their individual inheritors.
We look at our young people and we are afraid of what they may become, and they become what we fear.
It’s complicated, of course. It’s always complicated. We believe the things that we have been told because sometimes, in some cases, they are true. But I want to know how we, as a society, can begin to change our narrative. How do we look at our young people, particularly our young African-American men, and see, not dropouts and failures and criminals, but talent and potential and possibility? How can we make that our self-fulfilling prophecy?