By Ryan O. Murphey
One day several years ago while I was talking with my colleague and co-author/partner in education crime, we entered into a somewhat tenuous topic. I bluntly asked Mr. Jackson (he wasn’t yet a doctor), “Have you always liked Ralph Lauren, Polo?” He stared at me with that unassuming, yet engaging stare and pursed his lips slightly. You see, Mr. Jackson wore Polo every day at that time, and still does on many days if he’s not in a suit, at least at school. I grew up actually knowing Ralph Lauren and his son David, who now runs the company, but I rarely wore his clothes because Ralph doesn’t actually like the “polo guy” logo. Ralph likes old cowboy hats with gasoline stains and ripped up leather jackets.
Dr. Jackson, on the other hand, prefers brightly colored pique Polo shirts with the most wildly-striped patterns available. He’s got the hip-hop ones with the oversized Polo logo and the big number on the sleeve. He’s got one Polo shirt with so many polo guys on there that I don’t how they got so many polo guys on that thing; there has to be a hundred at least! He’s even got the solid colored ones–the kind I remember having in the 80’s when we used to “pop the collar”, mouse our hair, and top it off with rolled up acid-washed jeans and Sperry top-siders with no socks. I had left this kind of bold fashion statement far behind in favor of the Gap’s understated and agreeably more pragmatic look. The Gap is cheaper, OK?
“Let me show you something bro.” Jackson interjected into my reverie as he pulled out a copy of the latest copy of “The Wood”, our student newspaper at the time. He proceeded to show me an article written by Michael Curry (one of our all-time favorite students who still without a doubt has the most intricate handwriting I’ve ever seen) about the new Air Jordans that were coming out. Jackson was pointing at the picture of Michael surrounded by about fifty pairs of Air Jordan sneakers. “This is what they love, man: fashion.” He said it so compellingly with perfect emphasis on the word “this”, but I still didn’t get it.
“Help me out dude, I don’t understand.” I said this as I cocked my head in that befuddled dog, head-tilt way.
“These kids don’t have a significant amount of money, but they need to show what they do have. When you’re poor, the only money you have to speak of is cash on hand.”
“But rich people show their money too with their cars and houses and fancy suits,” I broke in.
“True, true.” He agreed. “Rich people show their money with their houses or cars, but it’s all understated. They don’t have rims with 22s or jacked-up hydraulics. Their houses look like something from the past, old money. They may wear Ralph Lauren, but it’s Polo Purple Label bro. They don’t have to have the Polo guy on their shirt because if people don’t already know you’re rich, then you’re not truly rich in that Beale Meade way!” He was getting more emphatic now and tapping on my arm with the side of his hand repeatedly. “In this world, in the most poverty-stricken place in Nashville, you have to show your money to get cred. There’s nothing subtle about it. That’s why I wear the Polos everyday because I’m about belonging! These kids just want someone to accept them and someone who makes them feel like they belong in a family, a group, a classroom.”
“Ok, so you’re not really into Polo then?” I was a little confused. I dress how I want to dress, for me. I never thought that a kid would be paying any attention to my clothes unless they were offensive, or just slobbish.
“No man, or course not.” He clarified. “But I like to look sharp, and I love rap, especially from the 90s. Polo is a big part of hip-hop now…I dress like this to let kids know I get them, or that I have status and want to show it the way they do. When I’m out around town or at home, I’m in shorts and a wife-beater or work-out clothes but I’m still a white dude with long blonde hair and glasses and the last thing I want is for kids to think I’m from the other side. I want them to think of me as one of them, but a leader–an urban leader, an advocate. I’m the underdog’s advocate!” It felt like there was electricity in the room and I was witnessing one of those actual rare “moments” where a person defines himself in mid-thought.
“Jackson, you’re the blackest white guy I know.” He chuckled and pounded his fist on his other hand and sat back down nodding his head.
Lunch was over and it was time to head back to the concrete jungle and become synapse warriors once again, but as I reflected on this moment I realized that this bit of wisdom was important for teachers. Dr. Jackson had stumbled upon something that I whole-heartedly believe in and even use myself now and then. He was cultivating a persona, a personality that was an amplification of his true self much in the same way that Brandon, Nicholson and Deniro had done in the glory days of Meisner method acting. He was allowing his character to emerge out of reality and then adjusting it to fit the scene.
These days it never bothers me anymore that the kids call me Mr. Murph Dogg. I realized on that day with Dr. J that I had had a persona for some time, “Murph Dogg”…I still don’t know what it means, but I refer to myself in the third person in that hip-hop swagger way and it always gets a laugh. I’m no hip-hopper or even a hipster. I’m broody and melancholic, but I’m slightly awkward and silly at the same time.
“Jackson, he cool, but Murph–he crazy!” I’ve heard kids say this in the hallway. I’m no gangster, but I’m an O.G. of the school. I’ve been around a long time and kids trust me because I’m not afraid to be the Quixotic figure I haven’t yet figured out. I’ve allowed this enigma to be turned up to get kids’ attention, lighten the room, and even put kids off balance from time to time.
As stated in Helterbran’s study, “Not only is it valuable for preservice teachers to hone their teaching persona during their undergraduate teacher preparation, but it is equally important for teacher educators to see themselves through their students’ eyes…” (2008). As Jung’s suppositions famously claimed, “We all wear masks” (1989). Although Jung deemed it “false” to hide one’s self behind a persona, it can be tremendously effective when relating to students and how your classroom environment is perceived. As we know, perception is reality. If you remember to be “weird but not too weird” as Jackson often reminds me, then you will be a long way down the road toward transforming your teaching experience, literally.