Brothanogood, back in the day
By the 2002-2003 school year, I had returned to high school teaching after an intense, rewarding, and embittering seven-year stint at middle school, and was having difficulty regaining my footing. Sixth and seventh graders are never short on energy and have little else other than school—cars, romance, parties, jobs, and serious athletic competition are, largely, in the future. Aside from being tired of a decade or more of instruction, not all of it imaginative, high schoolers are far more withdrawn and skeptical, and can withstand the most exuberant and creative attempts to motivate them. I was missing middle school kids sorely, and literally wandering the halls before school and between classes in a daze, looking for some kind of catalyst; I was putting out plenty of pedagogical energy, but I was getting barely more than a faint pulse of intellectual response in return. For the first time since my second year as a teacher, I was questioning how long I could stay in the profession.
Being a habitual early riser, I typically arrived at school about an hour and a half before classes began. Relaxing in my classroom, turning on some great music, and doing some informal meditation upon my daily goals were—and are, though I only work part-time—essential parts of my day. I could never have enjoyed the work as much if I’d shown up a minute before the bell and hit the ground running. But I was also restless, aimlessly taking laps around the hallways a few times a morning for no good reason. By the time a few weeks had passed, I’d noticed a somewhat unusual chap hanging around outside the business teacher’s classroom next door to mine. No self-respecting student showed up to school that early; no other student in the school (which normally pushed a population of 2,000) had a fully-blown ‘fro; no student I’d observed seemed so excited to see his first teacher and get started working. I made the mistake of inferring he was a high-gainer, and introduced myself one morning for gits and shiggles.
“Hey, man, what’s up,” I asked, affecting a cool-dude casualness.
His near-uni-brow arched almost to the base of his puff. “Excuse me?”
“Ah, never mind, man. I see you playing the wall every morning and thought I’d say hi since we will apparently be seeing each other every morning. No biggie.”
He stared at me as if I were an alien being. “Uh, I’m Joseph Fessehaye. Sorry, man.” He cautiously stuck out his hand, and I shook it.
After a brief chat, I learned he was a 10th grader (he seemed more together than that, though) and that, though he wasn’t a business nut, he rather enjoyed the teacher, Mrs. Thompson, and liked to visit with her as she was preparing for the day. I complimented him on his hair, and carried on with my morning preparations.
Over the course of the year, we talked almost every morning for a few minutes: about sports, television, school, rap and r&b, and race. The latter subject was an obsession for both of us, and, before long, we were kidding each other about the stereotypical traits our social groups had assigned each other: he quizzed me over arcane facts in the career of Billy Joel (I flunked), and I asked him why he didn’t have a Black Power pick in his back pocket (his coif was as meticulously sprayed solid as a Ken Doll’s). We agreed heartily on two things: the respective mastery of Michael Jackson and Richard Pryor. In fact, Joe, doomed to failure but destined to take his future classrooms down with him, yearned to ascend to the mantle of the latter. As for the former, I was impressed he never (and has never, to this day) tried to dress like, sing like, and move like The King of Pop. I don’t think I ever walked away from him that year without chuckling, and I encouraged him to take my American literature class the following year.
Why, oh why?
Sure enough, as the bell rang to begin my initial first-hour American lit class of 2003-2004, Joe had staked out a spot in the back left corner of the classroom, and would proceed to behave as if he were on The Hollywood Squares. When I saw him on my roster, I had hoped he’d help me anytime our discussion turned to being black in America (an unfair expectation, I know); instead, his goal was to launch at least one successful laff-line a class period, his Pryor influence exercising itself. Though his funniness percentage was a shade above the Mendoza Line—Joe was a 175-pounder—his habit did give the class a flavor my others lacked, and he maintained a “B” all year long. And I never had to move him.
What does all this have to do with my struggles? Well, I’d forged an enjoyable connection with a very unique kid, which had come so easy at middle school but at which I’d become rusty with older students. Joe was adept at making friends with everyone, so that led me to further student connections that would prove momentous. In addition, in class, he played that catalytic role I’d been seeking—not exactly to my specifications, but it was a start. Trapped together in a 7:45 a.m. to 8:35 a.m. class, our repartee at least kept things lively, which is a must when, say, a class is wading through the Puritan era or non-Twain realism. But most important to the return of my mojo and a major shift in his personal growth was what transpired after he popped into my classroom one day after school and launched this question:
“Do you think I should run for student body president?”
“You have the charisma, you have the connections, your Afro gives you visibility, we need a black president, but. Your other teachers are always asking me, ‘Are you having any difficulty with Fessehaye?’ And, uh—do you have any ideas?”
