We’ve been doing education wrong for a long time. I’m convinced.
Lately I’ve been choosing hip hop more, mainly because it’s always been rhythm that moves me more than a lot of other stuff. Rapsody blew my mind with her Too Lyrical EP and “Cleo,” then I cycled hits like “Thieves in the Night” from Black Star and “UMI Says” from Mos Def and “Make You Feel That Way” from Blackalicious and “Where I’m From” from Digable Planets and plenty of others as I go through Spotify stations. I’ve been reintroducing myself to The Roots. And beyond them, more than any group or artist lately, I keep landing on A Tribe Called Quest.
I’m not the first, and I’m probably later than I should be. One thing that’s been interesting as I’ve gotten older is how my ears have grown in a way that helps them hear things better, or tries to. I always knew Tribe was there, and I occasionally enjoyed them, but I never heard them.
Now I’m going through the albums and jumping into rabbit holes a little bit and I’ve wound up on the Wikipedia page for “Can I Kick It?”
I’m learning that the song samples Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” so that’s cool because I’ve never listened to Lou Reed on purpose, either — another guy who’s been in my head space as a name or an entity but one who I never turned the dial to because there are so many frequencies to choose from — and I’m learning that Tribe never made any money off of “Can I Kick It?” because of this. But most importantly, I’m learning that the group made a smirk-worthy video where they played with the dot of the “i” in “it.” And I’m learning that this little dot is called a tittle.
A tittle. For real. T-i-t-t-l-e tittle.
I love words, and I love language, and yet this amazing detail has been hidden from me my entire life, as a student, as an educator — we’re talking decades here. And I finally learned it from seminal hip hop that I arrived at only after a long, winding road because of other stories I’ve been told in its stead.
For example, I think back to my sophomore year of high school, in an honors English class which I eventually dropped. (On my first day in standard English class, the teacher pointed me to a desk I could assume. I tripped on a leg of another desk on my way there, to which the new teacher said, “Ohhhh, honors kid, huh?” and I immediately knew I’d be just fine.) The honors class was legitimately impossible. Classmates regularly talked about it and how the teacher would say “yeah, you got it! You’re on it!” when we’d share our thoughts during open-ended discussion. But then we’d write those same answers to the same questions that showed up on assessments and we’d get them back with red pen splattered all over them.
I eventually blacked out during a test in that class on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, a likely tip-off to my thorough generalized anxiety disorder to which I was thoroughly aloof at that point, and would be for another five years.
I’ve never gone back to The Scarlet Letter, or Hawthorne, and often avoid the “classics” like nobody’s business. They’re the damned worst. Why are we constantly forcing teenagers with minds like poorly fettered Pop Rock candy to read books older than any person they know? Why are we so confident that those stories are the ones worth knowing? I couldn’t figure it out then, and I haven’t been able to figure it out since, and at times I’ve even been in the unfortunate position of having to teach some of them. I do my best to contextualize them, often trying to provide the gravity of the tradition of storytelling, but that’s stuff I’ve only picked up on as a person who’s chosen to teach English and whose interests happened to have eventually found ties to such traditions.
When we have to spend so much effort just to translate the language, just to grasp what the hell is going on, we’re missing out on all the good stuff. We’re too tired to think about syntax or symbolism. That point in history couldn’t be less real. Our eyes are ready to roll or bleed or flutter shut with sweet mercy.
I wish we’d invest in practical, authentic learning strategies that are actually genuine and not just jargon. I think if someone approached me with math through advanced baseball stats, or history or literature through the lens of hip hop, I’d have connected more dots sooner. I’d have delighted in the reality of titles existing a decade and a half sooner, at least. But maybe more than anything, I’d have been given a space to grapple with what caused me a lot of grief and pain and sleep — my anxiety.
When your head’s filled with stuff you can’t even appreciate until years later only after extremely particular and deliberate choices that happen to slowly guide you, there isn’t a lot of space for stuff that might actually get you there faster.
Can I Kick It? Yeah, finally. Kinda.
Can Nathaniel Hawthorne? Absolutely not.