What’s Up With That?

About 10 years ago, I was walking down the hall towards my office to drop my stuff off before first period.  As always, a bunch of kids were standing talking at their lockers, sitting on the floor madly copying someone’s homework or just hanging out.  One of my ESL students was sitting on the floor, leaning against the lockers.  As English as a Second Language teachers, we take opportunities when we can to have little conversations with our kids to help them practice English.

Me:   Good morning Felipe.

Felipe:  What’s up my n….?

I stopped dead in my tracks.  Let’s count the number of ways that’s just inconceivably wrong.

  1. I’m white.
  2. He’s Ecuadorian.
  3. He was sitting near a group of American-American students who appeared to take offense to this.
  4. No matter who you are, it’s an incredibly bad idea to say anything inappropriate to a teacher.
  5. At our school, we work hard at ridding the world of that ugly word that is steeped in, and represents, racism, discrimination, lack of civil rights and slavery.
  6. And Felipe had come to the US about 3 months before this conversation so I wondered how he picked it up so quickly.

So I replied with the kind of silly question that I find myself often uttering. “Felipe, why did you say that?”  Smiling happily, he replied in Spanish “Because they did.” At this point he has his arm extended pointing to the group of black kids who were really interested in this exchange. “And because of music.”  Ahhhh……

He seemed so proud of himself. Like I do when I’ve just learned a new idiomatic expression in another language.

Me:  *sigh* You can’t say that.

Felipe: Why not?

Me (in my head): Because 1st period is going to start and I have to go to the bathroom and this is waaaaaaaaay too long a conversation to have right now.

Me (aloud): Because you can’t say that in school and you shouldn’t say it anywhere and I’ll explain why later.  Just stop saying it.  And don’t say anything like that in front of me again.

As I walked away, I realized that I had given him exactly the wrong advice.  All I had conveyed to him was that I was annoyed, flabbergasted and disappointed in him.  He, on the other hand, had started the conversation out probably a little proud that he had learned this cool expression in English and was trying it out.

Later in the day, I took him aside and gave a mini-version of what the word literally means and what it represents.  He responded something to the effect that the black kids call each other that.  I said something lame like that doesn’t make it right. And that there are words that each culture or race or ethnic group can say to each other and not be offended but don’t want someone else to say.  He said “Like what?” Now I knew he was just playing me.

But this issue stuck with me all day.  I identify myself as Irish-American, even though my DNA shows a mixture of different western European countries.  I thought of the time that I had to call a white parent about a problem with her son. She screamed at me “I KNEW THIS WOULD HAPPEN WHEN I FOUND OUT HE HAD A MICK FOR A TEACHER.”  In a rational world, I would have taken the time to reflect and to realize that this was about who she was, not who I was. Because I was not in a rational state of mind, I hung up on her.  In anger.  My respect for my colleagues and students of color grew even more as I realized that this was the first time in my life someone called me a name based on my culture, but that they had to listen to this all the time.

So I went back to Felipe and told him that I was wrong. That I am exactly the person he should try out expressions with.  I can tell him what is okay and not okay to say and when and why.

Until he and his friends brought me lyrics from a rap song and said explain this please.  It was filled with sexual references.  Uh oh.  I said ask one of your older cousins who graduated.

Because… that’s not what’s up with me.




About Barb Knowles

The things that are important to me are family, friends, teaching, writing, languages and using my sense of humor to navigate this crazy world. Please join me on this blogging adventure...
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25 Responses to What’s Up With That?

  1. Interesting. That would have been a difficult situation. Sounds like you handled it as best you could. I mean, not like you’re human or anything 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Barb Knowles says:

      Ha. I think it helps people to understand that especially as English as a New Language (the new moniker we have because for many kids it is at least their 3rd language) teachers, we do much more than teach for the prescribed 45 minutes a period. These kids come to us for everything. And they, and we, deal with issues that general education don’t often have to.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Carrie Rubin says:

    What a difficult spot to be in, but I like how you handled it by going back later and telling him he could bring these things to you. But I don’t blame you for passing on the sexual references. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Barb Knowles says:

      Yes, sometimes the questions get tricky. I just replied to SciFi and Scary
      that as English as a New Language teachers, our influence and commitment to the students goes way beyond the 45 minutes we are with them for a class period. And we are usually with them for 3 class periods. We are their entrance to understanding the education and cultural systems here in the US. And this is while they are reeling from being uprooted from all they hold near and dear. I definitely don’t handle everything well. I hope that you found this entertaining and edifying, which was my intent, and was how it played out at the time. Thank you, as always, for your thoughtful comments.


    • Barb Knowles says:

      And you’re right, I wouldn’t touch any sexual remark with a 10 foot pole. If it was a serious question, not words to a rap song that they didn’t know what they meant, we refer kids to the health teacher or social workers. I sent them to an adult they trust for the song lyrics.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Inira says:

    It’s amazing how racism is an issue in so many countries. Here in South Africa we’re currently going through another racism crisis. 3 people have been fired from their jobs, 1 of which is a celebrity for racist remarks or condoning it. These are grown adults and not children however so they have no excuse. If only they had teachers like you to educate them a bit…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Barb Knowles says:

      I’m trying to get my students to understand the difference between racism and discrimination. This is a simplistic explanation for new immigrants for whom how it plays out in the US is different from how it plays out in Latin America. But it is still tied to color. I tell them that racism is how people think (and it’s hard to change that) but discrimination is how people act on it. I’m not sure a sociologist would agree with my simple explanation, but it’s hard to explain this when language is a barrier. And when they are getting discriminated against here, where many of them were not in their home country. Thank you for your remarks, and for telling me about an event in South America I was unaware of (which means I have to read the news more carefully).


  4. Almost Iowa says:

    A few years ago, I was line at Walgreens behind a woman and her daughter. The mother spoke no English and the daughter had to translate the pharmacist’s instructions. She did this while pecking at her iPhone.

    Mom was born and raised in the hills of Laos with no electricity, no running water, no radio, no record players and most likely no formal education. I know this by the traditional Hmong clothes she wore.

    Her daughter was raised in Saint Paul. I could tell by her clothes, her pitch perfect Midwestern accent and her teenage angst.

    So where did the daughter learn her language and her angst? Certainly some of her English came from school – but they do not teach perfect accent there, no do they teach angst. These things came from her peers.

    Kids learn almost everything from their peers.

    In short, you are who you hang with.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This would be tough one to explain. I had a similar situation a few years ago in the world of online gaming. We have a group that plays Grand Theft Auto together. On occasion a new person will join the group and this particular time it was a younger guy from the Philippines. Well he started throwing out the N word and this was not acceptable. We spent a big chunk of time explaining that this is just not going to happen. He didn’t get it so we finally told him to stop using that word or he would be kicked out of the group. He got mad and left.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pete says:

    An excellently written explanation of what I can imagine my granddaughter may face or has faced as a teacher. Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

  7. It’s definitely a difficult balance to want to encourage language learning but also what’s appropriate. Students in Spain ask me about the n-word, sexual references and slang. Sometimes they know it’s a hot button and other times they are generally confused. Usually, I try to never convey any emotion because if I blush or snap they will just use it more to annoy me or feel shut down. Great post! I think a lot of Esl teachers can relate to this dilemma.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. mitchteemley says:

    Wise and witty, Barb!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. With children being like little sponges, sometimes they absorb bacteria. Sounds like Felipe absorbed a little bit too much of the stuff. Hopefully one of his older cousins will be able to squeeze the stuff out. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Paul says:

    Couldn’t help but laugh when you said he brought you lyrics to a rap song hahah

    Liked by 1 person

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