Erykah Badu’s “Call Tyrone” Goes On a Fieldtrip to Romeo and Juliet

In all fairness, she’d have to  believe her own  “it’s-all-about-the -children” hot air to climb into this actual hot-air inferno:  an un air-conditioned,  Birmingham,  Alabama, cheese wagon , embarking on a four-hour ride with a bunch of raging inner-city ninth graders headed to an Alabama Shakespeare Festival performance of Romeo and Juliet.   Hence, I was surprised and grateful when a large, over-dressed black woman from the BOE agreed to serve as my emergency replacement chaperone, when the other adult who was scheduled to ride shotgun with me saw the light of Jesus and called in sick.  Sure, I’d rather not have had this degree of exposure to the authorities on this my first fieldtrip ever.  As the new teacher who seemed hell bent on making every mistake in the book, I had the vague suspicion that not all that could go wrong had yet gone wrong:  you know, like the non-stop singing of Eryakh Badu’s “Call Tyrone” as we bumped and jostled our way there… and back.

For those of you who failed to do your homework — memorizing the lyrics of the YouTube version of this fine song that I posted recently– I’ll sample the first stanza here:  “I’m getting’ tired of yo shit/ You don’t never buy me nothin’/ And every time you come around/ Ya gots ta bring Jim, John, Paul, and Tyrone/  Well I think ya better call Tyrone/  But you can’t  use my phone.”   Apparently, after all that utterly preposterous, family-feud defying, ideal love in Romeo and Juliet, the kids were eager to explore real love: the raw, economics of love symbolized in Tyrone’s tragically spurned homeboy… and soon-to-be roommate. The kids were making up for lost time, given the all-too-obvious dramatic possibilities Shakespeare had inexplicably left unexplored…like Juliet  getting all up in Romeo’s grill when he participated in a little gang banging with his homies or when that shit, Tybalt, took it all a little too far.

Clearly the sexual politics of “Call Tyrone” are of greater interest than Shakespeare’s oddly chaste lovers offing themselves over unrequited love.  Inviting one’s lover to permanently hang wit’ his homeboy Tyrone conveys the powerful and timeless missive: Guess who’s not going to be getting any?  You like hanging with Tyrone so much?  Well, I got an idea.  Why don’t you give him a call and go hang with him… on a permanent basis?  “But you can’t use my phone,“ is the coup de grace. In fact, take yo’ lazy, no-good ass down to the liquor store and see if your “friends” down there will let you mooch off of them long enough to “CA-ALL  TY-RO-ONE.”   Little hands rose high in the air above the bus seats in a spontaneous slow wave to the now multi-syllabic words of Badu’s timeless chorus.

Keisha, the queen bee in the middle of the bus, was happily orchestrating this amusing distraction from being stuck like napalm to molten plastic bus seats, listening carefully for any deviations from the lyrics and making everyone start completely over if they got something wrong.   I glanced over at the now sweating woman from the board who had not had enough advanced warning to dress appropriately for the occasion.   It was getting hard to tell if she looked hot ‘n bothered because she was stuffed into a polyester suit and hosiery or because our precious hope for the future were singing about being tired of a lover’s shit.   I had a grim foreboding it was the later.

As she slowly rose, struggling to unstick her flesh from the bus seat, I could see my barely begun career passing before my eyes.  Her exasperation had already reached feverish pitch as she yelled, “Young ladies! Tyrone not the kinda man you EVUH want to call!”  She then launched into the sermon on the bus, a beautifully crafted, impromptu lecture in the “I Have A Dream” oratory tradition, lambasting her subdued audience on the pitfalls of associating with the Tyrone’s of this world. Her critical reading of the text was, of course, way off:  the point of the song is that long-term association with Tyrone is a condemnation.  Moreover, it is unlikely that Tyrone is going to service your sexual needs while paying your way.  At’s right! Tyrone is the kinda man you gon’ find yo’ se’f callin’ in a kind of punishment-fits-the-crime sentencing from a girlfriend who’s had ‘bout ‘nuf of the mother fucker hangin’ ‘round, cutting into her desire for greater intimacy.  Fortunately, I had enough sense to not to interject this into her piece of bus-chaperone performance art.

