"You ain't shit. You ain't about nothin'."

This past September I found myself suddenly teaching filmmaking to South Bronx high school freshmen. I mean it when I say "suddenly." It ocurred with great suddeness. Ask me how it happened and I'm likely to give you a blank stare. "How what happened?" I'll ask, then blink twice, look around me and exclaim, "

There's water at the bottom of the ocean


Actually, how it happened was that I returned to the city from months of travels abroad, spoke to my friend Alison and happened to mention that I wanted to continue, in the city, the teaching I had experienced elsewhere in the summer months. Bing. Bang. Alison and her roomate Briana and their friend Sam are collectively hanging with their friend Rebecca, who administers at

Wingspan Arts

and is desperately seeking a replacement. Boom. A troika of testimony on my behalf lands me an interview which lands me the job.

Of course, I owe three women my first-born child now, but somehow I think they'll barter on trade instead.

Cut to now (




), when I am cutting together all the raw footage my students have filmed of themsleves over the semester, head screwed on tighter, yet still slightly awhirl with the out-of-context-ness of it all. As I watch moments from class on repeat, I vividly remember the caution with which I approached this world, a lot of which caution remains for me. I clearly don't belong there. I'm not wanted. I'm not part of the community. The students and I have earned quite a bit of each others' trust over time, but we're still aware of the different worlds we come from, the worlds we'll return to when it's all over. The moment from the semester when my caution was most apparent came during an indoor basketball game.

The kids had set up the scenario that they were two groups who had a dispute and decided to settle it by playing sports (an immensely clever ploy to get to play sports every Friday). We had just moved to a basketball court indoors, pursuant to their request to move on from football. It was a heated game, with a lot of smack-talk. At first glance, I thought they were actually playing their roles for once. It gradually became clear, however, that two of the students were getting results from one another. As such things go, when it escalated the verbal arguments became much simpler and repetitive, like a chant:

"You ain't shit. You ain't about nothin'."
"So do somethin'. So do somethin', niggah. So do somethin'."
"You ain't about nothin'."
"So do somethin', niggah!"

They were ready to go, but another teacher and I pulled them apart and eventually took them to separate rooms to cool off. Once faced with the prospect of not playing any more, they managed to quiet down and rejoin the game, keeping a wary eye on one another while projecting the image that they were doing no such thing. That game ended peacefully, and in the following weeks they seemed fine with one another. I even spoke to them together last class, to survey their thoughts on whether I should include footage of their argument or not. At first they were lackadaisically mute (stock response of the teenage set), then one said he didn't care, then the other said:

"Unless it make us look good."
"Yeah! Yeah, if it good for the movie."

And as I try to splice together this spat on my roommate's iBook (O, Dell, your notebooks are cheap, but yea, they are also...well, cheap.) all the same feelings of fear grip me. I have never been able to respond to real violence appropriately. I become sort of petrified. This never happens when it's a matter of violence threatened on me or my situation, rather only when others are coming to it. I don't understand it. It's like being bathed in ice water all of the sudden and frozen to the spot.

The really startling thing about rewatching the tape, however, was to notice what the two were actually saying. "You ain't about nothin'." It's devastating, isn't it? A terrible thought. And one which I believe we're all somewhat afraid of. It's horrifying to imagine that I might not be about anything, that I'm just a collection of random occurrences. I don't know; maybe some people are completely at ease with that idea. I'm not.

I've been lucky to visit these kids in part of their world, and I wish I could show them more of mine. I've got two classes left, the last being when we show their film to the rest of the school. I hope it's been about something to them. I know each of them is about something important to me.