In the latest installment of “Believing in Boys,” playing “the line game” gives Suzanne Rosenwasser’s students a chance to step up for each other.
Playing games is essential to the human experience. In the all-male class I co-teach along with the high school’s principal and a counselor, we play games because game are fun—and because teachable moments are bound to happen.
We adopted “The Line Game” from the film Freedom Writers, which most of the boys have seen.
“Oh, man I love that game,” Fernando says when the counselor explains the line of blue painter’s tape on the floor splitting the room in half.
The counselor instructs the boys to divide into two groups and stand three feet away from either side of the tape (where the principal and I are already positioned).
“Whud that teacher say?” Sadique asks.
“What line, Miss?” Miguel asks politely.
“What if we don’t want to play?” Jonathan whines lazily.
But when Anel points toward the principal and says: “You mean he’s gonna play? I’m on this!” the boys fall in quickly. The game is on and the rules are simple: If your answer to the question is ‘yes,’ then step to the line. If not, stay put. The object? Observe how we are more alike than we are different.
Early on the questions are inane, and the boys dance to the line or contentedly stay where they are.
“Step to the line if you have a dog,” the counselor says.
I step to the line with eight of the fifteen kids.
“Step to the line if you like basketball.” Anel stays put and, much to his chagrin, so do four other boys.
“Step to the line if you take a bus to school” “…if you have sibling” “…if you did your homework last night.”
“Step to the line if you have an adult in your life whom you trust.”
The principal and I step to the line, but the boys hesitate.
Miguel is the first to come forth, smiling abashedly through his eyebrows. The second is Fernando, who rolls his shoulders and mutters: “I guess one of my uncles.”
A few of the boys meander away from the line, think for a minute, then take a determined step up to it.
Damontre never moves. His arms are crossed, and he stands defiantly away from the tape.
Next question: “Step to the line if you’ve ever been judged for your race or your beliefs.”
The line is full.
“Step to the line if there’s a person in your life you’d like to thank for something.”
Again, a full line appears.
“Step to the line if you’ve given a thoughtful gift to someone that required you to put in your time or money.”
We all step to the line, except Tony. He holds back with his hands in his pockets, shuffling his feet uncomfortably before deciding he doesn’t belong on the line.
After the last question, we move the desks into a circle, sit on top of them, and prompt the boys to ask questions about what they observed.
“So, you don’t like dogs or what?” Sadique asks the principal, who explains about his child’s allergies.
“What adults do adults trust?” Fernando calls out.
The principal and I look at each other and toward the counselor, who says: “Well, you gotta believe we three have each other’s back in here.”
“I wanna know why Mexicans don’t like basketball,” Anel asks of the four boys who’d stayed back from the line with him on that question.
Estevan replies good-naturedly: “We’re short and quick, so we play soccer.”
We all laugh together. It is a joyful sound, different from the derisive laughter we hear on many days.
I ask for another observation.
“Why you so cheap you can’t give no one gifts, Tony?” one of the boys asks in a serious voice.
Tony bows his head and looks at his hands. It occurs to us that he is trying not to cry. “It’s just my mom and me,” he says. “At my birthday she said I couldn’t have any presents because I was bad, and then she really didn’t give me any. So when her birthday came this week I didn’t give her any. Then she came to my room with two presents for me on her birthday and said she was sorry about what happened on mine.”
Everyone was real quiet because Tony—tough about everything Tony—had tears running down his cheeks. “I was gonna draw her a picture but I didn’t,” he adds.
That’s when Damontre, who was sitting next to Tony, cleared his throat and said: “Well, at least it’s cool that she gave you something. My mom never gave me a present for nothin’. She tells me all the time how she hates me and how I ruined her life. I used to take it okay until she started in on my little sister just like that. I mean, damn! The kid’s 5 and all she hears is how bad she is. I’m the adult in this family. My mom’s a bigger kid than my little sister.”
We sat very still. It wasn’t a miracle, certainly nothing that would change the behavior of the adults in these families, but what I saw next that made me continue to believe in these boys:
Tony looked over at Damontre and nodded; then he reached up and patted Damontre gently on the back.
The boys were stepping to the line for each other.