Within minutes of her resuming her seat, clearly proud of the way she had simultaneously taken the situation in hand while modeling disciplinary techniques to an obviously clueless first-year teacher, the little hands again rose in a feeble wave:  “ I think ya better Ca-all Ty-ro-o-ne.” Her self-congratulatory good thang had come to a premature end!

“Welcome to my world,” I thought.  It would take another ten years of teaching before I could do a convincing imitation of “the adult in the room” …and another ten before I could do it without laughing.  I remained frozen to my hot bus seat.  That night, I went out and bought the CD.

The brutal commodization of love—the tit for tat I’d already detected in the overt gender tensions in my impoverished classroom–is fuel for another ten blogs.  Wealth, power and class disguise much of this ugliness for upper-class white women—at least in the era before the Real Housewives of Orange County franchise lifted the veil on the upper-middle class prostitution rings we call suburbia.  As her “Tyrone” prompted slews of violent response songs from black, male rappers, Badu felt compelled to soften the blow, often offering apologies to the “brothers” before singing it on tour.

Don’t be fooled. Badu revels in controversy:  from a nude JFK assassination video, to an Allah tattoo, to dumping her baby’s daddy over the phone.   After public insults over her multiple babies out of wedlock, all with different fathers, Badu felt compelled to address her detractors in a direct web rant:

…the fathers of my children are my brothers and friends.

We have a great deal of respect for one another and always

will.  We love our children to no end.

What is marriage?

Who is the judge?

Would it look better to marry and divorce and marry

again?  Would that be morally correct?

Is it really “good” to stay in a relationship where both

parties are UNFULFILLED, LONGING FOR RELIEF, BRINGING

ANOTHER DOWN as a result of improper training, creating

BAD ENERGY AND EXPERIENCES FOR THE CHILD TO

REPEAT?

How many of you stay in unhealthy relationships for

fear of going to HELL?

How many out there … that have kids to get a payday?

How many people getting they ass kicked and are

forced to submit cause Mama got her ass kicked?  Then,

what is correct? [ …] Live how you want.  Follow which

ever pattern you like.  My children will […] not be slaves

to this society’s failing idea of morality.

If I lose you as a fan because I choose to continue to

have children then FUCK OFF…WHO NEEDS YOU…CALL

      TYRONE…PACK LIGHT…BITE ME…KISS MY PLACENTA.

Four years later I was invited to a baby shower for one of my senior AP English students.  I felt proud to have reached this new, elevated position in my relationships with students.  The menu for the shower was Keisha’s favorite, beanie weenie. What the hell… it was making me pretty happy, too.  Represented at the shower were five generations of females, including Keisha’s beautiful baby girl, lavished with love by all.  I was surprised to discover that the eldest matriarch was only in her seventies.  I decided to try to do the math on this improbable biological feat later, instead losing myself in reveries about the history of my growing fondness for Keisha over the last four years.  When had I first become aware of her powerful presence?

On the bus!  She had been the queen bee, leading her peers in song while defying the pompous woman from the board.  I could still see her waiving arms during the chorus:  “Ca-all Ty-ro-one…but ya can’t use my phone.”

Just say no…to vouchers.

Diane Ravitch's blog

The Democrats Abroad platform unequivocally supports the strengthening of public education and the education profession. It opposes privatization of public education. It opposes charter schools and vouchers. It supports the use of tests for diagnostic purposes and opposes the use of tests to evaluate teachers and schools. It opposes the outsourcing of any aspect of educational leadership. It supports the right of education employees to bargain collectively and opposes efforts to curtail that right.

It is refreshing to see that Democrats abroad are in touch with the historic ideals of the Democratic party.

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III. AMERICAN DOMESTIC ISSUES

We applaud our Administration’s accomplishments and encourage greater efforts to ensure equality of opportunity through public support

1. Education, Arts and Sciences

Education is a basic human right according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a public responsibility. We must pro-actively develop a population that is globally aware, globally sensitive…

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Jr. ROTC and Master P

CAP AND GOWN: YOU LOOK SO PRETTY IN YOUR CAP AND GOWN.

I’ve only seen an Army recruiter once in the halls of the uber-wealthy, suburban high school where I’ve taught the last ten years.  He looked lonely—all dressed up and…no one to recruit. Sorry dude, but everyone here has better options, other resources for moving out into the world and paying for higher education. No one need risk life or limb to attain his or her dreams.

