There she was again for at least the 100th time (literally) spaced out and tapping her pen rhythmically. To the untrained eye, she’s just a bored kid in class. But I know Lama; she’s at it again.
I approached her seat. Back row, left corner. Her eyes flitted as her hand dropped to her pocket. She shuffled in her seat, and then came that characteristic sly grin. It never fails.
The last 99 times, I’d simply told her to remove the headphones from under her scarf and to turn off the music on her phone. But this time, for reasons I have yet to understand (Ego? Rage? Genuine curiosity?), I actually needed to know.
“What are you listening to?” I asked.
“Nothing,” she said.
“No, seriously,” I insisted. “What song are you listening to?”
She giggled, hesitated, and then took out her phone and held it up. It said “Zayn: Pillowtalk”.
“What is that?” I asked.
At first it was as though she didn’t believe me. She rolled her eyes and turned away. But when our eyes met again and she saw the genuine puzzlement in my face, the poor girl practically dropped dead. Eyes agape, jaw dropped, she uttered “You don’t know ZAYN MALIK?”
I knew Zayn Malik. He was in the boy band One Direction. Five boys who sang girl songs, right?
“Yeah,” I said. “But I never heard this song before.”
“Oh my GODDDDD…” Lama sneered. “What about Post Malone?”
“Nope,” I said.
She snapped awry in her seat and clenched the back of her chair. “You never heard of POST MALONE?! What about Sia?”
“Nope.” She was starting to scare me.
“Bruno Mars! Alessia Cara!! Fifth Harmony!! BRYSON TILLER!!!”
“You don’t know BRYSON TILLER?”
I turned around. The question had not come from Lama (who could no longer speak, as she had been stricken dumb with disbelief) but from Salam, the girl next to her. Salam and her friend Nora gaped at me. “You don’t know who BRYSON TILLER is??”
They now stared at me no longer in shock or horror or anger or even mockery, but with sincere disgust.
Last year I met eighth-graders who couldn’t locate Michigan on a U.S. map—entire classes of students who had never heard of Charlie Chaplin or “I Love Lucy”, who couldn’t name the first U.S. President, who couldn’t distinguish a noun from a verb, who hadn’t watched The Lion King or Bugs Bunny, who couldn’t explain the significance of the Fourth of July. And yet here I stood between these three little girls ashamed to my core because clearly in their world, I was as ignorant as they were in mine. To them I was literally stupid.
“You’re so OLDDD…”
“What PLANET are you on?!”
I wasn’t having it.
“Fine!” I cried out. “Fine! Make me a list!”
“For real?” Lama said.
“Yeah, make me a list and I’ll listen to it. But only add good music, please. No crap.”
Thirty minutes later she was at my door with a list. It was four pages long, single-spaced.
I went home and got started:
Post Malone – White Iverson
Zayn – Pillowtalk (Remix)
The Weekend – Might not
I listened. It turned out that over the last half-decade, Post Malone—a hairy white dude from Texas—had been reforming hip-hop, redefining figurative-language usage, and experimenting with musical rhythms and scales. His videos hit over 300 million views each.
Twenty-One Pilots was exploring human existential angst.
Alessia Cara and Ed Sheeran were perfecting the human song.
And The Weeknd… THE WEEKND!
With every YouTube hit, these modern artists were revolutionizing music, culture, fashion, language, and society. They inspired new values, questioned firmly-held traditions, and created groundbreaking art!
And I had no idea.
Listen to your kids. Listen because you’re interested. Because they know something that you don’t. Because they have something to offer. And I guarantee that they’ll surprise you.
I recalled with shame my words from that morning: “But only add good music, please. No crap.”
As I sat there scolding students for being “culturally illiterate”, I happened to be the most “culturally illiterate” of them all. While the world had moved on from The Fresh Prince and DMX and the Macarena, I sat around perked like a fish asking, “what is water?” Yet I had the audacity to judge these kids for being “out-of-touch”?
From then on, Lama and her peers assigned me daily videos, music, and vocabulary to study and develop my cultural literacy. I probably received a better education than they did. And I needed it.
My Honored Readers, take the advice of one Kendrick Lamar: “Sit down. Be humble.” Listen to your kids. Listen because you’re interested. Because they know something that you don’t. Because they have something to offer. And I guarantee that they’ll surprise you.
Lama sat me down and made me humble. Then The Weeknd showed me that only losers go to school.
To Be Continued
NEXT: A Cocky Teenage Girl and The Weeknd Changed My Life (Part Two: Abel)