The Badass Day one. Seated in the middle row at the desk in the middle of the room was my antagonist; grim and lanky, his t-shirt boasted NEW YORK. Matching that was an accent that resembled an edgy cadence from a West Side Story villain.
None of the rest of the class bucked him; I did. When I answered questions the other students asked, he chided me. Most were from Auto Repair, a collegiate program that teaches body and engine repair. All were men; many wore camo baseball caps. A few acted out, as if determined to make themselves into stereotypical hardasses who had no use for a class in Humanities.
One of them spoke out. Three times he quipped, “So you teaching us English?” in a way that projected his attempt to sound provocative, mean, indifferent. It didn’t work; he wasn’t a ringleader. Each time, I met his stare and carefully explained what I expected of him, of the class.
Most, I could tell, were not under the sway of the brash and arrogant New Yorker; I knew that young man had to be neutralized. I had no trouble doing just that.
“You have a problem,” I said, staring straight into his cold eyes. I was dismissive. My hope was that he’d answer in a disruptive way so that I could invite him to leave. Instead, he backed down from my stare, slumped in his chair.
Chances are that he will drop my class; he didn’t do the work I asked the others to do. He seemed determined to be disruptive; I was determined to maintain a double dialogue. All the while I conducted class with the others, I flashed a glance at him, as if defying him to disrupt.
He didn’t. If anything, ours was a standoff. Like boxers in separate corners, we’d sparred. But I knew the game better than he. He slinked out of class when I dismissed everyone. I’d hoped he would come to the front to resolve our encounter.
Mine was a tough guy act, always necessary on the first day whenever I’m given a classroom of the auto guys. They like to appear aloof as if, as the song goes, they “don’t need no education.” I knew better.
“Hand in your papers, and you may leave,” I instructed. “See you next week.”
All of them left. With interest, I read their work; most were very literate, very able to express themselves. Theirs was a thin veneer I’d learned to anticipate, learned how to help them shed.
Their answers were thoughtful, provocative in a good way, completely at odds with the image they tried to project. All but the New Yorker handed in their work.
He and I might have to do battle again, but I doubted it. Bullies don’t last long in my classes. I have too many good kids to educate to let that happen.
If he has the courage to stay with us and to handle what will be my next barrage of questions, he’ll be one too before the semester ends.