Fall Semester, 1998
Even though I had taught three classes at Southland, I was totally unprepared for the fall 1998 semester, when I was given the Journalism 101 morning class usually taught by old Jake. On the first day I casually strolled in with my usual bottled water and bagel from the Roach Coach, expecting another near-empty class. But as I started to unwrap my bagel, the room rapidly filled with more than 40 students, the majority of whom were muscular, animated, chattering young men in gaudy gold chains and shiny or grubby sweat suits. It was as if all the set-trippin’ gangbangers kickin’ it in Nigga Alley had suddenly been transported into my classroom. I put the bagel aside as my throat constricted with adrenalin. One thing was for sure, I was no longer in Kansas.
“What are you all doing here?” I finally blurted out.
Opal, an older woman who turned out to be bright and opinionated, but barely literate, raised her hand. She said the school guidance counselors had been telling students that Journalism 101 was easier than English composition, and many of the students were dodging writing classes. Journalism 101 was also popular with jocks because old Jake had acquired a reputation for letting them run wild, and the niggas in the sweat suits turned out to be half the Southland Cougars football team.
This was not good. It was supposed to be the feeder class for the lab classes used to produce the student newspaper, but there weren’t any journalism students. In fact, most were taking the class not to learn how to write but to get out of writing.
Next I did what I usually do at the start of a class, which was ask a question about current events, trying to get everyone to loosen up. But they didn’t need loosening up. Everyone yelled their opinion at the same time and nobody would shut up when I asked. Like old Jake before me, I soon lost control of the class, which turned into nebulous gab sessions. I don’t remember much of what we talked about except for the day we got on the subject of gun control and I asked for a quick show of hands — how many people in the room were packing heat? To my dismay, just about every hand in the room shot up except mine.
In addition to Opal and the football team, there was an ex-con who liked to say “whack,” a budding community activist who went on booming baritone diatribes, and skimpily clad coeds who could distract half the students — and me — just by stretching. Things got so out of control that I decided to bring a referee’s whistle to class. The football team thought that was pretty funny, but blowing the whistle would only quiet things down for a moment and then they’d run another play. So one day I came in, blew the whistle and laid down the law. No more wandering in late or leaving early, no more talking out of turn, and the next time I had to blow the whistle because someone was too loud, whether it was a football player or Opal, who was one of the worst offenders, then everyone on the football team would lose half a grade point.
Mouths dropped open around the room. The football team couldn’t believe I would so blatantly discriminate against them, while the rest of the class chuckled uneasily. But for the first time the entire semester I had their attention. When several players protested it wasn’t fair, I said I needed them on my team, and that as student athletes, they should set a good example. One of the players — only later did I find out it was the starting quarterback — got up, snorted, “this is bullshit,” and sauntered out of the room. I held my breath, but no one followed him out the door. And I felt like I’d gone out on the playground, taken a swing at the biggest bully and lived to tell the story.
About 30 minutes went by — it was the quietest class in weeks — when the quarterback poked his head in the door and gestured at me to step outside. Well, I’m thinking, the moment has arrived. If I walk out that door I’m going to get stomped in the hallway, and if I don’t, I’m a candy ass.
In a daze, and with all the students’ eyes on me, I trudged across the room and out into the hallway, where I was confronted by a stocky man about my age wearing a sweat suit and sunglasses. He also had a whistle around his neck. “Hi,” he said and extended his hand, “I’m Coach Washington.”
To my gigantic relief it was “Coach Dub,” the football coach/athletic director. He said he’d come to talk to me because one of his players claimed I was discriminating against the team. That I’d asked them to help me control some noisy lady and what were they supposed to do, tackle her?
I told him the class was out of control and his players were a big part of the problem, which is why I took such drastic action. (I later learned he had a similar rule — whenever any of his players forgot their helmets, the rest of the team had to do push-ups.)
In front of the quarterback, he told me that academics came first in his mind, and if I had any more trouble with his “boys,” I should talk to him and he’d take care of it. I wish I could say that was the happy ending, but in fact everyone continued to rant and rave in class, only I didn’t have the guts to blow my whistle again, and things went on pretty much as they had before.
The final exam I gave them turned into another fiasco. I thought having the students write their own obituaries would give them a chance to reflect on what they wanted to accomplish in life. Wrong.
Obituary writing is a lost journalistic art, but at some point most reporters have to write an obit. If the person they are writing about is famous, they have secondary sources to crib from. But for most deceased people, the reporter has nothing more to go on than the funeral home notice, which is a form filled out by a funeral director with the most basic information about the recently departed.
News organizations have different policies on revealing the cause of death and embarrassing facts about dead people, which are sometimes the same thing, e.g., suicide, AIDS, overdose. They also have different standards for private individuals and public figures. But the bottom line is that obits aren’t about people’s deaths but about their lives.
Between death and deadline, most reporters don’t have time to write the story of a person’s life, which is why big news organizations have canned obits already written for famous people. But whoever the person was, the trick to writing an obituary is to look through that dry funeral notice and give the deceased some dignity by picking out what that person should be remembered for and plug that in the lead, between the person’s name and date of death, i.e., “Betty Boop, devoted mother and grandmother of 12 children and 27 grandchildren, died today at age 97,” or, “Elmer Fudd, who won a Silver Star for heroics in the Pacific during World War II and was Grand PoohBah of the Secret Rites Club, died yesterday.”
I like to give unconventional final exams, and had gotten the idea to have the students write their own obits from the teacher’s guide to the textbook. But it turned out to be a bad idea. Or maybe I was too dramatic when I read the instructions to the class: “At 11 a.m. today, you died,” I said and paused. “Complete the following ‘funeral notice’ form, and based on your information, write your own newspaper obituary in third person and past tense.” I also asked them to write an epitaph — “a phrase, sentence or paragraph describing what you should be remembered for” — and gave the examples “writer, raconteur and teacher at Southland College” and “loving wife, mother and soprano in her church choir.”
A cold chill rippled through the room. Scattered objections soon coagulated into consensus — to a person they protested that writing about their own death would jinx them. I tried to explain about the lost art of obit writing and how they should be thinking about their lives, not their deaths, but they would have none of it.
I pointed out that the time of death was 11 a.m., which had already passed, so no hex, but they still said no way. I tried to compromise, suggesting that they could fill in my name on the exam but put in their own information. Not good enough. OK, they could use my vital statistics. But they didn’t want to jinx me either.
Looking back, I could have changed the final to having them write a resume, listing their jobs, education, and extracurricular activities, and have them write a summary of what made them a good job candidate, and it would have amounted to the same thing. But faced with yet another challenge to my authority as teacher, I stuck to my guns and told them there are lots of things they do outside of class that are much more dangerous to their health than taking my final exam, so stop pretending to be superstitious and write the damn obituary.
They did, sort of. Accuracy was certainly an important part of the grade, but some of them misspelled their own names, intentionally, to nix the hex. Others made up preposterous stories, like that they were 116 years old or big claim to fame was an appearance on The Jerry Springer Show. Anything but a sober assessment of their lives and what they wanted to accomplish.