This was far from the case with my former employer, an inner-city school where military recruiters racked up so many recruitment bonuses that I’m convinced they were slipping the accommodating principal a little something-something under his desk for the opportunity to troll.  He, in turn, provided recruiters full run of the place, including access to teachers’ grade books.  I was surprised that something I had assumed was as confidential as students’ grades were now the province of some douchebag recruiter with a buzz cut and pocket full of promises.  Grades teetering on or below 65 put him on Level Orange Alert, as failure might impede his timely delivery of this year’s crop of warm bodies to boot camp…not to mention the timely delivery of his bonus check. He’d kick into high gear, becoming an aggressive, no-limits soldier in the recruitment wars of lower-middle-class, African-American cannon fodder.

I was becoming a no-limits soldier my own bad self, clinching my teeth through whatever grunt-like, TMJ-inducing indignities needed enduring to get warzone seniors through their last year of high school.   If that involved sweet promises of weapons training and access to lethal toys, so be it.  My standards had slipped:  I pandered, I cajoled, I donned lampshades, and I kissed military recruiters’ asses.

As part of my new lampshade-on-head, rose-in-teeth war on student ADD, I’d even started reciting a little Master P in my best Jane Hathaway voice.   It always garnered a couple of seconds of bemused and bewildered student attention:

From every soldier to soldierette

From every killer to cadet

Playa hatas get wet

True [n’s] march; playas step

We no limit soldiers

I thought I told ya.

Even though the lyrics are really about recruiting an army of black youth in the war against white oppressors, I found myself drawn to that twisted little internal rhyme: “we soldiers [pronounced “soldiahs”] / We told [pronounced “toll”] ya.”  This off-kilter, slant rhyme played over and over in my head: as I marched past kids whipping one another with chains, on my way to class in the morning; as I glanced at kids in cuffs, being tucked into the back of one of the two permanently assigned police cars parked outside my window; and as I opened my grade book for douchebag military recruiters, who then held some kid’s feet over the fire.  In fact, I began to see myself as a kind of “no limit soldier,” educating by any means necessary—even if it involved going against everything I’d come to believe about an outsized, military-industrial complex that didn’t seem to  play by the same rules everyone else did. These little fuckers were going to finish high school; I didn’t give a shit how many got conscripted into the military on however many false promises.

The woman who’d recruited me to teaching, another old hippie teaching English down the hall, was still holding out for the dumb-fuck ‘60’s idealism that had gotten us into this teaching mess to begin with.  She’d flat out denied the military recruiters access to her books and caught hell for it from my douchebag principal. She had tenure and liked the sport of screwing with the little Napoleonic tyrant. It wasn’t that hard to do, but I couldn’t see the benefits.   When I’d interviewed for the job, I had hitched a ride with my shit-hot sister-in-law. He’d gone gah gah trying to impress her, never asking me a single interview question.  For her benefit, he trotted out the impressive array of paramilitary tactics with which he attempted to maintain control of his school: po- po shakedowns, weekly locker searches, and frequent parking lot visits from Team Drug Dog.  As we sped off in the BMW purchased with proceeds from her husband’s lucrative coke dealership, she laughed that we should have had the car’s interior detailed before the interview.  I laughed, too, albeit nervously.  I’d just had a new employee epiphany: my new principal had a dick for a brain…and his militaristic management style gave him wood.

Needless to say, he loved him some Jr. F’n ROTC.  I began to see him as the reincarnation of that pimply-faced kid with the “Bomb Hanoi” button on his lapel that Diane Arbus had captured in her creepy Viet Nam era RNC photo. Jr. ROTC had taught him everything he knew about life, and he prided himself on having the largest ROTC chapter in the state…hell, probably the world.  This dubious achievement had been strategized with military precision, first by requiring all students register for a certain number of electives but then stealth bombing virtually every elective other than ROTC into near extinction. “Guess you’ll need to head down to the gym to hang out with the ROTC officers ‘til we can get this sorted out.  Hey, would you like to handle the weapons?”  Consequently, our ROTC drill team filled an entire football field.  Nothing is quite as bone chilling as football field lights reflecting off of a sea of  silver George Patton helmets, as white-gloved teens flip white, wooden guns into the air, catching them in perfect, synchronized harmony—a harmony, by the way, discernible in no other aspect of campus life.

