Your Mic Sounds Nice
Imagine a Bay Area community college classroom. It is the second, maybe third week of school, and
the students have counted off into groups of four. They are reading poems from The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop. One group has been assigned the poem “crack house” by Quraysh Ali Lansana. You know the poem very well; a student from last semester taught it to you. This new set of students know the ins and outs of the poem, too, but they sincerely ask, “Is this okay? Can I write this? Am I right? What’s the answer? What is the artist/author/person really saying?” You know they know the answer. You have posed a problem, in fact, you have made a problem of a poem, which is like problems on problems, and maybe Paulo Freire would be proud. You asked: What is The Message of the poem? You have all just finished discussing poet Michael Cirelli’s dope poem, “The Message,” and you think they loved it. They didn’t love it the way they love talking about Drake and Meek Mill (by the way, how uncomfortable is ‘and’ here? They don’t go together, not on the same plane of talent, success, or genre, but here we are), but they loved the poem like they already knew it and were willing to talk about it. So, how do you answer them? I had a busy week last week. I’m an adjunct English instructor at two community colleges, which means a few things: 1) every week during the academic year is a busy week, 2) I’m super underpaid to do it, 3) I’m always trying to make more money than I have, 4) maintaining a strong sense of sanity is a concerted effort, 5) I’m always giving more love than I think I can, and 6) I am not below working to make my money, even if it underpays me. I know that I can’t have hours without minutes, so I try my best to make every single one count. Before the semester started, I took on a tutoring gig. I thought it would be digestible, but to be honest, I thought that I could learn to hate it less if I tried it out. If I did it more. If I showed up not on time, but early. If I smiled and didn’t raise my voice. If I didn’t pretend like I wasn’t a community college professor tutoring privileged middle school girls in Palo Alto. I should have known. I knew right away that it was not what I thought I had signed up for. “What do you think it’s about?” you ask one student who is still waiting for you to tell her the answer. She tells you that it’s about a crack house. Point blank. How the roles of a crack house operation are listed on the poem: “greeter,” “outer room,” “living room,” “pantry,” and “kitchen,” are outlined to indicate how a crack house runs and functions from room to room. Another student chimes in, “It’s like people are there, but not really. Like they’re high or something. Is that right?”
You smile. You know they know. You know because you know how likely it is that their schooling experiences up until this point haven’t valued or pushed for their personal analysis. You know because equity is the name of the game, but you also know that it will take generations of conscientious undoing and dismantling until it is a lived reality. “You are all on the right track. You’re using the poem to help you think and imagine what’s going on. You’re on the right track.” Some students are satisfied with that answer. The girl who is still waiting for you to tell her the answer says, “Wait. Janice, I don’t get it. It’s really about a crack house, huh?”
“Yes, you are on the right track,” you say, smiling, and you can’t help it. You know they know. A week later, you are standing in front of the class, and your student instructor, your counselor colleague who works in the learning community, and your students are staring at a large image of Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill album cover art. The students know to take notes because you are always saying, “You should write that down,” after they share comments showing their analysis of a text – your reaction and advice are the same as how you would react if you found out you’d won the lotto, or if the students told you they had the real ass cure for cancer – you practically exclaim, but you can’t be too excited or disingenuous, so you say it casually, but often. “What do you see?” You ask. They analyze the image: Lauryn Hill’s face is scratched onto a wooden school desk. Why do people do that? Students get bored, or tired, or tired of being in school, but they can also get in trouble for doing that, like graffiti. You break it down, in one of the shortest lectures you ever deliver: Boredom is lower-level anger, you know. How a student could have the time to beautifully sketch her image where, historically, it didn’t belong, shows her resistance. You talk about W.E.B. DuBois and Carter G. Woodson and the Latin pre-fix “mis” meaning “wrong” or “mistaken.” So when students are mistaken / misunderstood / misheard / miseducated, they are wrongly educated. You point out how there are decades of critical Black Thought in the title and image alone. And we ain’t even got to the music yet. You watch an excerpt of Ava DuVernay’s short film about women in hip hop, entitled My Mic Sounds Nice. The section about Lauryn Hill stuns the class. The duality. The reality. Her absence in hip hop. The abuse from fans, lovers, the music industry, and schooling. You listen. You watch. You change. And because you learned to love it so damn much: you repeat. But you also interviewed intensely for two gigs, because, you are still heartbroken from a full-time, tenure-track teaching position that you weren’t offered. You were right there, as a final candidate, in your power suit, in prayer, and hope, and struggle, and you don’t want to re-live that sadness, you don’t want to think about all the opportunities you haven’t gotten against white, male candidates for xyandz reasons, so you apply to these jobs to make up for the void or time or money you weren’t going to have. You don’t have the time to worry when you are wondering about your entire family’s survivability. You stopped planning the celebratory barbecue you’d throw at your mama’s house for all of the folks who helped you out of lower-middle-class status. The