“Well, you need a platform, and you need to be able to promise achievements you could conceivably pull off. As far as your behavior, you know, teachers don’t vote for student body president, but you would have to work with your sponsor and interact with the faculty.”
“It’s my understanding that’s just talk and no president really does anything.”
“So why would you want to do nothing?”
He looked at me like I was insane for asking that, then paused to consider.
“We could bring the school radio station back.”
“Not exactly a pressing political issue at Hickman, but, OK. Still, you really need to go think about this.”
“So are you telling me ‘Yes, run!’?”
“I am telling you ‘Yes, run!’” but I am not going to share any responsibility for disaster should it ensue. On the other hand, I want some credit if you win and do stuff. And I do think you could win. You gotta get your people out, and make a few splashes.”
On that we shook hands. After he left, I strolled down to the student council advisor’s room. Jami Thornsberry had really taken Hickman High School’s student government and energized it. Fundraising, entertaining assemblies, service—she’d taken it to such a high level that the organization was taken seriously by many students and most faculty. And, in the face of this, I pulled up a chair in front of Jami’s desk and admitted, “I just encouraged Joe Fessehaye to run for president.”
“Goddammit, Phil! Why would you do that? He can’t possibly win, but just the thought of the havoc that would result is making my stomach do flip-flops. I thought we were friends. You know he’s an ass.”
“He does have his moments, but that’s a little harsh. I just think he has untapped potential. He can lead, and given the chance, he might surprise us. And we’re a school that’s 25% black that hasn’t had a black president, to my knowledge.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter, because he can’t win. He’ll be lucky to come in third.”
He won. Shivers went up the administrative and extracurricular backbones of the school.
Joe walked in the morning after the results were announced and very humbly thanked me for giving him a push. I congratulated him, reminded him of our deal, and wished him luck. I’d gotten very informally plugged in, and helped something into being for a student. Jami swung by my room later in the day, stuck her head in, and looked daggers at me, but eventually forgave me. She was a pro.
I’d hoped to be Joe’s advisor-in-the-shadows during his 2004-2005 term, but I seldom saw him during the first half of his senior year. From the grapevine and the school newspaper, I’d gleaned that he wasn’t going the Nero route, and Jami hadn’t been by to complain; on the other hand, I wasn’t sure he was working on any legacies. One day, in late fall, I was grading after hours in my classroom when Joe blew in, clearly rattled, carrying some paperwork.
“Oh, so you need me, do you? What’s up?”
“I have to make a grant proposal to the PTSA tomorrow night. How do you write a grant?”
“Wait, what? Tomorrow night? A grant for what?”
“A new school radio station.” Ah—a legacy.
“Oh, no problem, we should be able to knock that out in, oh, about five days! What the hell were you thinking, waiting this late?”
“I’m a senior. You’re the only one who can help me.”
“Well, definitely not really, but let’s not waste time.”
For two hours, we scoured web pages for the materials we thought we’d need, neither of us knowing a thing about radio station equipment. Our theory was, if Joe’s grant could just persuade a fair amount of money out of the PTSA coffers, we could make adjustments later if the grant was actually funded. We came up with a $2,800 plan for an antenna, a transmitter, boom mics, a mixing board, cable, speakers, and some furniture, and printed off some merchandise web pages, and I sent Joe home to fill out the paperwork. I still can’t believe we were home by 7.
He drove me nuts the next day about what he should wear to the PTSA meeting and how he should speak to them—I think he was picturing blue-haired old white ladies, when in fact our group was a diverse, excited, generous and relatively free-thinking group—and I dismissed him with a simple, “Just be yourself. But no jokes.”
He convinced them to fund the grant. When he told me the next morning, I felt like busting the cap on some Moet, then remembered where we were and how old he was. I was still a little aggravated with him, but my payback was that it took so long to get the materials together and create the station (in a basement room that had previously served as the men’s lounge, the smoking lounge, in-school suspension, and one fondly-remembered janitor’s secret nap space) that, by the time we made our first broadcast in January of 2006, Joe was a freshman at the University of Missouri. We never did order the gold plate he asked to be inscribed with “Joe Fessehaye Memorial Radio Station”—I had to remind him, “Joe, you’re not dead!”—and nail it above the door. But it was, and still is, the location of student talk-show broadcasts, interviews, music programming, and rich conversation, as well as a brief escape from all that rat-race noise up in the halls. Joe has much to be proud of, but he did more than he knew: he helped me get back in stride professionally, and make it to my first finish line. Tonight, I am due as a guest on the college radio show he has hosted for years—now, as a Mizzou employee—and I am planning to read an excerpt from this encomium.
Joe and I, relatively recently, on the air at KCOU