It’s not your normal class. I’m not your normal teacher. And I don’t teach in the normal method… ‘Cause they don’t learn in the normal method.
The Lion’s Lair class is a new initiative taken on by Oakland Unified School District in effort to do something about the failure rates of Black men in high school. 20 Young African American men have been selected to the Lions Lair at each of the following schools: Oakland Tech, Oakland High, and Skyline.
I teach the class at Oakland Tech; a midday class which meets in a room where pictures of Michael Jordan and Einstein adorn the walls.
The class is categorized as a Life Skills class which fulfills the gentleman’s elective requirement; true to it’s name, the class teaches life skills… in the lion’s lair.
At any given time you might walk in and find the young men in push-up position, while reciting their spelling words. Or you might find them on the edge of their desks discussing the relationship between Los Angeles’ 1990’s Crips and Bloods to Oakland’s current Gang Injunction program.
In 1992, the year the Crips and Bloods called a truce, the young men in my class were not yet born. But they know about the Bloods and Crips. They watch the urban crime biography series, American Gangster. They’ve never taken a note- but they know Stanley “Tookie” Williams and Monster Kody Scott …
… They learned those stories without taking note- but they can’t learn in school given notebooks and pencils?
…cause when it comes to that gangster shit: they give a fuck.
The class’ curriculum simply breaks down into four areas: self, community, world, and action. The fist four weeks, we focused on the simple things: who are you? Where are you from? where are you going (in life)?… and how are WE going to get there?
We developed calls and responses, laws for the class, and of course… a handshake.
We wrote poems that showed how we identify with certain animals and then performed them.
We’ve done three workshops thus far:
1. Brother Jesus El came in after I showed a video of him to the class. He addressed the video, which was about his trip to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and then returning to West Oakland to share his experiences; this exemplified the Hero’s journey. He then told the youth about his much larger hero’s journey- his coming of age experience, and how he grew up in the same streets they run through… and now he’s traveling the world doing what he loves.
2. Brother John Brumfield stopped by and did a presentation on the origins of Africans and what we have accomplished over the ages. The photos and facts were mind blowing, it showed through the young men’s engagement. He ended on a story about Tupac Shakur; a firsthand account of Tupac that left the young men in awe.
3. Brother Saleem Shakir came through and did a presentation on the “Nigger experienced”, in which he asked the class are there any Niggas/ Niggers in here? About 4 out of the then 17 students raised their hands… some did so unsure of the premise of the question. He then proceeded to show the young men video clips of Kunta Kente getting whipped in the movie Roots, pictures of enslaved individuals who had been brutally whipped, and audio of the Last Poets “Die Nigger, Die”. At the end of the class, they weren’t completely convinced about not using the word “nigga” anymore, but they were all upset about how the “niggers” in the video clips were treated.
They gave a fuck about being treated like “Niggers” … but they didn’t give a fuck about being called “nigga” ?
… they almost gave a fuck …
Tuesday I submitted my first grades, the grading criteria was simple: attendance/ behavior, participation, and a pop-quiz.
The final assignment was to be a poem, a simple written statement about who they are. I even gave them a prompt, suggesting that they compare themselves to an animal.
Oh! you should of seen them: “I’m a bear”… “I’m a Lion!” …”I’m this”… “I’m that”… and then when I asked them to write it, their response: “I’m not a writer”. Not all of them, some of the self proclaimed rappers flourished, some of the quiet brother let out lion-like roar with an eloquent portrayal of who they are at this stage in their lives. And some didn’t do the assignment whatsoever.
I was disgusted.
The easiest assignment in the world. I gave them multiple opportunities. I shook their hand and made a pact… they disrespected that.
I was disgusted.
…in what other classes do you get the chance to to turn in/ perform a poem/ rap as a homework assignment?…
If you can SAY who/ what you are- how could you not merely sit down and write exactly what you said? you are literature. use it!
…They just didn’t give a fuck…
A slew of questions came to my mind
I had been covertly trying to figure this out, but I have to throw this question on the the table : why… why don’t you give a fuck? what comes over you when you don’t give a fuck?…
what is the thought behind not giving a fuck?…
why destroy yourself when you don’t give a fuck?
what do you give a fuck about?
your mother gives a fuck about you- do you give a fuck about her? do you give a fuck about yourself?
do you see the consequences of not giving a fuck?
do you see the relationship between not giving a fuck about yourself- not giving a fuck about school – not giving a fuck about your community- all culminate to you repeating the cycle of Black people being in a fucked up position?
…On Tuesday night I brought my question to a group of elders…
I had scheduled Coffee with Baba Arnold Perkins in order to take a photo for my “OG Told Me” Photo Essay project. I then had a meeting scheduled with Cheo Tyehimba, about a fellowship I had received. The fellowship requires me to produce 4 stories over the next 4 months on Black men who are “game changers” in my society.
they both left me with two applicable quotes…
“…And then you look at their environment and you understand; their behavior and attitude is directly applicable.”- Baba Perkins
“…go from not caring, to not knowing.”- Cheo T.
I brought the list of questions and quotes to the minimum day shortened class on Wednesday. I teach by throwing a tennis ball around as a method of class control. The tennis ball works well with the boyish energy in the classroom, after all- in a classroom with no girls and no snacks, throwing a ball around is my only option to maintain a functional environment.
I asked them straight up: “what does it take, to make you all give a fuck?”
the answers varied along with the personalities in the classroom. Some outwardly didn’t give a fuck and some don’t give a fuck quietly… we concluded that both can be detrimental to society and self.
At then end of the day, I’m still searching… I know I can’t teach them anything, I have to evoke knowledge from within them. And when this works, its the greatest feeling in the world. But when it doesn’t- I feel as if I am trying to climb a brick wall with no arms.
So my question remains…