I taught a seminar for seniors this week while their regular teacher was out having babies. It was a class full of low-income urban students trying to get into college. I decided to do three days on Identity, and get them thinking about who they are as urban students heading to higher education. I started with something very familiar to all of them: Ghettoness.
I knew some of them as former students of mine, but for the most part they didn’t know me. I introduced myself briefly, told them about my college path, and then immediately went into Prewriting. This is what I told them to do: “Write down the names of the five most successful people you know. By success I mean that they are completely happy with their life as it is. They have the career they want, the house they want, the car they want- they are not striving for a better job, or working toward changing their situation. They are satisfied with where they are, they make a good living, and can be called successful. Go.”
They began their lists. Some of them sat and thought- it was 7:15 in the morning and the sun was just coming up in my lone, jail-cell window. They asked me about the difference between happiness and success, and I gave them quick answers like, “Whatever you consider success,” or, “If where they are is exactly where they want to be.” After a couple minutes I had them skip a line and write down the five most unsuccessful people they know. They have to be out of high school, but no older than their parents. Unsuccessful means they don’t like their job, they don’t live in the apartment or area they wish they did, they want a new car, they are still working to achieve something more in their life. Maybe they are stuck there.
Then I had them list five people in between. The whole thing took about 5-10 minutes. Then I turned it up a notch.
I said, “Now I want you to rate them on a scale of… GHETTONESS.” They stare at me. Some of them giggle. All of a sudden they are really paying attention. First I ask them to define what we mean by the word “Ghetto.” I get a ton of hands. We define it as a way you dress, the neighborhood you live in, a certain way you act, the language you use. I continue, “Okay, now rate the people on your list based on this scale right here,” and I say each word out loud as I begin to make a list. This is the list:
Not Ghetto at all
By the time I finish my list they are all with me. They are smiling, laughing, and begin to take a new interest in their lists. They begin to rate them. As they write, I clarify the differences between the levels on my Scale of Ghettoness (“Hella” is a word used in Northern California that means “a lot of”, it is one level below Super, which is the most).
There are some murmurings going on about my scale, and they decide I am missing one more independent yet related layer. “You need Mexican Ghetto on there too,” they tell me. The class is over half Mexican, and other Latino groups. I ask them to clarify as I write it to the side of my list. They tell me Mexican Ghetto can straddle every category. Yet there are nuances. You can be Mexican Ghetto, or you can be a Mexican who is just Hella Ghetto, or Super Ghetto. Just because you’re Mexican doesn’t make you Mexican Ghetto. The wanna-be gangsters on campus are just Hella Ghetto or Super Ghetto. Mexican Ghetto is more “Paisa” they tell me, like the Mexicans who wear boots and listen to Banda music. Some are Super Paisa, others are simply Hella Paisa or Paisa. Basically you can substitute “Paisa” for “Ghetto”. This is good, and super funny- they continue rating the people on their list.
We then look for correlations between success and Ghettoness. Obviously, we come to the conclusion that people who are “Super Ghetto” or “Hella Ghetto” are more likely to be on the Unsuccessful list, and people who are “Not Ghetto At All” or “Kinda Ghetto” are more likely to be successful. I ask for volunteers, they tell us about the people on their lists and how ghetto they are. Surprisingly, one girl’s Grandmother is “Super Ghetto.” Another student’s mother is successful, but Hella Mexican Ghetto. Their regular teacher seems to hover around straight “Ghetto.” That is why he is such a good teacher, they tell me.
But like the girl’s mother, and their teacher, there are anomalies- some people are Ghetto but still on the successful list. Before I elaborate on these, I ask them to write. I tell them to answer one question and I write this on the board:
“Can you be Ghetto and successful?” I tell them they can’t talk about drug-dealers, rappers, athletes, or other entertainers- we’re talking about real careers. I don’t want to hear about Lil’ Wayne’s ghetto success. I give them ten minutes.
Time passes and I have them turn to a partner and discuss their thoughts. What they come up with is just what I was hoping for. I go around the room and discuss as a class. I am quoting their writing below, but their verbal responses were the same.
“I think it is possible to be successful and ghetto. This is possible if you can control or limit your “ghettoness” around professionals.”
“It is possible because being Ghetto is a culture and just like every other culture it does not define what one can accomplish.”
“Most people who grow up Ghetto strive for a better future than what they were provided, but they never lose their past. Most successful Ghetto people know how to turn on and off their Ghettoness.”
On kid even quoted Great Expectations by Charles Dickens: “One of the characters said, ‘You must know how to act at the work place and at the home, and you keep them separately.’”
As a class we agreed that there is a time and place for being ghetto, and a time to be professional. We also talked about who was more likely to balance these two opposing forces. Here are some more of their thoughts:
“I suppose there is a possibility to be successful and ghetto. It’s not something we hear all the time though, because usually the ghetto people don’t try to be successful.”
“The people on my unsuccessful list are there because they can’t be anything but ghetto.”
At this point the conversation is right where I want it, and I start doing most of the talking again. I define Code-Switching, write it on the board and have them add it to their papers. I then talk about the Language of Power, and how in this country it is Standard English. I define these things and continue to elaborate. Urban students need to be able to Code-Switch from Ghetto to Standard English. If you’re Super or Hella Ghetto, you probably have a harder time switching to the latter. Being able to Code-Switch is important, but so is having a mastery of Standard English. I call it “White People English”, and they laugh in agreement. They need to understand that language has historically been in the hands of White people, and in order to be a part of that, they need to get with the Dominant Discourse. Blah, blah, blah, I can talk forever when I want to.
At this point, my hour is running low. If I had them for more than a few days I would probably take this pre-writing and turn it into a longer Reflective Essay on Identity, but I don’t- so I don’t. I have them add some more thoughts about the new terms I threw at them, and also ask them to come to a final solution to the original question. They turn it in, and we’re done for the day.
When all is said and done, I think this is an important conversation to have with our urban students. These are the kinds of things they are going to struggle with in the real world- who they are as an individual from a low-income area- How will they fit into the dominant culture? This is something that will really come into focus on a college campus when a majority of the students are NOT like them. For the first day, I think I grabbed their attention, and I think we came to some valuable conclusions as a class.
No matter the grade level, I think this Lesson is a solid one in an urban classroom, and is a good starting point for a Unit, because lets face it: Many of our students are Hella Mexican Paisa Super Ghetto—but that doesn’t mean they can’t be successful.