I look at him and he looks at me. His shirt says, “F–k the Police” next to a picture of a gun. Literally. The u, the c, they’re dashes on the shirt. And it’s funny because I read the shirt as if I didn’t know that “–” stood for those letters. F and K the Police I hear in my mind.
He stands in front of me with a smirk. The assignment sits on the desk in front of me, and he seems proud.
“The gun on your shirt… not so appropriate for school,” I say in front of him and his friends.
“It’s not like I’m gonna rip it off and start shooting people. It’s a gun on a shirt, bro. Don’t worry about it.”
“Okay, but it says ‘F… k the Police,’ Adrian. And there’s a picture of a fuc… of a gun. What do you think that says about you? What will people think? Did your mom see you put that on?”
“Bro, back off. It’s no big deal. It’s a shirt. It don’t mean anything.”
“It means something to me. You realize you’re only living up to a stereotype our society imposes on young black men.”
“Oh yeah? You know something about that? You’re not black.”
“Can you just grade my paper?”
“Adrian, can you… I mean, you’re going to have to change shirts—or turn it inside out.”
“FUCK, BRO! It’s a FUCKIN SHIRT, DAWG! It don’t mean anything. I ain’t gonna shoot you if that’s what you’re worried about.”
Is that what I’m worried about?
“Man, Adrian. What do you want me to do? You just cussed at me in front of everybody. This isn’t getting any easier. I gotta talk to your mom.”
His fist hits the desk and the noise explodes into my classroom.
“DAMN, DAWG! This is FUCKING STUPID!”
Flash back: two weeks ago.
I was Adrian’s favorite teacher.
Flash forward, if I can: two hours, two days, or two months into the future when I will be once again.
“Look Mr. Boutin—I’m sorry I yelled at you,” say his eyes. “And I won’t wear that shirt again.”
Silence maintains his dignity. We’re standing in the hall together. He continues looking at me.
“But it was just a shirt,” say his eyes alone, “and you don’t have to put me on blast like that or call my mom. She’s gonna whoop me.”
“Adrian, did you turn in that reading response from Monday?” I ask. He nods.
We both know we’ve made mistakes, but we’re unable apologize for them in words.
My pat on the back says, “No more putting you on blast.”
James Boutin teaches language arts and social studies just south of Seattle, Wash. He has previously taught in New York City; Washington, DC; Renton, Wash.; and Knoxville, Tenn. He blogs about education at An Urban Teacher’s Education.