"In heaven, will God ask for papers?"

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A conversation with a rap-obsessed boy.

At the after-school program I work with, we always begin our day with an hour of homework time as soon as we pick up the kids from school. On Thursday, we had a significantly smaller number of kids at homework time. Although we usually turn up 12-20 kids, Thursday we had a whopping six. The three of us on staff took a surprised yet relieved sigh as we walked into the room to find such fewer students. We looked forward to a relaxing hour filled with calmness rather than the chaos of trying to get all the kids to work on homework, to make sure none of them wander out of the room, and to give as many of them the tutoring they need.

But Thursday, since our ratio was 2:1 students to staff, I had the chance to sit down with one of our middle school boys and just chat with him as others in the room joined in their own conversations or projects and homework. This boy is one of the many that I usually drive home after daily programming. He is a great kid, who is rarely without a smile on his face. He's very helpful, talkative, and fun to be around. But he is also the one who most enjoys "singing" raps in the van-ride home...despite the cuss words and inappropriateness in the raps, which bother me quite a bit, especially since there are often younger kids in the van. I tell him to stop, threaten to not let him in the van anymore; but like any typical middle school boy, he finds it funny that I am so offended by his raps and continues on rapping. He is also one of our students who never brings homework to homework time. When we tell him to find something to work on, he pulls out folded up pieces of lined paper, filled with penciled words of raps he has written. "Miss, will you read this?" he asks me as he hands his most recent work. I get to the second line, where the first f-bomb is dropped, and I hand the paper back to him. "Dude, you know I don't wanna read this!"

But Thursday I sat down with him and listened to him for more than twenty minutes tell me all about his idols: Lil' Wayne, Eminem, 2Pac...among other rappers. Folks that I know nothing about--I don't listen to rap at all, especially rap full of swearing or violent and sexual images, and I just have never been interested. (I just looked up 2Pac on wikipedia because I didn't know how to spell his name.) But the extent of this boy's knowledge about these celebrities was fascinating! He knew people they had married or seen, how they had died, when they went to rehab, how their lives were reflected in their music...it was astonishing. So I sat and listened as I learned about these rappers who before, all I knew was their name and that they were rap artists. These celebrities are who he looks up to, who he admires, who he strives to be like. But these celebrities' lives are full of drug-use, suicide attempts and attempted homicide, sexual abuse...is this who we want our middle schoolers to be looking up to?

But that's not the end of the story. After being given summaries of the rappers' lives, he once again pulled out his papers (this time, ALL his papers--more than 20 raps!) and began telling me about how he writes them and what kinds of raps he writes. But this time instead of the daily question of, "Miss, will you read this?" I asked him, "Can I read one?"

This time my eyes went past the cuss words and my heart penetrated the emotional and deep content in his raps. Feelings of loneliness, anger, frustration, but mostly--confusion, filled the pages. Every rap was one long run-on sentence with no spaces, no room for pause. For the first time, I realized that his raps were his outlet for his emotions.

During this time, this middle school boy also told me why he never does his homework at our program. "I do my homework at home. When you drop me off, my mom still isn't home, so I have the peace and quiet to do my homework. Every day I go home, I do homework, I eat, I go to bed...every day." Unlike other kids, there is no time in his schedule to hang out with friends or family. I finally learned that his raps and fascination with rap are way more than just an off-to-the-side hobby...they give him life.

For this boy, rap is his outlet. It is his friend. It is his passion. Now, do I continue getting frustrated with the cussing and the violent images...or do I respect his passion and seek to understand it more?

God bless this boy.

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