Sticks and Stones

Jay Wamsted

I was posted up outside my door one day, greeting students as they wandered in for class, when Michael came back outside to speak.

            “I was in this store yesterday,” he started, nodding at his classmates as they made their way past us, “and this man was super weird to me.”

            I was paying attention, though not overly so. I am in my thirteenth year of teaching at Mays High in southwest Atlanta, and in that time I have heard countless stories from so many teenagers. Often teaching is much like parenting—you’re always doing at least three things at once, and listening to an extracurricular exploit is usually the one furthest in the background.

            Michael went on. “So I’m just walking around, looking for some snacks, and this white guy comes in, looks me over, and says, ‘You a big n-word, ain’t ya?’”

            My brain shut down its other functions immediately; I was paying complete attention now. To be clear, Michael did not say “n-word.” He is black—as are ninety-eight percent of my students, the other two percent being Hispanic—and he spoke the insult out loud, without a trace of self-consciousness. Like it or not, the word remains entrenched in the argot of the black teen.

            I squared to face him. “What?” I asked, incredulous, angry.

            Michael shrugged. “Yeah, it was weird. His wife kind of apologized for him, and I just kept looking for snacks. But then this other black kid walks in and the guy goes up and calls him an n-word also.”

            He paused, his attention distracted by laughter drifting from inside our classroom. He looked back at me. “Anyways, it was just super strange. But when it happened, I thought about you, felt like I should tell you about it for some reason.” I nodded, completely unsure about any proper response.

            Five minutes later I was teaching math to a room full of black and brown faces. As usual, I was the only white person in the room.

            Even the most kindhearted white woman,
            Dragging herself through traffic with her nails
            On the wheel & her head in a chamber of black
            Modern American music may begin, almost
            Carelessly, to breathe n-words

            —Terrance Hayes, “American Sonnet for my Past and Future Assassin”
            #11, lines 1-5

Some years prior I had taught a student named David. Once he came to my room—not during class, rather just to talk—when, apropos of nothing, he asked me, “Wamsted, you ever say the n-word?”

            Again, David actually spoke the word. My face went flush, and I came back quickly and loudly with something like, “No! David! Why would you ask me that?”

            But he wouldn’t take no for an answer; instead, he kept at me for a bit before switching tactics. David knew that I have a soft spot for Kanye West and his first two albums. “Okay Wamsted,” he said. “Let’s say you driving around in your car, windows up, all alone, rapping along with Kanye. Then he says the n-word. What you going to do?”

            I was more uncomfortable than I ever had been with a student; I could feel my ears burning. “No way, David! I just skip those lyrics!” I looked at him, imploring, hoping he would let up, and finally he did.

            “Okay, okay, Wamsted, I hear you. Just know this, though: I’m going to keep an eye on you.” He turned heel and walked out of the room, didn’t even say goodbye.

            At the time I thought ours was just a bizarre interaction, one from which I was grateful simply to be released, though I don’t see it that way anymore. Now I think I might have missed an opportunity to connect with a young black man who had no good reason yet to trust me.

Monday morning, a class full of seniors, all of them a little down after a big football loss over the weekend. Mays is a good team—we played several years ago for the state championship, and football is an important part of our school’s culture. One of my students, a high-profile college recruit, describes the beating they took on Friday.

             “They were all these white boys, Mr. Wamsted, and they were vicious. Every play, you’d get tackled, and they’d stay on you just a little longer than usual, not enough to get a penalty, just enough to curse you out.”

             On the ground, n-word! Yeah, n-word, you stay down!

             “It was exhausting, Mr. Wamsted. They just wore us out.”

            Yes, even the most
            Bespectacled hallucination cruising the lanes
            Of America may find her tongue curls inward,
            Entangling her windpipe, her vents, toes & pedals
            When she drives alone.

            —Terrance Hayes, “American Sonnet for my Past and Future Assassin”
             #11, lines 5-9

Sometime after the Kanye conversation David was in my room again, and as is not uncommon for even the best of adolescents, he was driving me crazy. It was during class, and he was harassing me about some favor he needed that I was unwilling to perform at the moment. We were getting louder and quicker with our comebacks as he tried to convince me to see things his way, and finally I took a different tack with a deliberately arch comment.

            “David! The exigencies of our current situation counterweight the quiddity of the dilemma in which you find yourself enmeshed. Much to my vertiginous chagrin, I am unable to assist you due to my pedagogical responsibilities!”

            (Or something like that. At this point, I have no idea what I really said.)

            He turned away from me to a friend. “See? That’s what white people do when you’re winning an argument. They get all loud and use big words to bully you into shutting up.” He and his friend laughed, and once again, David walked away without another word back at me.

