By TIM BAFFOE
I hate the glossy, cinematic stereotype of the all-knowing, epiphany-inducing teacher. Almost as much as I hate the widespread villifcation of the profession. For educators, we do a job we absolutely love, and most of us are not in it to change the world, but instead to help each and every kid in our classrooms think a tiny bit more creatively and openly when he leaves than when he walked in. At the end of the day, I'm good at pointing out the dick-and-fart jokes in Shakespeare - and I sure as hell hope there is some value in that.
By and large, our students are not given enough credit for how bright and talented they are, and most of the cynical "back in my day" pontification serves only to retard the progress this generation of educators has made (and is making) despite the constant evolution of the modern American pupil. Still, even I get blindsided once in a while by my students and how naïve they are - and, therefore, I am - about certain stuff.
Truth be told, it's not all eye rolling, get-off-my-lawn stuff, like none of them ever seeing a payphone before, or knowing that George Foreman isn't famous solely because of countertop grills. In fact, this past week I encountered one of these "stuff" situations.
I teach five English classes at an all-boys private school in Chicago. (Save me your Dead Poets Society jokes, I've heard them all before.) My students are white, black, and Hispanic (our area of the city has a dearth of the category "Other"), and most are from working class backgrounds, having grown up on the Mexican, African American, and Irish streets of the city's infamous South Side or its immediately abutting suburbs. These are prep school kids who do not fit the movie mold of prep school kid.
Naturally, with the Floyd Mayweather v. Manny Pacquiao fight now upon us, the match has been a hot topic of conversation of late. First, my ninth graders were curious about my rooting interest (students always want to know their teachers' sports, politics, food, and music likes and dislikes). We just happened to be reading a young adult novel on domestic violence, Breathing Underwater, when the boxing question, "Who do you want to win the fight?" was posed independent of our study. The eleventh graders' interest in the bout was sparked by our reading of Joyce Carol Oates' "The Cruelest Sport" and our discussion of sports and their black and white and gray role in society.
(FULL DISCLOSURE: The Mayweather v. Pacquiao fight was brought up by my students each time, not by me.)
In each instance, I casually mentioned my desire to see Mayweather lose - "because he's a garbage human being," I think was my best effort to abstain from using profanity. Inexplicably, the record skipped on several faces each time I attached a negative adjective to Mayweather's name.
This was that "stuff" that I take for granted I mentioned earlier. You see, the vast majority of these kids had no idea whatsoever about Floyd Mayweather, Jr., the man outside the ring.
A room full of eyes looking left and right and left again. Lips pressed into an adolescent "I know this is serious, and I don't understand what's going on, but I think I should look serious" face.
"Yeah, but dude's got A LOT of money," was the retort I heard more than once. If my classroom was Twitter, I'd have carried a torch in the mob, demanding that speaker be ostracized, fired, and maybe even castrated. But being the only adult in the room, I had to check my desire to call that speaker an even worse person than Mayweather. After all, these kids are merely ignorant products of the digital age in which we live.
Rather than rant and scold, lament and whine over how "you damn kids don't know anything," I recalibrated. It was one of those spontaneous teachable moments that Full House once oversimplified; the kind of moment which lures so many of "the few, the proud, the educators" into the classroom war zone to begin with.
I proceed to tell the ninth graders how there is a lot of Breathing Underwater's flawed protagonist, Nick, in Floyd. I remember reading Daniel Roberts's fantastic revelatory piece for Deadspin last summer, and paraphrase it as best I can in the moment. I give a jigsaw version of his words:
"Floyd Mayweather is a misogynist. And not just a misogynist, but a batterer, and a serial batterer at that. This is a statement of fact that you will rarely see or hear from the professional boxing media, many of whom remain hopelessly dependent on the reigning box office king's goodwill for access. It's certainly not one you will hear from any of the assembled talking heads on Showtime, the CBS-owned cable network to which Mayweather is contractually wed. And while it may be easy enough to guess why the boxing media has been so willing to cover for Mayweather's sins, it's less obvious why so many others are so willing to look the other way."
