identity: mullet man and the beautiful broken homes
a higher view of humanity begins with a humble view of humanity
A cyclical loop of a low-tuned bass works the crowd into a frenzy as a sincere-looking Mullet Man begins his pep talk. Since I don't get Comedy Central, I flip to the religious channel sometimes, with the hope that the pink-haired lady will start crying about satellites. It's touching, really.
Tonight, though, it just makes me sad. The crowd looks poor. I don't mean "spiritually poor," but poor, poor. The kind who live in housing projects with fancy names like “court” and “manner” because we would never admit what we know – that they should use the term “squalor.”
Most are minorities, wearing their threadbare Sunday best, hoping for a miracle. Mullet Man wears a three-piece suit. It's not threadbare. Then again, it doesn't need to look poor when Mullet Man promises that if we are faithful and try our best, God will give you "the life you always wanted." He seems to think we have to rub God the right way, make him happy; a bit finicky and perhaps a little cantankerous, but who can blame a guy whose been around for so long?
His lips drip with white imperialism. I can't help but see the racial tension in a predominately black crowd taking direction from a rich white guy.
“If you have a good attitude. If you put your smile on. If you have an attitude of faith, your life will work. You may say, 'I'm sad. My husbands in the hospital.' If you say, 'God, I'm gonna be good,' God will bring a harvest.” I'm not sure his urban crowd will connect with the agrarian metaphor, but the bass in the background, my God, the bass in the background is powerful. It's no George Clinton, but it works.
So, I switch the channel to an old episode of This Old House. “This house is overlooked,” Norm explains, “but it's beautiful. The last owners covered the floor with thick shag carpet and nearly ruined it, but look at this. The original concrete is gorgeous.” Norm begins to speak eloquently, poetically about the beauty underneath. He talks, not simply as a craftsman, but as an artist. Sure, they'll bust out power tools and flex muscles and wear flannel, but they turn poetic when they catch a glimpse of what's underneath.
The workers start the renovation from the inside out and transform it. It's not that the house looks radically different, but that it's restored. It's more itself than ever before. The process is time-consuming and from the outside, it begins to look like a mess.
I think Mullet Man would ripped out the shag carpet and installed some new Pergo floors. The concrete is stained and while artists might enjoy the vintage look, it's time to take ownership of the home and turn it into something new. Time to slap on some crown molding, hang up some Thomas Kincaid and decorate with lighthouses (because nothing says “the love of Christ” like a large industrial building beckoning a gas-guzzling ship selling cheap plastic crap from China)
“I don't eat meat,” a boys explains self-righteously.
“Why do you feel that way?” I ask him. “What makes you think that cows are capable of love?”
“I can't kill anything capable of love. I was standing by the canal and I saw a duck and there was a baby duck and the mom duck started to push them back in line and I just couldn't picture myself eating meat.” For what it's worth, I love a good juicy steak, but it's not the moment to push my beliefs on him.
“Was that love or instinct?” I ask.
“Love means looking out for another person's interest, right? We talked about this that day when I wasn't allowed on the field trip and we did a philosophy class. So, the mom duck, she don't have no reason to protect the ducks except for looking out for their interest.”
“Yeah, but does she do it without thinking?”
“What if that's what love means. What if it means looking out for another person and caring for them and thinking nothing of it?”
A girl interrupts us and says, “My sister has Down Syndrome. I'm not even sure she can always provide for anyone or look out for what they need. I know she has a hard time thinking about lots of basic stuff. But I'm not sure I know anyone who can love better than she does.”
She says that she doesn't believe that someone can love without being humble and that her sister is, above all else, humble. She says that having a humble view of humanity gives a person a higher view of humanity. “I don't think Hitler failed to see the value in a person's life. I think he believed in perfection.
He believed we could engineer perfection. I don't think Stalin had a very humble view of people either. But Mother Theresa knew how broken a person can be.”
Once a month, we have a philosophical discussion as a group that meets in our home. People occasionally bring friends, but on some level, we know one another. The topic is the relationship between mercy and justice and to what extent a person or a society pursues both. Surprisingly, the group steered toward the conversation about what both concepts look like on a social, collective level. My friend Rich pointed out that immigration can be political, but it is primarily an issue of social justice or social mercy. The legal solutions might vary, but treating immigrants justly is not simply a political option.
A man I hardly know began to challenge this and it quickly turned into a shouting match between him and me, with him claiming immigrants are invaders and me claiming that they are human and therefore worthy of dignity and respect. When he said that most immigrants are here just to break the law, I lost all control.
It was ugly.
I'm tempted to justify it with a claim about how much I love my students and how it felt like an attack on them, but there is no justification. Something in me snapped and a theoretical dialog transformed into rage. I ended the conversation by storming into the empty kitchen and throwing my plate onto the ground.
* * *
It's three hours later and I'm sweeping up shattered pieces of glass. I've been sobbing uncontrollably for minutes and then regaining my own composure in an ongoing cycle. What's wrong with me? What happened right there? I'm scared, deeply afraid of the rage that came from inside of me. It surprised everyone including myself. I'm not a particularly angry man, nor am I a guy who tries to manage my temper with drugs or breathing techniques or becoming a stoic. I've tried the Mullet Man approach. It just doesn't work.