A softball game far outside the city, past the inner ring of suburbs and into what is known around here as “the country.” One of my students was playing in the outfield, close to where the teenagers from the opposing school set up their cheering section. For seven innings she trots out there, takes up her position, tries to focus. All the while, a steady stream of insults from the all-white crowd watching the game:

             “Hey there, monkey! You sure look like a gorilla. Bet you don’t even know who your daddy is, huh? Maybe an ape. Monkey! Hey, gorilla-girl! Who’s your daddy, gorilla-girl? You hear me, monkey? I’m talking to you!”

             She didn’t say a word in response. One of her teammates, however, was thrown out late in the game for getting rude with an umpire while arguing balls and strikes. Mays lost the game pretty badly.

             My students think these facts are unrelated, but I am not so sure.

            Even the most made up
            Layers of persona in a two- or four-door vehicle
            Sealed in a fountain of bass & black boys
            Chanting n-words may begin to chant inwardly
            Softly before she can catch herself.

            —Terrance Hayes, “American Sonnet for my Past and Future Assassin”
             #11, lines 9-13

Once, early in my time at Mays, I was called down to the office to meet with a parent whose grandson had been performing poorly of late. The student was missing classes and not turning in assignments; the grandfather wanted to know what could be done in terms of making up the work. I don’t remember exactly what happened, but as we were discussing what could and couldn’t be rectified, I became frustrated somehow about the situation. Maybe I was in a hurry, maybe the grandfather wanted more leniency for his grandson than I thought was warranted, maybe I felt accused of not doing my job properly. Whatever was going on in my mind, I must have said something in a tone, gotten a little louder than the situation required, because the grandfather interrupted me.

            “I will not be intimidated by you!” he intoned, flashing eyes a dare to continue. I balked, in no manner having intended to intimidate him, and we stumbled through the rest of our talk. His grandson eventually turned in the missing work, passed my class, and moved on. All’s well that ends well—an uncomfortable moment papered over by a successful conclusion.

            Until David, that is. For years I explained the grandfather away by putting the blame on him: his grandson had made a series of poor choices, and I wanted to believe the moment reflected more general frustration than actual offense. Now, though, I think intimidating an older black man—consciously or not—was exactly what I was trying to do that morning. More subtly than overtly, perhaps, but equally intentional to my high-vocabulary comment all those years later.

            David was right—“bully” is an apposite word here.

Sitting with a black colleague at a graduation ceremony, and she is telling me her story, how she moved to Atlanta after winning an impressive scholarship—the Gates Millennium, which paid not only for her undergrad but also would follow her for life and fund her upcoming medical school. She had taken a break in her higher education to teach, was working at Mays for a couple of years in an effort to pay back her good fortune in some manner. I made some naïve comment about defeating racism, something about how she had risen above it with her amazing accomplishments, how certainly she must show the world the foolishness in the notion of skin superiority. She laughed.

             “Just the other day I was driving through a rich white part of town, and I got distracted for a second at a light. The car behind me peels around and this white guy hollers out his window.”

             Get moving, n-word!

             “So, you know, you never really get to leave it behind.”

            Of course,
            After that, what is inward, is absorbed.

            —Terrance Hayes, “American Sonnet for my Past and Future Assassin”
             #11, lines 13-14

David asked me that time if I ever said the n-word, and I told him no. Let me now be more honest, offer a story that might serve as a hinge in my teaching career.

            Once I was in a hallway meeting with a difficult student. We had been getting on each other’s nerves since the beginning of the year; this afternoon we were arguing about some point of classroom management, and both of us became increasingly frustrated. Finally he rolled his eyes, completely exasperated, and shot off at me in an effort to end the conversation decisively—n-word, please!

            I came back at him in what I thought would be a disarming fashion: “Hey, now you’re not making any sense, calling me an n-word. Let’s talk reasonably here.” Again, to be clear, both my student and I spoke the n-word aloud. The conversation from this point completely escapes my memory; the moment slid into the quotidian. I only remember this story at all because of what happened the next day.

            That morning I was walking into the building when a colleague, a veteran black teacher some years older than me, stood in my path. “Can I speak to you, Wamsted?” he asked, and we made our way off to the side of the early morning teacher traffic. I had no idea what he wanted to talk about; we taught different grade levels as well as subjects, so our work relationship was limited. The previous day’s conversation had completely slipped my mind.

            As it turns out, he had been in the hall and heard my interaction with the student, and he was incensed. For a minute or so, the two of us in full public view as teachers walked by getting ready for the day, he lit into me about the history of the n-word, the terrible struggle he and his forebears had undergone in order to liberate themselves from such oppression, the offense he felt at hearing some white man say it to a black teenager. I wish I could remember what he said, but I panicked and shut down. I was so embarrassed, so horrified at the thought that this older black man I barely knew would think I was a racist—I found myself nodding along and saying “yes, sir” to every word while hearing none of it.