The year I blew out of there for greener (i.e., whiter) pastures, someone set the school on fire every day for an entire month.  My douchebag principal would come over the intercom, barking commands from the office war room: “Teachers, do not let anyone out of your room for any reason!”  His interruptions, increasingly frequent and shrill, sounded the clarion warning: Take cover!  My blunderbuss pretense of military-like control has failed! “Students, there are far too many of you going down to Wal-Mart in the morning and stealing.  We are receiving complaints from the management!”  Snicker.  “Teachers, do not hand out pointed scissors to students in your classes.”  WTF!  “Students, please stay out of the large mud hole at the construction site beside the school.”  Laughter.  The Maginot Line has been breached!  Ragged, disorderly retreat underway!

Thank God the dbag principal was eventually promoted to dbag superintendent.  Presumably the new six-figure income would make his little war-profiteering racket less…imperative.

If America’s schools function as microcosmic mirrors of American society, the reflections in this particular mirror were frighteningly accurate. Here was the vast, over-funded military deployed frequently and at great expense on missions of glorious patriotic purpose but dubious merit. The inevitable retreats are covered with face-saving proclamations; its leaders are lavishly rewarded and hopelessly empowered the ease with which candy is taken from babies. Exploitative Mission Accomplished.

A couple of years later, I was momentarily alarmed when a big-body, hoopty ride rolled up next to me in the Winn-Dixie parking lot. Young black men in uniform were hanging out the windows, hollerin’ my name.  I looked around into the laughing faces of five former students, clearly elated at my teetering grocery-bag consternation.  A few inquiries determined all would soon be deployed to Desert Storm.   As I offered up the feeble, “I’ll be thinking about you guys,” I was drawn back into those dark, foreboding, rage-filled thoughts I hoped I’d left behind at that God-forsaken high school.  What a fucked up way to get access to higher education!

Master P’s “We soldiers/I told ya” ceded to Stevie Wonder:  “They had me standing on the front line,/ But now I stand at the back of the line when it comes to gettin’ ahead.

“Mother fuckers be listenin’ to da wrong music,” I mused on the drive back to Buttermilk Biscuit suburbia…where all the children are good looking…and don’t have to die to get ahead.

Ousting the New Black Superintendent

Good luck with that!

More than a few eyebrows rose when the relatively new black superintendent’s contract was bought out to the tune of a couple-a-hundred g’s.  Aside from the irritation over gross mismanagement of already dwindling education dollars, some also felt it reflected negatively on the county school system’s prestige when the black interloper from out of state was swiftly replaced by a white insider, a local good ole boy without a PH.D.  In fact, the Board had suspiciously waived the PHD as well as the nation-wide job search requirements as they steamrolled their boy into high office.  But as a new teacher to the system, I vowed to keep my nose clean of rage and stress-inducing internal politics for as long as possible. No, I would not have been tempted to research any of the tedious past history of internecine wars …had the superintendent’s wife not been a teacher right down the hall, had she not had a voice like a fishwife, and had she not given frequent voice to racist shit– most of it directed toward black kids bussed into this white, middle-class, suburban school under some obscure clause in No Child Left Behind.

Most teachers on the hall at least had the good graces to huddle confidentially when whispering their convictions that this new demographic were proof positive that blacks were subhuman.  Of course, as a new employee, I experienced  the usual significant looks and low-level racist comments that vetted my racial sensitivities before entrusting me with access to the group.  I was sadly reminded of my first job, thirty years ago, as floater teller for an Alabama Savings and Loan.  Every day I would be called to a different branch office.  Every day I was subjected to a racist comment or joke that would determine whether I’d be included or excluded. I was surprised to find myself again in the hot seat.   It had been a long time since I’d been vetted in this way.  I did what every spineless employee with a mortgage and car payment would do:  I pretended not to hear.

But that was well-nigh impossible given the screeching volume of the superintendent’s wife.   The stridency with which she’d address some fleeing black kid was deafening:  “Go ahead and run!  You’ll be running from the police in about ten years.”  Gasp!  Did she not understand there had been a Civil Rights Movement?  Did she assume everyone had her back here?  Did she have a clue how damaging this could be to a child?  Did she not realize that this made us all imagine ugly, racist dinner table conversations and pillow talk with her superintendent husband?

