Stereotypes of young angry men are often used in order to incite fear of the other – that other that is so scary to us for reasons we might not know ourselves. This is a disease so common we don’t reflect upon it. Why was for example Trayvon Martin’s murderer released if it wasn’t for that justifying fear?
I’ve been afraid myself: growing up in the capital of Sweden didn’t spare me from class related tensions, often connected to ethnicity or color, and riding on the subway made me subject of things such as sexual harassment and girls spitting me in the face. I was a blonde middle class girl for all they knew and an easy target for whatever anger they needed to vent. And yes, I was afraid of young men, especially of color, who seemed angry.
Later on when I was grown and graduated university I worked as a substitute teacher while I hoped a job opening would come through. I took on jobs in the projects as the social aspect of teaching appealed to me. The job contained a lot more of steering off violent teenagers and spending time on the phone to the social services than what it contained teaching, and it was draining at times but I was dedicated and stayed on. In one school I had a particularly violent student, one of those who would have scared me when I was younger, a 13 year old boy that we can call Mostafa.
On good days Mostafa was happy with merely stabbing a sharpened pen in his school desk while repeating every word the teacher said in a mocking voice. The whole school seemed to be afraid of him. I dreaded classes with him but always tried to keep my cool. That plus a dose of discipline and kindness was my way of dealing with the students.
“I’m gonna destroy your presentation, you fucking bitch!” was one of his opening lines, to which I usually replied “Oh, really”, which always left him puzzled for a few seconds.
But despite our efforts to teach the kids we teachers never asked ourselves what the anger came from. We didn’t seem to have the energy to do the math of alienation, substandard housing, poverty. Isn’t that the fault of the whole society?
Now Mostafa was the child of immigrant parents from a Middle Eastern country and I mentioned once to the students that I had lived in his parents’ country of origin. Mostafa didn’t comment upon it but other kids asked me of the few words I had picked up in Arabic and Mostafa overheard it all. One day he banged on the door and demanded to be let in when I was preparing a class. He positioned himself on a desk and started to talk to me about his parent’s home country, as if he wanted to verify that it was really true I had lived there. We had a small conversation where he asked questions such as “Did you have friends there?” (“Yes, I did”), before he went out again.
After that day he slowly changed his behavior in my class. He stopped mocking me when I spoke. He stopped throwing things across the classroom. He tried to finish his exercises and left his desk to show me that he was writing (“Great, Mostafa. You’re doing really well”). Then the school semester came to an end, so did my temporary contract and the next semester I was teaching at a different school.
One evening there was a festival in our city and I was out with a friend to listen to some live music. When we approached the hiphop scene I suddenly heard a teenage voice calling my name:
It was Mostafa, whom I hadn’t seen since the end of the last semester. He had spotted me from the audience stage and suddenly stood above me.
“Hi Mostafa!” I answered with a smile, pleased to see him.
Back then I often – and I still actually do – ran in to former students who were happier to see me outside school than they had ever been seeing me inside of it. When bumping in to each other downtown many wanted to talk a little and tell me about their lives; some simply said hi; the most hardcore ones usually just nodded in recognition or ignored me. Not wanting to talk was to me understandable, as some of them dropped out of school and joined gangs, and this is nothing you want to admit to your former teacher. But nothing of what I could have expected had prepared me for Mostafa’s response that day: he jumped off the stage, threw himself in my arms, and buried his head in my shoulder. Perplexed I hugged him for a few amazing seconds.
“How are you? I’m fine! I gotta go!” He said all in once and then freed himself from my embrace, suddenly realizing what he had done; the hug of a former teacher in front of his friends, then set off and ran away.
I never saw him again, later on I heard that he was one of the kids to drop out of school, but I will never forget the hug that day. It changed my previous perception of young and angry men. In that very moment, the angry Mostafa whom everyone was so afraid of, was nowhere in sight.
Photo credit: mahwaff.com
This is a beautiful story Jenny. I love it!
You know, I have stories so much like it that it warms my heart to hear yours. Sometimes I don’t even tell those stories because I don’t think people will really believe them – and I don’t want the young men in my stories to be dishonored by that disbelief.
I’m just so glad that I came by here today and read this.
Thanks a lot Claire:)
Heartwarming story and serves to dispel the tendency to just assume that certain people are unapproachable. Connections can be formed just by being understanding and compassionate and we are living in a world where stereotypes and misinterpretations forge our understanding of the world. When I read stories like this it affirms that we need to take those extra steps when we can’t see the good around us. Be the good instead! And then see what positive changes occur….
Thank you for your comment, well captured!
That was a great story, thank you for sharing, Jenny.
Children can’t control their feelings as well partly because their frontal lobes are under-developed until around ages 25-35. And they have every right to be angry.
A beautiful story! As a teacher, you modeled superior communication skills–you, unlike other teachers reached out to Mostafa and the other children, confirming or not confirming their importance as beings. Think about communities of teachers similar you teaching kids like Mostafa. What a difference that would make!
Mostafa would have graduated. School environments can be more toxic with long-term negative impacts than multiple parental risk factors. The opposite is true your class environment was a model.
Mostafa judged you–we all judge– but your efforts to reach out were not in vain–he reflexively gave you a hug. In addition, he asked the perfect question to determine friend or foe, “Did you have friends there?”
Again, A shame the teaching community did not change his trajectory, a sign of failure within the educational system.
Your story provides a great modern-day narrative as well as solution that is useful data on education and teaching.
Thank u Angela! Yes the educational system can create wonders but unfortunately more often I think it brings children down – especially if they’re already from an underprivileged background. I didn’t stay on as a teacher and don’t know if I could have kept up my spirit if I did… The system can be so draining even to teachers that I wonder if I would. All the best to you too
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