            I knew, given how seldom our paths crossed, that it would be some time before he would be able to think of me as anything other than that white guy who, however well-meaning, said the n-word. It was years before I was able to speak to him without something like fear and trembling.

            In retrospect, my discomfort could have gone in many different directions—I could have reacted with fear like the Kanye conversation with David, or attempted to bully my way out as I had so many times before. Instead I managed to do the one thing that I think endeared me to this teacher who later become a close colleague.

            I shut my mouth and listened.

One morning near the end of my school year with David, he came to my room, his friend tagging along. “Wamsted, hey,” he said, “let me use your deodorant.”

            It is true that I had deodorant, and David knew it. I ride my bicycle to work, so I keep a stick in my bag. I told David, however, that I didn’t have any spray and I don’t share stick deodorant. As before, he wouldn’t let up—he kept at me, wheedling away, getting agitated. The situation was becomingly uncomfortably familiar.

            Exasperated, I finally tried to come back in a definitive manner, and I said something loud like, “David! I am NOT going to share my stick deodorant with you!”

            He got loud right back at me. “Why? Because I’m black? Because I’m unclean? You don’t want to lend your deodorant to some unclean black man?”

            The words hung there, heavy between us as we all watched each other. This time, however, I didn’t panic or try to bluster my way out; this time I didn’t collapse into silence. I just sighed. “Really, David? It’s that serious for you to bring up all that about racism? Here, brother, be cool, just use the deodorant.”

            He instantly calmed down, and as he slid my stick deodorant under his shirt he turned to his friend. “I knew I’d get him with that black man stuff. White people hate being called racist.” He turned back to me. “Thanks, Wamsted. You all right after all.”

            And then, just like before, he and his friend burst out laughing. Instead of walking away, however, this time they invited me in on the joke, and I, realizing I had been played, burst out laughing, too. It was glorious. Somehow through all the years I had stumbled upon a way of speaking without fear or intimidation; I had managed to win David’s trust.

            For a moment or so there in my classroom, we were all right after all.

By most accounts my time at Mays has been successful—I am well-liked by both the administration and, more importantly perhaps, the students. I field hugs, high-fives, fist bumps all day long; last year I was honored by the senior class with the highly-coveted “Favorite Teacher” award. Once we had a student-teacher basketball game, one where I was kept on the bench for very good reasons that had nothing to do with the fact that I was the only white man on the floor. Eventually, though, they had to put me in when the crowd of juniors and seniors kept up a minutes-long chant of “Wam-sted! Wam-sted!” It was, to say the least, exhilarating—this despite the fact that at no point did I lay hands on the ball.

            Recently, though, I received a compliment of a more Janus-faced nature, when a student told me out of the blue that I was the first white person she had ever trusted. I was both elated and devastated. I am, of course, pleased finally to find myself becoming the kind of white man a black teenager could trust. And yet, after she left the room and the shine wore off her comment, all I could do was to wonder about the kind of world we live in, a world where a seventeen-year-old black girl could say with complete sincerity that she never before trusted a white person. I went home that day frustrated rather than encouraged, asking myself how such a thing could have come to pass.

            I offer this essay in response to that unspoken question.

You a big n-word, ain’t ya?

            “Anyways, it was weird. And when it happened, I just thought about you, felt like I should tell you about it for some reason.”

            Michael is looking at me, sideways, not committing fully to my response, but visibly curious. I paused for a moment, took a breath, and looked him in the eyes. He turned to face me, leaning in to my words. I said the only thing I could think of to say.

            “That’s some bullshit, Michael. Some real bullshit.”

            He smiled broadly at me, nodded his head. I spend so much time asking students to express their emotions in a way that eschews cursing, but sometimes no other words exist to capture such a maleficent thing.

            “Thanks for telling me, man, I’m glad you did,” I said. I grabbed his hand and pulled him in for one of those handshake/backslap/hugs.

            “Real bullshit,” I said again, almost a whisper.

Jay Wamsted has taught math to teenagers in Atlanta for fifteen years. His writing has been featured in various journals and magazines, including Harvard Educational ReviewSoutheast Review, and Under the Sun. He can be found online at “Education Post,” where he is a columnist, or on the “TEDx” YouTube channel, where you can watch his 2017 talk “Eating the Elephant: Ending Racism & the Magic of Trust.” He and his wife have four young children, and he is fortunate enough to walk to work. You can contact him on Twitter @JayWamsted or by email,

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