By Aaron Litz
Working with high school kids does two things to you very quickly: it makes you sick from trillions of youthful germs, and it makes you confront how uncool you are. I beat the germs with plenty of sleep and liquids, but I’ve had to travel on my own journey to ‘cool’.
Before we begin, I’ll state my qualifications for writing on the coolness of us adults. I work for BUILD Metro DC, a 4-year entrepreneurship program that keeps high school students excited about college and career success by helping them start their own businesses. The business start-up process is an amazing platform for education, and our students gain skills that many top-performing professionals wish they had.
My work puts me inside high school classrooms most days of the week. In class, I act partially as a teacher’s aide, and mostly as a supporter of dreams for any student who needs one. I work in six different schools, and upon entering each classroom for the first time, I felt 20+ sets of eyes focus in on me, the strange white dude in their class.
Race is a social construct without any scientific meaning. A few people argue this means race isn’t “real”, and shouldn’t be a topic of discussion. In my life and the lives of my students, none of whom consider themselves white, race has real effects, and directly impacts how my students choose to interact with me. So before I ever say a word, I walk into a classroom for the first time, with a history in my complexion. My students know that history, and live in a city that is partially a product of that history. I can’t pretend it’s not a part of me – that it hasn’t shaped who I am.
There is a myth that high school kids don’t like to read. I know it is a myth because these students read me like a book. Any front, façade, or attempt at covering up who and what I am in favor of what I want them to see will quickly be dismissed. And I may just be dismissed with it. I am me. I must be genuinely, nervously, out-of-touch-ly me. It’s what will make me cool.
As I previously prepared myself to be… myself, I am ready to absorb the contextual environment around me. Absorb before reacting. For instance, I quickly noticed the nasty terms and phrases my students threw around that enforced strict gender stereotypes. I could have easily pointed out how that language places an undue burden on all of us and creates even more artificial “othering” in a world filled with too much separation already. I could have. And I would have been saying this from a place of zero credibility in the minds of my students. Who was I to come into their space, their school, their conversations, and tell them they shouldn’t do what they were doing? At that moment I was nobody.
By absorbing, I was recognizing without reacting. By absorbing, I learned way more before stepping in as an authority figure and only telling my students that they are wrong. They wouldn’t grow from that, and it wouldn’t be cool.
Calling out my students for a few phrases of theirs would also be discrediting them as whole people – people who laugh, do good deeds, have bad days, discover passions, and have a presence in this world beyond some phrases they’ve been taught to throw around. I stayed me, which included actively avoiding the use of such phrases.
By being myself, my students can decide if I am credible. If that is the case, my credibility will allow me to guide them through what I see as important elements to succeeding on their own terms. I might even be able to tell them that to me, they sound weak when they use phrases that only serve to put others down. They might listen to my point of view; they might even care.
Four months into my work, it isn’t as easy as saying, “now I’m the coolest thing my students have ever seen.” Some days are perfect: handshakes from every student, the leaders stepping up, everyone sharing ideas. Some days seem like a couple of students forget who I am, and are looking for ways to make me forget about them. Instead, I remember that I am just a fraction of a slice of their lives, and whatever they are doing, I’m going to be my best self: that strange white dude, supporting each of their dreams, every chance I get.
Maybe I was cool once; maybe I wasn’t. If there is an objective measurement device for this type of thing, it wasn’t around when I would have cared for it most. Now, I just act like myself. Maybe asking, “who am I?” is a topic for another time. Being cool doesn’t require the answer to that question. Being cool requires sharing my passion for learning, and recognizing the power of long-term mutually beneficial relationships. These are some of the lessons I have picked up from my students – the gatekeepers of cool.
Aaron Litz is from Columbia, Maryland, attended the University of Maryland-College Park, and is the Entrepreneurship Coordinator at Build.