"Can you send us that article in a Remind?," a few of the students ask. (Remind.com is a nifty tool that allows teachers to send texts to students and parents without any party knowing the other's phone number.)
Hey, they're curious! They want to know more!
The next day, several of those same students who were shocked at my statements relay how eye-opening the article was. This is good. This is accidental teaching. I am Homer Simpson finding the three-chambered peanut.
My eleventh-graders watched the Ali-Foreman documentary When We Were Kings after reading Oates. We talk about Mayweather as antithesis to the image of Ali as political humanitarian in the 1970s. Kids are conversing with me and each other. Things are happening. Edward James Olmos and Michelle Pfeiffer are in the room.
I plead to the super nice saint of a lady in the copy room to rush me more than sixty copies of Roberts's article. I slap together a set of pre-reading thinker questions. I poll the students after they've had a chance to read the Deadspin piece.
Just nine of 65 have a more negative opinion of Mayweather the boxer after reading about him, but 54 look at him now as less of a man. 49 said that before reading, they were at least somewhat interested in the fight against Pacquiao, and 55 said the Deadspin piece didn't change their level of interest. 24 said they were now more likely to watch the fight (if price wasn't a factor), though several made a side comment "I want to see Floyd get killed now."
The most telling figure, though, was that 65 percent of the kids said they knew little to none of the information laid out by Roberts almost a year ago. Most know him simply by his "Money" persona - which, as Roberts so perfectly notes, is "the problem with Mayweather."
The genius is in the insulation. Mayweather banks on it. His handlers and promoters and entourage and sponsors bank on it. Unfortunately, members of the media who stand to gain from the fight, well - they bank on it, too.
"I was watching this thing the other day," said student Brandon, "and it was Stephen A. Smith with Mayweather checking out all his cars and stuff. That seems really weird now."
For what it's worth, I've counseled my students before not to trust or watch anything with Smith or Skip Bayless, and not just because their brand of yelling sports takes is why the aliens are likely to colonize us, but let's not pretend these kids hang on my every word.
Back in class, the students and I debate whether Mayweather is that special American human garbage, the kind with a particular skill that entertains; thus, he isn't discarded, compacted and dumped, but he is recycled and converted into sad pop art. We discuss how his money and celebrity have given him unfortunate legal and public privilege, such as Richelle Carey explains:
"Mayweather's plea boiled down to, 'Judge, I have to work, so I don't have time to go to jail.'
"Could a mailman say that? Could a garbage collector say that? Could your brother who works at McDonald get out of going to jail by saying 'I need to work?'"
We juxtapose him with Ray Rice, a hot topic of conversation last semester. I echo Will Leitch in GQ:
"Yet Ray Rice is a pariah who will likely never play football again, while Mayweather is about to headline the biggest pay-per-view in American sports history. Rice will forever stand for domestic violence; Mayweather, despite far more (and equally brutal) incidents, stands more for having a mouth guard made with $100 bills."
Almost a year later, and prominent media are still stroking Mayweather, I point out to my classes. Roberts has kept tabs on it and recently rightly called out TV titan Katie Couric for softballing for Floyd and letting him smear his victims.
"Why are we so warm to Mike Tyson, who appears on a lip syncing show, in Hangover movies, and is America's sweetheart, even though he went to jail for raping a woman," I ask the classes.
"MIKE TYSON RAPED A CHICK?!," they respond.
Again, it's more of that unexpected "stuff." Over 120 kids pass through my door each day; each their own complex, weird, gifted, frustrated, funny little snowflake that brings with them new jabs and uppercuts:
But I take the little victories. Last night I skim the ninth grade class message board and their discussion on the climax of Breathing Underwater:
Maybe, just maybe, some stuff got taught. At least, hope some stuff got taught.
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