All forms of success are subjective. It doesn’t matter if the goal is socially acceptable, as in an
athlete winning a gold medal, or a drug dealer rising through the ranks of the criminal world. If
you accomplish a goal, in spite of obstacles placed in front of you, success is yours.
The more difficult it is to conquer the obstacles between you and the goal, the more likely you
are to be commended for your efforts. Many goal driven people don’t negotiate the obstacles
attached to a socially acceptable goal so they shift the focus to an appealing substitute. They still
want success, but devote their energies to goals which are socially undesirable. I had a former
student remind me of this dynamic other night.
It’s early in the evening in late August and I am driving over to a friend’s place to help christen
his families new cedar deck with an evening barbeque. As I make my way down the boulevard, I
slow down for the first red light of the journey. I ease up to the red light sliding beside a gold
BMW, flashy chrome wheel covers, and tinted windows. The sound system pumps out a loud
mid-tempo bass track groove; the whole car vibrates and music bleeds out into the intersection,
thump-pa-thump-pa-thump. The passenger side window is down and an elbow pokes out into the
early evening air; I know who is going to be inside. I glance over at the passengers, it’s two guys
in their early 20s, dressed in the latest rapper gear, lots of bling, hats, and smokin’ a joint. A
couple of model bad ass motherfuckers, right out of a gangsta rap video.
After 29 years in the schools, my intuition is honed. I’ve taught quite a few of these guys over
the years. They are usually good kids at their core, just socially lost. They identify with the thug
life, craving all its material trappings: flashy cars, bitches, drugs, and lots of hard cash to flaunt, it
gives their lives meaning. Often, they start out as small time criminals, aren’t very good at it, and
spend their lives as bottom feeders. All you need to do is watch the news to see that good
criminals usually go out of their way to avoid the stereotypes. These guys look like thug
Anyway, when I glance over a second time, the driver smiles and holds up what looks like a
sizable roll of money for me to see. He’s looking straight at me with this wad in his right hand in
an offering position. He wants me to see the booty. He is saying something to me, but I can’t hear
because of the music. The light turns green and we leave the intersection.
I’m perplexed. Why is he putting on this show for me as I reach the next set of lights? Then
they pull up beside me again and I turn around for another curious glance. It is a roll of cash and
he is gesturing toward me. I said, “Hey are you offering me that?’ He replies, ‘You taught me
English man! You failed me!’ My mind goes into overdrive trying to remember the face - no
luck. Straight faced I said, ‘I failed you? What did you have to do with the failure?’ He doesn’t
answer. Then he holds up the cash again, smiles and raises his voice, ‘Look man, I got all the
money now! Who needs fuckin’ school anyways!’ Before I could reply, he was gone. I still can’t
remember teaching him.
As a teacher you try not to take this kind of reception personally. You are just a uniform; they
don’t actually know you. Comparatively speaking, his message to me was polite and simple: I
succeeded in spite of the obstacles you and your system placed in front of me. Look, I got what
everyone sees a symbol of success, CASH! I reached my goal, so fuck you and your system.
Over three decades, I’ve been on the receiving end of this message a few times. It happens, not
often, but it happens. Just a fact of life for anyone in a position of authority. When I was in
teacher’s college, nobody told me there would be days like this. Pricks! Thank God the reception
at the barbeque was warmer and the conversation less judgmental.