In moments like this, I want to hide. I want to run away. I begin to question whether I should be a husband or be a dad or be a teacher if something like this can happen. Joel comes in and gives me a hug. He asks what happened and I tell him that I got really angry and threw a plate and a piece of it caused the entire glass door to shatter.
"It's alright daddy. Sometimes when I get mad I throw something. Are you sorry?" I tell him that I am and he hugs me again and says, "Everyone gets angry."
There is restoration, though, which happens in relationships. Christy continues to love me. We talk for a few hours and it's uncomfortable and it's honest and the only reason it can be that way is that I feel safe with her. I can be vulnerable and know that it will draw her closer rather than farther away. I don't have to pretend to her that my life fits within a Sports Center highlight reel.
So, as I clean out the pieces of glass, it becomes a metaphor of myself. I want to be transparent. I want to be honest and let people know that I screw things up in big ways sometimes. I sin in ways that really hurt people. I see the shattered fragments and on some level, that's me. Broken. Able to wound others.
I also see a second layer of glass behind it. Solid, whole, in-tact. I need to hold onto that image, too. I am made in the image of God. I'm a new creation. It's not simply theology. It's a conviction I hold about life. Buried underneath is something amazing.
So, the next morning, it has me thinking about teaching. I'm still scared of how I am capable of acting. I'm still feeling exposed and broken, but the words of a four year old and the embrace of my beautiful wife provide a certain healing that I'm needing.
But it has me thinking that if there is any redemption in an awful moment of rage it's that it keeps me from ever believing that I am a better person than my students. It forces me to come to terms with the fact that we're all broken and that there is no such thing as a list of good kids and bad kids. We all love with a limp. I think better of my students when I think lower of humanity.
* * *Javi warns me that there is a certain type of teacher who can buy into the Mullet Man theology. “They are the types who won't admit that they are broken like the rest of us. Typically, they were great students and they are really nice people and yet they have a hard time understanding why students hate school.”
“I know what you mean,” I add, “They were the ones who chose teaching because they loved school so much that they couldn't imagine life without it. They love the institution and they believe that all the rules and procedures will fix behaviors and that all the fixed behaviors will fix people.”
“When you throw a plate on the ground, you are forced to see yourself as broken and you are forced to see the good inside and it makes it impossible for you to see your students the same.”
* * *
Mohawk Boy walks in as discreetly as possible. It's pretty tough to stay invisible with a Mohawk and piercings. He works quietly until group work, when I hear him yell, “Fuck off! That's none of your fucking business!”
I pull him aside and ask him to explain what happened. He stares away silently.
“Look, you have a free pass from trouble your first day. You yelled, but you'll get no referrals and no detention. But I need to know the whole story.”
“He asked about my ankle bracelet. I don't know. I've been explaining it to everyone. It's not like they're perfect either, right? I just lost it. Something in me snapped and it's almost like I was watching myself from a distance.” So he stays in my class and he works hard.
A month later, Mohawk Boy says, “I think you made a mistake,” as he hands back his permission slip.
“Did I misspell your name or something?” I ask.
“No, I'm not allowed on field trips. I've never been allowed to go.” It's true. He's been an “at-risk” kid since the primary grades and “at-risk” children are too risky for art museums and movie theaters and roller skating rinks. It's best to treat students as liability to be managed.
A teacher warns me that Mohawk Boy is not mature enough to handle the field trip. “Not mature” is just a nicer way of saying, “This kid's a screw-up that you can't trust in the real world.” But if you say it with just the right tone of voice and a smile on your face, even a child will begin to believe he is not entitled to the same learning experiences as the rest of a class.”
“You wouldn't tell him he can't have pencils, would you?” I ask the teacher.
“What can he do with a pencil?”
“He could break it or he could stab a kid. I mean, pencils are pretty dangerous tools,” I explain cynically.
When I tell Brad the story, he tells me that some people expect perfection and are always disappointed with those who fail to reach it. “That's the thing I want this teacher to see. This kid is broken like the rest of us and he needs to be trusted.”
“Actually, John, I was talking about you. Every teacher is on a journey. You have to believe that people can change. So, maybe Mohawk Boy is able to handle the field trip and maybe that will lead the teachers to change. But you have to believe that people can change.” Brad warns me that cynical answers can hurt just as much as being banned from field trips and again, I'm seeing This Old House and the broken shag carpeting once again.
* * *So, we're at Arizona State University and I have the group of trouble-makers. I call them my Legion of Piss-Poor Scholars and I prep them in advance for questions about college. Mohawk Boy asks me if kids with a permanent record are banned from college. I tell him about Johnny and his journey and Mohawk Boy asks me, “Do you think this is for me?”
“Yeah, I can see you in college,” I answer.
“You have to say that since you're a teacher,” he responds.
Maybe I do. Who knows? But maybe it's a teacher's job to see something valuable underneath the shag carpet; something deeper than a formula or a project or a “buck up and get it together” pep talk. When I can see him as broken, I can see his potential.