Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Real or Simulated Respect

I'm back from my 1.5 days of school talks, which became 1.3 when a substation in west Knoxville blew and the whole district, including Webb School, lost power.  School let out early.  I've never had that happen before.  Then at Robertsville Middle School, a student projectile-vomited all over the students in the row in front of her right in the middle of my talk.  I've never had that happen before, either.  (How did I respond, from my position at the podium?  I didn't.  When you see four teachers converging on a student, fast, you figure the situation is well in hand.  Plus, like that girl needed more people staring at her.)

Webb School was amazing.  It's a private K-12 school that costs over 15K for kindergarten, and it looks like the campus of a small, very tidy college.   Most of the students were in uniform, but a handful weren't, so I asked one of the girls about it.  "Oh," she said, "if it's your birthday you can wear whatever you want."

"Well, that wouldn't work for me," I said.  "My birthday's in the summer."  I may have said this with a degree of petulance.  I always wanted a chance to wear the Birthday Crown in elementary school, and hand out mini Snickers bars, and have everyone make a great big fuss over me, and I never got it.  Of course, I never had to go to school on my birthday either, but most of us find a way to be disappointed with our lot, one way or another.

"Then you'd get free dress on your half-birthday," the girl said.

"My half-birthday," I said, "is Christmas Eve."

The girl was amazingly patient.  "Then you could just pick any day you want," she said.

"Okay," I said, "I'll do that," before I remembered that we were having a hypothetical conversation.  About what I might be allowed to wear if I had to repeat seventh grade.

The Webb Book Club had all finished For Freedom, but were still amazed to find out it was based on the life of a real person.  This is because not a single one of them had read the Afterword.  Sometimes I think the only people that read the Afterwords are me and my editor.  Fortunately we both love Afterwords.

The motto at Robertsville Middle School, emblazoned on posters in every single hallway, is "Real or Simulated Respect."  I asked if that meant that the students didn't have to respect the adults, they just had to act as though they did.  Bingo.  Fake it 'til you make it, bro.

Talking about Jefferson's Sons to children is more challenging than talking about it to adults.   When I'm talking to adults I can say things like, "Before I started my research, I would have said that the only possible word that could describe a sexual relationship between a woman and a man who owned her was rape," but when I'm talking to middle schoolers I need to find substitutes for the words sexual and rape.  I want to be truthful to them, and I know they can handle hard stuff, but I don't want to bludgeon them with it.  Nor do I want their parents to be calling the school tomorrow asking, "Is it true your speaker told the fifth graders about rape?"

The Webb students wanted to know about passing for white.  Why could some of the Sally's children pass, but not others?  What did I know for sure, and what was I guessing?  What did it take to pass?  I wanted to tell them, look around your class.  Some of you are darker than others.  There are all sorts of variations on the human theme.  But I never want to label middle school students, either, or call attention to them individually (except for the girl who hung a clothespin off her nose.  I told her to knock it off.).  I don't know any of these students' stories.

At Robertsville I got a sudden insight into Sally Hemmings.  You'd think, after four years' intensive research, a lot of writing, and a lot of thinking, that I would be done with insights, but apparently I'm slower than average.  I told the students that one of the things that sparked my interest in the whole Hemmings/Jefferson story was that I'd learned Jefferson did not free Sally in his will.  He freed five slaves, but not her.  I asked the students why they thought that might be true.

A cheerful-looking black boy put up his hand.  "'Cause she was cheating on him!" he said.

"Are you kidding me?" I replied, without even stopping to think.  "This man holds her children's future in his hands.  He's got total control over the most important things in her life.  She's never going to cheat on him.  She can't afford to tick him off.  Not ever."

She can't afford to make him angry.  Not ever.

Imagine that.