It didn’t take much research through the archives of local newspapers to unearth the roots of her seemingly reckless empowerment:  an entire county and state that had watched in virtual silence the recent bloody coup de superintendent’s office. Unfortunately, it was an empowerment that would be played out in other significant ways besides mere abusive verbal harangues of powerless children.  Within a year of my arrival, the principal and vice principal were replaced by–you guessed it– the superintendent’s boys.  Both the new principal and his local educator brother had successfully weathered charges of racism levied at them by the NAACP and by individual black kids in the school system.  Both have risen in the system like some perverse version of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People…in the South.

Just as suddenly as the disappearance of my principal and African-American vice-principal, funding dried up for bussing kids from failing inner-city schools to the burbs.  Not that anyone had ever made it all that easy for them.  They’d had to get up an hour earlier than their peers, wait for the cheese wagon on some cold, dark, urban curb, and remain after school for at least an hour as they awaited the only available bus to drop off its suburban load before bothering to  pick them up.  But No Child Left Behind had said they could come, and so they would. ..until told otherwise.

As the school day ends, I watch the sea white children running toward their bus in the rain, thankful that my bills will be paid on time another month, another year… another eternity in this fucking hellhole.

Teaching Both Sides: Clarence Darrow v. William Jennings Bryan

The County Courthouse in Dayton, Tennessee has established a rather  pathetic museum in the basement to commemorate the Scopes Monkey Trial. However, this tawdry excuse for a museum (there’s a framed flapper dress which was worn to the trial by a juror’s wife) is probably truer to the experience of this backwoods town than the fictionalized versions of the trial –like the thinly veiled propaganda play, Inherit the Wind. This is the play in which the rebellious, evolution- obsessed teacher is depicted as a heroic figure, risking his job to do the right thing in the face of mindless ideologues and God-and-country politicians.  He was a man of principle who believed even Tennesseans deserved to know about evolution. The benefits of such education  are evinced in educated Tennesseans like Al Gore…who would later give us the internet.  (Too bad the ACLU didn’t have that little tool in their toolbox.)

Word up.   There was no heroic teacher willing to sacrifice his job to stand up for teaching the facts of pure science.  There was a guy who was approached by the ACLU prior to defying the no-evolution, no way, no how curriculum rules of  the Volunteer State.   That’s right,  he “volunteered” only after being promised a defense team and compensation if he let the ACLU take his case all the way to trial.  Cushy deal.  I’d defy the state curriculum mandates, too, if I knew the ACLU would bring in Clarence Darrow to cover my my back.   Hell, I’d even go out in the halls and talk loudly through the moment of silence.

But I dare not.  The educational visionaries of those days are buried deeper than the creepy artifacts collecting dust in the Dayton Courthouse basement, leaving the defiant teacher –who might wish to honor the education she spent years attaining by actually teaching the truth– vulnerable. Alas, I have a mortgage to pay. If I didn’t have bills to pay,  I might not bother to mention “the other side”– that some idiots think the Holocaust never happened. I might say that not only did the Holocaust happen, it also caused many very influential thinkers who witnessed it first hand to doubt the very existence of God. Some of them were even Amuricans, but they went off to live in France because it was more interesting than being around a bunch of anti-intellectuals.   And slavery?  News bulletin:  John Locke wrote the accounting systems for the slave ships… when he wasn’t writing the seminal documents of the Enlightenment, leading some Post-Modernists to question whether the Enlightenment was not always in bed  with slavery.  Guess we’d need to ask Sally Hemmings that one to be sure.   And then there’s those pesky theories of global warming…as if  Amuricans are gonna let academics obstruct mountain top removal and other instantly gratifying quests for not-so-clean energy! Hail no.

Oh, and right down the street from the Dayton courthouse is Bryan College, named for–you guessed it–William Jennings Bryan, the lawyer who defended Tennessee’s right to rob its citizens of an education. It’s a Christian college, you bet.  While Clarence Darrow may have won the trial, no one ’round these parts ever thought to name a college after him.  The science teacher across the hall went there. She teaches both sides….