When I first began teaching at a high school in South Carolina, I knew nothing of the language and customs of the many young men in my class who were African Americans. I was fascinated when they practiced “jinxing,” a sort of perpetual insult exchange. It seemed to me that one’s skills at jinxing--the control, originality, and power of your insults--both determined and reflected your social standing. Through the power of language, it seemed, a young man gained and maintained respect. No other group of students at the school seemed to participate in jinxing; occasionally, a young man would jinx individuals outside his social set, but they never jinxed back. As an English teacher, though, I saw that this was too good an opportunity to miss. When I was first jinxed, I jinxed back. This was met with silence. And then, laughter rumbled low in the back of the class and built until it washed over me in waves.
“Man, she jinxed you back.”
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had just shown respect for a practice that was not part of my culture. Soon, I was told I was an “honorary bro.” I was taught handshakes, each of them different. It took tremendous concentration to remember which shake to use with each young man. With Randy, it was slap, slap, hit, hit, punch. With Morice, it was hit, hit, lock fingers, punch. And so on. Every morning, before class, we went through the ritual.
“Hey, home girl, wad up?” I was greeted. Initially, I was not sure if they were poking fun at me, but because it seemed good-natured, it did not matter. Eventually, my relationship with these students evolved into something special, unusual. They came to me for advice, for help with math, and just to hang out. My room was never empty. When I asked one young man why he came to talk every day, he said, “Mrs. Gardner, you really care what happens to us.”
Of course I do. But so does almost every other teacher I have ever met. What endeared me to them?
Shaneika answered this for me one day. “Mrs. Gardner,” she said, “you act like you’re just like us.”
“I am,” I said with a smile. And I am proud of that fact.
My students and I have found common ground. We are not from the same background; indeed, we are not the same people. But we are respectful of each other, and we have found sameness. I show them respect for what they have taught me, and they do the same for me. They put up with my insistence on neatness in work, my need for class participation, and my demand for classroom order. Things that could be divisive are unifying because of our willingness to work together.
This is possible because of them. The students, and the many cultures they come from, are a gift. It’s a privilege to work with them, and as long as we as teachers remember that and communicate that to them, we can overcome the cultural divide.
The author is an English teacher in Georgetown, South Carolina, and a contributor to a C.S. Lewis reference guide to be published this winter by HarperCollins.
A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1997 edition of Teacher as Common Ground