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Tuning In

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The analyses the kids presented over the next few days varied widely in their complexity and perceptiveness.

"I just wanted to check this out with you," Pam said, her voice giving me no hint as to what was coming. "Frankie wanted me to make copies of these song lyrics for him. He said he needed them for your class, so I said I would. On my way down to the office, I started reading them, and I was just stunned. They're disgustingly violent, degrading to women—more than degrading. My sons listen to some pretty horrible stuff, but not like this. This is sick. Anyway, when I asked Frankie about it, he said you'd approved it, so I wanted to let you handle getting the copies made. I don't want to be responsible for it."

Pam handed me the papers, and I quickly scanned the first few lines. Now I was stunned, and I don't consider myself a person who stuns easily. I couldn't believe Frankie had done this to me. The exact lyrics have since evaporated from my memory, but the song's title was "Blow Job Betty," and it only got worse from there.

"I take it you hadn't seen this before," Pam observed.

"No. I hadn't." In as pleasant and calm a tone as I could muster, I added: "Can I talk to Frankie for a second?"

I felt betrayed and stupid. Sure, I had said any song was acceptable. Frankie had asked me straight out. Any song? Yes, Frankie, any song. But not this one. I never imagined anyone would be so bold or sneaky or just plain comatose to bring in something this overtly foul. I had been prepared for the harsh violence and braggadocio of gangsta rap songs like "Real Muthaphuckkin' G's" or the nihilistic rantings of the neo-punk band KMFDM. But this? Frankie had called me on the carpet, and I had come out looking dumb. Twice. Once to Pam, who probably wondered what in the hell I was teaching down there, and once to my classes, with whom I had to go back and change my libertarian tune: You know what guys? As it turns out, any song is not OK.

The analyses the kids presented over the next few days varied widely in their complexity and perceptiveness. Some were little more than summaries of the lyrics; many others delved into the subtleties of the words with great skill and care. Some chose obscure, metaphorical songs; others brought in Top 40 hits. Izzy, a kid who was notorious for asking questions he should have been able to answer himself, surprised me with his insightful dissection of Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise." Like "Waterfalls," it was a song that had been so overplayed on the radio that nearly every student in the building could recite it from memory. But they mouthed the words almost mechanically, in much the same way they mumbled through the Pledge of Allegiance each morning. Other than vague generalities, most had no idea what the song was about. Izzy read from the last section of the lyrics:

They say I got to learn but nobody's here to teach me
If they can't understand it, how can they reach me
I guess they can't, I guess they won't
I guess they front, that's how I know my life is outta luck, fool

"What he's saying right there," Izzy explained, "is that a lot of teachers, they can't really relate to what kids are going through 'cause they come from a different type of background. So he's saying how's he supposed to get his education if

his teachers don't even understand him? He's saying 'they front,' like, you know, they're not really trying to teach him nothing."

About a third of the students brought in songs in Spanish. As they proudly played and discussed their music, it was almost as though they felt they were getting away with something that was against the rules. It was as if they'd been allowed to sneak pizza and pop into an area clearly marked: "No food or drinks on premises." Just seeing the work that had gone into getting the songs accurately transcribed was amazing. It was obvious to me that the kids had taken the assignment seriously, that it had meaning for them.

There are times when I envy those teachers who always seem so sure they are doing the right thing with their students.

Chavo told me he had worked on the words to Bone Thugs -N-Harmony's slinky rap "Tha Crossroads" for five solid hours one night, listening to a line at a time, stopping the tape to rewind, then playing it again, over and over and over. The lyric sheet he turned in was three pages, typed, complete with numbered verses and choruses. Miguel, who could be lethargic at times and who was one of the kids I had thought might have a hard time getting copies made, nonetheless came in on his assigned day ready to roll. He passed out copies of the lyrics to his chosen song, a Spanish banda tune from his Mexican home state of Sinaloa, and handed me his original, handwritten version. While the song was playing, I noticed that the kid next to me also had a copy that was done in blue ink. I got up and circled the table, peering over the shoulders of each student. Blue ink on each one. Miguel had done all 14 copies by hand.

Frankie didn't do a presentation. I told him he couldn't play the song he had chosen because it was offensive to Ms. Cronin, it was offensive to me, and it would probably have been offensive to at least some of his classmates. Instead, I told him I'd like the two of us to sit down together, listen to the song, and discuss his fascination with it. I thought it was important to have Frankie confront the misogyny in the lyrics and perhaps get him to talk about his views on women and sex. There seemed at least a faint possibility that there was something deeper at work, a demon of some sort that was growing unchecked inside him. So how about if we talk it over? I had asked. Cool, he'd said. Anytime.

