Southern Legitimacy Statement: After my discharge from the US Army 20 years ago, I planted my roots in Fort Worth, Texas. Since moving here, I have become a huge fan of high school football, pickup trucks, mesquite wood smoke, and the 5 basic food groups (BBQ brisket, tacos, chicken fried steak, biscuits and gravy, and fried pies).
José v. Ravi
José stormed into the room and plopped onto his seat two minutes before the start of class. He folded his arms, arched his back, and tightly closed his eyes as his usual olive complexion slowly deepened to scarlet. Since my teaching career only started three weeks ago, I was unsure how to navigate through José’s sea of emotion. He seemed content directing his frustration inward towards himself, so I left him in peace as I continued to lay out my lesson and arrange my thoughts. I began writing the assignment on the board when José demanded my attention.
“Yo, V! You always say we should write about ourselves, and our feelings matter. How ‘bout this for a prompt: Should Mr. Kamat be an assistant principal?”
Having no firsthand experience or knowledge of the man, I relied on rumors and occasional grumblings to discern that Ravi Kamat was the bane of the student body. He patrolled hallways like a beat cop, interrogated rule-breakers like a Stasi officer, and barked loud enough to be heard from three floors away. Since I often preach that the best authentic writing comes from one’s own personal experience and passions, this seemed the perfect time to put theory into practice. It also meant that I would have to brace myself for the discussion that followed. It could be a raving success, or a blazing inferno of failure. Either way, I committed myself to this one-way trip paved with good intentions.
I wrote José’s question on the board and added:
Must be school appropriate and not contain profanity.
Must be a reflection of your own experience.
Must be no longer than one page.
Must be in ENGLISH.
A frenzy of writing began immediately as emotions poured out onto lined papers. Struggling writers found their groove; English language learners hastily flipped through dictionaries; reluctant students willed their words to the pages. Sinner and saint, apathetic and over-achiever, faceless and famous: everybody in every desk placed pencil to paper revealing their inner thoughts and emotions for the world to behold. Ten minutes elapsed when I announced that time expired; they begged me to continue writing. Five minutes later they cried for even more time. After a full thirty minutes they finally put their pencils down when I explained they were ruining my weekend with all the grading I would have to do instead of allowing my toddler the maximum father-son time he deserves.
Because this writing prompt was his brain child, I volunteered José to begin the class discussion. The young man sat upright, stroked his very mature-looking full beard, and cleared his throat. The spot light was his, and he planned to make the most of it.
“It’s like this,” he began. “Kamat should not be a principal here or anywhere. Check this out: I’m just walking to class and Kamat gets all up in my face ‘n shit. I’m like, I ain’t done nothing wrong, but he’s all in my shit saying he heard me. I wasn’t talking to him, and I sure as hell wasn’t talking ‘bout him.” Even though he was still quite upset, José leaned back in his chair with the confidence of a politician who just won a national debate.
“Wa wuz you sayin’ befo’ he stopped you?” Greg was one of the few African American students in this school that boasts a population of more than ninety-seven percent Latino. A good wide receiver and a pretty fair wrestler, Greg’s big deficiency was academics; he could hardly tell the difference between Batman and a bag of hammers. What he did possess, however, was a child’s innocence that was pure genius when he added, “No man gunna start nuffin’ if it’s all cool.”
José muttered under his breath.
Adding insult to injury, Alex, a Laotian decent, three-hundred-pound sophomore lineman, supported Greg’s opinion. “Mr. Kamat got on me the other day. He told me a couple-a times to tuck in my shirt, but I just ignored him. He wasn’t mad ‘cause I was out of dress code. He was mad ‘cause I don’t listen. There’s a diff’rence.”
“Whatever.” José wasn’t convinced. A black cloud of anger accompanied by lightning bolts of torment formed over his head. “Why’s he always on those damned rules anyway? Who cares about that shit?”
I was thinking about how to direct this lesson into one of civics and social responsibility when my thoughts were interrupted by four feet, ten inches worth of cheerleader.
“We all have rules to follow,” Lupe squeaked from the front row. The little one they called Muppet had a presence that filled the room when she spoke. Fourth graders, teachers, principals, superintendents: all heeded her when she spoke. The Muppet’s voice ensnared José. “There are all sorts of rules we have to follow. Some are stupid, some aren’t. Look at Kamat when he’s here in school: shirt all tight and tucked, tie perfectly knotted, and he looks like he eats lemons. You should really check him out during a game after school. No tie, shirt tails hanging out, and he’s actually laughing and cheering and having a good time. I don’t think he likes the rules either, but he lives with them just like we do.”
José had enough. He just could not accept the possibility that he was wrong. “Why can’t y’all see the truth?” José’s voice rose uncontrollably. “That fucking camel riding, cock sucker is the worst thing about this stupid place,” he howled. “It’s all bullshit and y’all’re too stupid to see it. Y’all wouldn’t know the truth if he was…was…was…oh, fuck.”
In the doorway stood a six-foot-tall, one hundred ninety pound, toad faced, hoary, Indian man adjusting his wire-rimmed eye glasses with his left hand and holding a clipboard in his right. Campus rules forbade me from closing the door when interacting with students, so I never noticed him entering. Furthermore, the students were so engaged in the classroom discussion they did not notice him until after José stopped speaking. The only thing anyone knew for sure was that he heard us, but how much did he hear? My stomach sank while I saw my career screeching to a halt.
“Let me get this straight,” he began. “You chose to discuss a certain individual, but neglected to invite said individual to the conversation.” Despite his Mumbai accent, his formal British education shone like a spotlight on these inner city kids. “Someone please correct me if I am in error, but as I see it,” he directed his words to the class as if he could not see me. He pointed to José, “Mr. Paz here thinks that I am unfair, unyielding, and too serious. I am afraid to say, my wife and children would quite agree. My grandchildren, however, would argue that I am fun, playful, entertaining, and positively protective. So, I ask you, which man is the real me? Am I a man who is trying to find ways of making teenagers’ lives miserable from the hours of eight in the morning until four in the afternoon? Or am I just a man doing the job he was hired to do to the best of his ability?”
Ravi Kamat held the class fast with his gaze. Obviously, he heard everything. No one dared speak. The hue of José’s face changed from tomato red to azalea pink from embarrassment.
Kamat continued, “I take your silence to mean that my assumption about your discussion is correct. Good. Mr. Paz, do you think you have a better understanding about who I, Mr. Kamat, am as a person? It is ok if you do not. I just need to know where to go from here.” A small almost imperceptible smile began to crack across the assistant principal’s toad-like mouth.
José sheepishly looked up. His defeat was complete. Admitting it though was an altogether different matter. After what seemed like hours he managed a small, “Yes sir.”
Kamat approached José with his right hand extended. When they shook hands in peace, Kamat kept his eyes locked on José’s. The administrator offered his last words for the entire class to hear and understand. “Mr. Paz, misunderstandings happen all the time, and a young man such as yourself should be given opportunities to learn and grow. In that vein I will forgo any punishment that I may have contemplated for you earlier this morning. Does that sound fair?”
José almost collapsed at the sound of this leniency. He could not believe his ears. José nodded his head in affirmation.
Mr. Kamat smiled, turned, and walked out the door. When he reached the threshold he stopped and added, “I almost forgot, Mr. Paz, you have two days of lunch detention for not knowing that my people ride elephants, NOT camels.”