WITS Voices: The Coolness Factor
January 19, 2018
By Ramon Isao, WITS Writer-in-Residence
For my inaugural WITS post, I hope you’ll forgive a mere anecdote. I’m new here.
On the night before my first WITS residency, I was surprised by a bout of panic. I got out of bed and tried my best to chuckle it off. There was nothing to fear. I’d planned my classes, made my copies, googled my route. A dozen years, I’ve been teaching. So why couldn’t I sleep?
And then it hit me, sometime after midnight: I forgot how to be cool. I’d lost it sometime in my twenties, and didn’t bother to keep it up. I never thought I’d need it again but these kids, they were 9, 10, 11, right around that age where kids learn cynicism, and probably a thirst for blood.
Sure, I can manufacture lesson plans, tweak them accordingly, and carry them out, but didn’t you have to be cool to win kids over? Me, I carry books around, I sport hair that’s too big, I got a smile’s worth of busted-up teeth, and when I teach I get excited and pounce around. These kids were my worst nightmare, and I was theirs.
We all have that one friend we’re allowed to call when panic strikes. I called mine.
“What do kids think is cool?”
“I mean, it’s sort of three in the morning, so…”
“Come on.” I’m a jerk when I’m anxious.
“Minecraft, then. Don’t call anymore.”
“But, listen, listen: what, like… is a fifth grader?”
“A fifth grader is me hanging up now. Everything in the world is me hanging up on you forever.”
So help me, I googled Minecraft. It’s not a bad game. But it wouldn’t make me cool in time for class.
You’re no doubt ahead of me on this: there was no need for worry. They were kids! Remember kids? I have more difficulty motivating my adult students who actually paid for the privilege of my un-coolness. The kids required little prompting to invent wild characters and circuitous plots, and I got to play ringmaster. I got to live in their headspace, jamming ideas and sparking their creativity, and thereby my own. It reminded me how often I overthink things. Maybe you do too. We don’t have to, you know. We don’t have to be authorities. We just have to stay wide-eyed. Of course I forgot that. It’s the opposite of cool.
On the last day of the residency, a pall. I get shifty around goodbyes in the best of circumstances, and here I had to do a hundred of them. When I moped into the final class, there was a gaggle of them clustered purposefully around each other, brandishing a post-it note I now keep on my wall. They saw me, elbowed each other to attention, and broke into song:
“His book’s too small, his hair’s too long,
and this is how he writes a song:
His smile’s as big as a mountain, and so we let him pounce in.”
What do you want from me?! Maybe I cried a little, and if you wouldn’t, you’re not to be trusted. Who rhymes “mountain” with “pounce in?!” It’s objectively the coolest thing I’d ever heard, and I told them so.
This I won’t forget: their eyes got wide with disbelief. “Whoa,” they seemed to be saying. “He thinks we’re cool…”
Ramon Isao is a recipient of the Tim McGinnis Award for Fiction, as well as fellowships from Artist Trust and Jack Straw Cultural Center. His writing has appeared in The Iowa Review, Ninth Letter, Hobart, The American Reader, and elsewhere. He is also a teacher at Hugo House.