My intentions were good. I intended to follow through. I kept telling myself, "Tomorrow. I'll meet with Frankie tomorrow." But it never happened. The year rolled on, days into weeks into months, and there was always something else that seemed more pressing, another kid or another responsibility that needed tending to first. I'll get to it, I thought. One of these days, I'll just pull him out of class, and we'll talk. But then June came, and Frankie was gone.

I still think about Frankie on occasion. I ride through his neighborhood sometimes, thinking maybe I'll see him and that if I do, maybe I'll jump out of the car, and we'll hold class right there, breaking down the song lyrics on the concrete sidewalk. But I haven't seen him around. Maybe he's moved. Maybe—who knows? Meanwhile, time just keeps moving on. It's a teachable moment that got away, just one of many that I've knowingly let slip through my fingers.

There are times when I envy those teachers who always seem so sure they are doing the right thing with their students. It is rarely that way for me. No matter what I do, I am hounded by unanswered questions, nagging uncertainties, lingering doubts. I have been teaching media studies at Seward for four years now. I believe fervently in the course and in the opportunities it gives students. Putting the video equipment in their hands gives them a voice, a way to see themselves and tell their stories. Learning to view television and other media more critically helps combat feelings of powerlessness and marginalization. It provokes them to use their brains, to think.

But even if they are getting these things—and not all of them are—what are they not getting? How about those basics, the reading and the writing? Sure, kids read and write in my class, but not intensively. Not every day. Time is short—I only have them for a quarter or a semester—and we're doing too many other things. We're rehearsing scripts, taping projects, deconstructing cartoons. While I think most kids come out of media studies with a better understanding of communication and its uses and abuses, I can't honestly say they leave as better communicators. Some do. Some don't.

I often wonder if what I'm teaching the kids in my class is making any difference or if it's being carried over into their real-life media encounters.

I am aware, as Lisa Delpit states so forcefully in her book Other People's Children, that if African-American and Latino children are to have a chance at success in this society, they must be taught skills that will serve those ends. They must be taught to construct sentences, to compute numbers, to read and comprehend. Anything short of this is cheating them. But I cringe at news reports and studies that suggest that all urban kids really need is to get back to basics. Because what often seems to accompany this idea is a belief that the basics are all poor black and Spanish-speaking children are capable of learning. That we have to endlessly drill them with exercises and worksheets and tests that keep them busy but leave no time for doing or making things, no space for real thought.

Still, I often wonder if what I'm teaching the kids in my class is making any difference or if it's being carried over into their real-life media encounters. Sometimes it seems like a lost cause.

In the spring of the year Paloma and her class studied talk shows, I arranged a field trip for two dozen 8th graders to attend a taping of The Jerry Springer Show. As usual, I had mixed feelings about it. I had first thought that a visit to the show might be the best way to expose its chicanery and excesses. After thinking it over, though, I had changed my mind, deciding that seeing Springer, who many of them considered a celebrity, might cloud their judgment and prevent them from making an intelligent analysis of their visit. But the kids wouldn't let the idea die. Even after they had left my class, they kept bugging me about it. Finally, I relented. I ordered tickets, reserved a bus, and typed up permission slips. I didn't tell the kids, but secretly I was hoping for the sleaziest, most confrontational, most moronic and mean-spirited gabfest ever. I was out to prove a point.

But it was not to be. Jerry's guests were two kids with HIV, and the entire show was dedicated to making the kids' dreams come true. Dallas Cowboy running back Emmitt Smith appeared in a special video, wishing the kids well in their fight. Razor Ramon, a so-called professional wrestler I'd never even heard of but whom many of my students idolized, made a personal appearance. And to top it off, the popular rap group Naughty by Nature came out to perform a rousing rendition of their hit, "Hip Hop Hooray."

It wasn't as if there was nothing there to deconstruct. The show was still manipulative and calculated and shallow. But much of that got buried underneath the glamorous stars, the endless smiles, the applause, the lights. The kids with HIV seemed happy. Jerry looked like a hero. The entire audience was dancing in the aisles. As the credits for the program began to roll, my students and I, hands raised in the air, followed the floor director's lead and swayed back and forth to the hip-hop beat. Chalk up one more for the opposition.

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