Thursday, January 14, 2010

The T-Shirt I Can't Forget

Some of you know that I've taught English at an inner-city L.A. high school for the past nine years. At times it can be heartbreaking. I've seen a student shot to death in the faculty parking lot, and I've had students couldn't do their homework because they were evicted from their homes and had nowhere to live. Fights have broken out in my classroom on occasion, once a kid tried to light himself on fire in my class, and a girl pushed me in the student bathroom and called me "Retard" when I caught her smoking pot. Good times.

On the other hand, I've had some brilliant honors students, who exceed my expectations and write incredibly detailed and creative essays, stories, and poems. I've been amazed at the resilience of a student with a brain tumor, and in awe of the student who missed my class weekly to endure blood transfusions and never missed an assignment. In fact, she finished with the highest grade in the class. I truly do enjoy my job, even though it can be trying.

Today was one of those days, though, when I was taken aback by a t-shirt a student was wearing. As a veteran teacher, it takes a lot to leave me surprised or speechless. I usually have a "bag of tricks" for dealing with undesirable behavior, but I was a tad thrown off guard today. During my fourth period class, one of the quietest, shyest, sweetest students was wearing a t-shirt I don't think I can put out of my mind. I couldn't believe he was wearing it, and all I could think of was that maybe his house caught on fire last night and this was the only shirt he managed to save. The funny thing is that I didn't even notice the shirt until the bell rang and he got up to walk out, even though I recently moved his seat near the front.

This timid, soft-spoken model student's shirt said:

Beaner With a Huge Weiner.

Just in case you live somewhere that lacks diversity or racism, "beaner" is a deragatory slang term for Mexican. Maybe I was sheltered growing up in nearly all-white Iowa, but I hadn't heard that term until I moved to L.A. So, what did I do? Nothing. I didn't know what to do. Part of me was disturbed that this kid's shirt forced my mind to take a trip somewhere I didn't want to go, but the immature, 16 year-old boy in me found it hard not to laugh. And, we English teachers like us a good rhyme (even though I prefer the spelling "wiener"). It's funny. But, not at school.

I know I should've said something--told him to turn his shirt inside out or sent him to the dean. I know the kid is suffering from a particularly hard break-up with a girl who dumped him. Did I mention that both she and her new boyfriend are also in that class? Sucks to be Mr. Beaner Weiner. Does it make me a bad teacher for letting that go? I don't know. It honestly didn't seem to disrupt anyone but me in the class. There's that saying about choosing your battles, and this just wasn't my choice today.

Later in the teachers' break room, I heard two teachers debating the merits of a school dress code (something our school is considering). One insisted that uniforms didn't help curb bad behavior at all when she taught at an inner-city school in Detroit. She said, "When you tried to report a kid, how could you describe him? Well, Officer, he was wearing a white shirt and blue pants...just like 759 other students at this school." She has a point. I'm fairly confident that anyone would be able to identify "Beaner With a Huge Weiner" if he commits some crime in that shirt at school, and that gives me at least a little comfort.
For your viewing pleasure, I now present:


Churlita said...

I've seen worse, even in Iowa City. At least it was kind of funny.

Stef said...

The teachers in New Zealand (we're of british so we like our uniforms) always complain that mufti days (non-uniform days) are always the worst to discipline wise.

AmyK said...

Hahaha! Are you kidding me?! What a shirt!

Junkgirl said...

Churlita--Yeah, it was funny. Anything with the word "weiner" is funny to me.

Stef--Interesting! See, that just goes to show that uniforms do something good. Do all schools in New Zealand have uniforms?

AmyK--Ha, indeed!