“Hello class, my name is Ms. Boody. Like Boo-ty, but with a d.” I inhale, then exhale. “You have exactly one minute to laugh.”
My declaration rings out coolly, and I can feel it barreling down the rows of the classroom. With each passing desk, the hilarity and absurdity of my name gains strength and momentum. The students, at first slumped and inattentive, are now upright, facing forward, focused on me. “Did this teacher just say her name is boo-ty?” has become a sincere expression on their small faces.
My right thumb bears down upon the “beep” button of the kitchen timer, signaling the beginning of this unusual introduction. Twenty-some students of C.A. Franklin’s inaugural seventh grade class continue their stare. Some of their serious tight lips begin to turn upward into sly smiles, as they internalize the meaning of this teacher’s name. I pace the aisles of the classroom, with an affected scowl and upright posture. I make direct eye contact with each student as I pass.
“No middle school student can escape my gaze,” I think, though I am knowingly baby-faced, and uncomfortably stuffed into an unflattering Ann Taylor navy blue power suit. I always thought I would never wear navy. Navy is the color of the hideous pumps with the thick unflattering heels my mother always insisted on wearing. Navy is the only color one can’t match with black.
Vigorously flat-ironed hair, a look that takes painstaking effort that I rarely exert, and newly bought rectangular rimmed glasses feel like a prop as they frame my twenty-one-year-old face. The whole look screams that this is my first “real” job.
After a few seconds, the students’ alert and hushed attentiveness wears off, and they begin to respond with giggles. A few laugh out loud. Shaking my own insecurities, I continue my glare in stride. “Ms. Boody,” is written on the chalk board behind me in cursive scroll and colorful, pastel chalk.
I dare them to make fun of me: “That’s it?” I prompt. “That’s all you got?” I tease, continuing my now methodical pacing of the aisles. The students’ voices meet my heckles. “Get it out now,” I provoke. I’m becoming more comfortable with the serious tone my voice has now assumed. Slowly, the students’ taunts begin to build, to undulate, and swim into a soft churning murmur of the word “booty.” A chant of “booty” builds. I look around. Some students stay quieter, whispering the name repeatedly, shaking their heads. Seconds pass. Some students begin to bang on desks, seized by fits of laughter, and overtaken by the word. Some stand yell, scream, point, and proclaim, “Miss Booooooo-tayyyyy!” According to the kitchen timer, this cry lasts ten seconds.
The booty chant changes route, and students force the chant into a chorus of various booty songs.
“Shake, shake, shake… shake, shake, shake… shake your booooty, Mrs. Boooooty.”
“Booty, booty, booty, booty, booty, rockin’ everywhere!”
“Hey, you, Miss new Booty…”
Thirty seconds still remain.
The songs begin to recede. Students begin to look self-consciously around the room, checking to see if others are still high on the booty hype. More and more students sheepishly redirect their gaze toward the fraying carpet. Guilt begins to set in. One student, a serious boy with the charming demeanor of a politician pipes up, “Y’all, this ain’t right. This just ain’t right. She’s our teacher.” Other students, impressed by his integrity, speak up in agreement, “Yeah, y’all. This ain’t right. It’s just a name. It really ain’t that funny.” The booty calls subside. A few diehard booty enthusiasts carry on with booty songs, sung quietly to themselves.
“You all is just childish,” a final girl says, arms crossed and lips in a pout. Her statement silences the class. Her words of disapproval create a beautifully, uncomfortable silence, one that turns class’s collective gaze back toward me.
In one proud moment, my name has attained a rare power — the power to inspire laughter, jeers, admonishments, and finally, respect. In one minute, I, a suburban reared college graduate of the Pacific Northwest, was able to make an impression upon students from Kansas City’s notorious East side. And I think to myself, with twenty-some twelve-year olds‘ eyes fixed upon me, expressing a genuine sense of both curiosity and mistrust, “Now what?”
By the time I moved back home to Kansas City, it appeared that Kansas City’s East Side had refused any kind of meaningful progress. With its clapboard houses, blighted blocks, and dismal school district, the East Side is American Southern segregation, re-imagined for the twenty-first century. While Downtown and the West Side have undergone dramatic revitalization, the chasm between the city’s very well-to-do whites and abject, minority poor has become an elephantine gorge. Grocery stores carrying fresh produce cannot be found for miles; obesity and drug abuse reign; property values bottom out, all while homicide rates soar. This world — the world of EBT, evictions, and the neighborhood crack head — is the only world that these students’ upturned eyes have ever known.
I grew up fifteen minutes away from the East Side in a suburban subdivision of mirrored split-level houses. I went to a high school with the best golf team in the state, with classmates who were heirs to fortunes, drove brand new Escalades, and spent their evenings rubbing elbows with Brandy-breathed executives at country clubs. My own family wasn’t as wealthy, but were well-educated and respected in the neighborhood.
The students in front me carry a rightful distrust of any outsider — in fact, they carry a rightful distrust of simply anyone else at all. They are aware of the rift between us. So they jeer. They laugh. They yell, scream, shout, sing and then finally stare at me. They are waiting to see what I will introduce, promise, lie about, falsely assume, and fail to mandate as the course of the school year unveils. My name in the suburbs never got more than a snicker.
The funny thing is that the only training I’ve received at the point is five weeks of team-teaching Mexican-American immigrant children in an outdoor campus school nestled in a Phoenix, Arizona trailer park. A Teach for America corps member, I attended a teaching “institute,” or boot camp, where I was more or less brainwashed into believing that my enthusiasm and lesson plans alone are the antidote to poverty and injustice in America. Now here I am, with all five weeks of pedagogical training, a crash course on the injustices of the American public school system, and a degree in English Literature and Dance, facing these children. In an irony of all ironies, I’m expected to teach them math.
Now that I have their full attention, I prompt students to open the manila folders I had meticulously color coded and prepared the night before. I direct them to take out the first piece of paper, a bright yellow document titled “student contract.” We go over the rules of the classroom — the non-negotiables, the consequence system. I explain that I am their math teacher, but will also be teaching a homeroom class and a reading course on the side. I explain that I have high expectations, and that if we all vow to work really, really hard that we will all be on-grade level, college bound, and reach our dreams. I enthusiastically explain our class motto, which I also spent hours cutting out of giant construction paper and plastering on the Pepto-pink cinder blocked wall: “Dreams real big, goals real big, effort real big, results real big” (a lyric from a Big Tymers song).
The school lacks real walls, and instead has ’70s cubicle partitions to separate classrooms. Classrooms do not have doors. There are no windows in the entire building, save for a bulletproof plastic partition at the front door, manned by a security guard. The school, formerly a kindergarten through fifth grade center, has now added a middle school with fifty-minute class rotations. The principal forgot to make a bell schedule, or order a bell system for that matter. Copy paper is rationed out by the administration. Students arrive at school with no school supplies, no pencils, nothing. Only 4% of students are testing on grade level. Several students are close too being illiterate. One student can only write his name, misspelled. In contrast, the school I went to fifteen minutes away, boasts an Olympic-sized pool, private tennis courts, and two libraries.
Despite all of this, I share my goals and aspirations with the students. Amazingly, they receive them excitedly on this first day. They allow themselves to believe me, to listen. The period draws to a close, and I collect the small assignments I’ve given to the students, the get-to-know-you surveys, the name tags. Class ends, and I usher in a new class. I inhale again, thumb pressed to timer, and introduce myself.
“Hello class, my name is Ms. Boody…”
I think I’ve started this first day off right; we’ve seemed to find one common denominator — the word booty.
Photo by the U.S. National Archives