first job you applied for, the tutoring job, was advertised as a feminist teaching position. You applied because you knew that you fit the description, and you received an e-mail and a call the next day from an eager interviewer. You needed the money. You did an impromptu interview over the phone, and you set up an appointment for the following week. You go. You kill it. You get the job. It fits your schedule, for the most part. It took one shift for you to learn that it was not a feminist teaching position, and it could not have been so far from it. “In Lansana’s poem “crack house,” the speaker walks the reader through the process of a drug transaction” is the thesis the group came up with. They support their thesis using lines from the poem and opinionating their points, also known as using evidence from the text, a.k.a. using PIE method, a.k.a. epistemology, a.k.a. analysis means break it down, a.k.a. trusting themselves and what they think, a.k.a. how you know what you know. This process of facilitating and encouraging students to write like how they think, sound, and talk, is your very definition of justice. In a three-hour final interview where you end up celebrating with yourself and a chicken nuggets meal at a McDonald’s, where you won’t end up getting a full-time, dope ass bookstore Events Manager position to another white male who had applied at the last minute (you applied and interviewed twice months prior), in a “non-traditional interview” (their words) the interviewer and CEO will ask you about your definition of justice. You begin with, “In my classroom, where students are in groups…” and you end with, “This process of encouraging students to write like how they think, sound, and talk, is my very definition of justice.” While tutoring the middle school girls for three weeks, you hate yourself. Your supervisor is a Southeast Asian woman whose high-pitched, up-speaking voice attempts and reminders of the organization’s social justice approach is the kind of kindness that white feminists wield in order to exercise their power. You knew you hated the job, too, when your supervisor told you and the other tutors that reading will no longer be allowed in the tutoring rooms because you’d look unapproachable. She told you all that bringing in coloring books would be okay, and you figured that drawing made you look more available. You hella disagreed with all of it, but you needed the money, so you brought in Bun B’s Rap Coloring and Activity Book because that’s what you had. Because you love hip hop. Because it’s who you are. Because it was the only thing that was allowed at work. You knew you had to leave that shitty job when the supervisor pulled you aside for coloring your coloring book too much while sitting next to a seventh grader who did not need help with her biology homework. None of the girls, in fact, needed help, you say, as you can’t believe that you have to defend yourself. Well, it just looks bad if you’re coloring and the students are working, she insists. You remind her that it was her idea to bring in coloring books because books are not allowed, and she replies by saying it’s a judgment call and asks, “Do you understand?” in the tone of a dog walker to her lot of clients. “I understand, but I do not agree,” you resist. That same day, you are sent a job offer for a part-time Events Manager position with the bookstore. You know you cannot accept it, for many reasons, as 1) working $17 an hour in Menlo Park – one of the most affluent cities in the Bay Area – is less than minimum wage and a serious pay cut when you start to break everything down, 2) it is not the full-time position you applied for, and 3) you know they gave the full-time job to the last minute applicant. This is the third job you’ll never get, and you’ll learn that you never got it but that a white man did. You just know. You take the opportunity to quit tutoring because you have been offered another job, and you know this is not a lie, but also because fuck that supervisor’s nonsense. In the end, you get both jobs. In the end, you keep neither. You end up where you started, but you are not the same. Poetry, and teaching, and difficult people, are not all maps for staying put. You wonder how you got here, and how you left all of the paths you tried out. You wonder, when, in this essay, you abandoned your “I” for an easier “you.” It’s okay, because your mic sounds nice. You return again and again, to a Bay Area college classroom, where students are in groups. On the last day of fall semester, I admitted to the class that taught me the most that they kept me in the classroom. I told them that I was going to quit the day before the semester started, that I had thought about it over and over again. That enacting an escape plan before starting would somehow “answer” the confusion stirring and the sadness manifesting in my not knowing. It didn’t – and my students were surprised. I surprised myself, too. Imagine if I had turned off my microphone before I got onstage. Imagine the rumblings and beats of students with cases of stage fright bigger than my body. You listen. You watch. You change. And because you learned to love it so damn much: you repeat.
Janice Lobo Sapigao is a daughter of Filipina/o immigrants. Her first book, microchips for millions, critiques the Silicon Valley and its exploitation of immigrant women workers (Philippine American Writers and Artists, Inc. 2016). Her second book, like a solid to a shadow, about fatherlessness, grieving, and family lineages is forthcoming (Timeless, Infinite Light). She is the author of the chapbook toxic city (tinder tender press, 2015). She is a VONA/Voices Fellow and was awarded a Manuel G. Flores Prize, PAWA Scholarship to Kundiman for a Poetry Fellowship. She is the Associate Editor of TAYO Literary Magazine, and a co-founder of Sunday Jump, an open mic in Los Angeles’s Historic Filipinotown. She earned her M.F.A. in Writing from CalArts, and she has a B.A. in Ethnic Studies with Honors from UC San Diego. If you want, you can learn more at janicewrites.com
image description of 1st photo: CIPHER Skyline College Legacy 2 Students Presenting