Before the first meeting of the UMOJA-Step Team began, the team captain arrived at my classroom early and immediately pushed back all of my desks and chairs. I grew nervous. What the heck did I agree to do?
Last spring a student asked me to consider advising the UMOJA-Step Team at the high school where I teach. I had reservations. The team had a negative reputation and I am a busy mom. A few people told me that the team was drama filled, loud, and difficult to control. However, at every pep rally, the students in the bleachers look forward to the step team’s performance. The cheers for this crew are always thunderous and authentic.
That student’s request gnawed at me all summer. When the first faculty meeting of the school year revealed that the group still lacked an advisor, I decided, for many reasons, to give it a try.
Now it is September 14, 2017, and all of my desks and chairs are piled up in the back of my classroom. Twenty-five kids have entered my room, eager to be members of a group that puts the pep in the pep rallies. While listening to the team captains explain expectations, the other students devour the candy that I left out like a trusting house at Halloween.
The leaders, two young women of color, emphasize qualities that adults respect: promptness, dedication, and maintaining high grades. After laying down the law, the captain smiles and says: “We are a family.” Many kids nod their heads in agreement.
After the power point presentation, the students begin to dance. I now understand why the desks and chairs were moved — my classroom is a dance floor! I thought this was just an informational meeting, but these kids came to move — they are dancing with enthusiasm and delight. It reminds me of watching the television show F.A.M.E. When I was a kid I loved how the students on that show would spontaneously burst into song and dance. F.A.M.E. was happening in my high school! I was on F.A.M.E.!
Reality, however, entered in the form of the sweet school secretary who informed me that F.A.M.E. was disturbing a parent-conference going in the office next door. I apologized profusely.
At the end of that first, boisterous meeting, the team leaders made a circle where each student demonstrated their “moves” in the middle of my classroom. As I watched these young people, I began to realize that I was going to be a part of a rare and special group.
We moved the subsequent meetings to the cafeteria where, unfortunately, the kids needed to move the tables and chairs. The teardown and setting back up of the room ate into about ten minutes of precious rehearsal time. Not to mention the occasional squished grape that the students danced around.
Mostly, however, what I noticed about these rehearsals was an intensity of engagement with student-led participation. The pressure of performing for the entire student body in just a few weeks motivated them to practice, learn, adjust, practice, and repeat.
At the end of every rehearsal, I filled out twenty-five bus passes — these high school students do not have rides or cars like many of their high school peers — they must take the late bus home. The team includes mostly female students, most of whom are African-American. Three are white. There are a few young men sprinkled in the group, and they can move.
I teach in a suburban high school that houses over 1,800 students a day. The demographics are mostly working and middle-class households, over seventy-five percent Caucasian. The UMOJA-Step Team members flip that demographic. The word umoja means unity in Swahili and the team is both a cultural and performance group. February brings the celebration of Black History Month and a dinner for the school and community. Although African-American and Afro-Caribbean culture is highlighted, the group is inclusive of non-Afro students. If you have dedication, spirit, and talent, you can belong.
A former student, one of the student leaders, says: “You should dance with us, Momma Brown.”
I laugh and say: “Yeah, that is what you need, an old white woman to mess up your beautiful group.”
She laughs. I am serious. This is a student group.
As the first pep rally approaches, I begin to look forward to staying at school later. It is crazy, but in many ways, these dedicated dancers are renewing my teaching spirit. I adore them, especially the leaders.
Two weeks before the pep rally, the captain invites me to go bowling with the group. I felt so honored. I gave her my cell number in case plans changed. (I have never given a student my phone number.) I didn’t go bowling with the group, but I really wanted to. That pull between my own family and my school “kids” was difficult.
A week before the pep rally, I noticed a familiar frustration in the captain — she wants the team to get the dances perfect. She wants the UMOJA-STEP SQUAD to get the school crowd roaring. She feels the pressure. I tell her that I know her crazy — her statements and body language are reminiscent of mine the weeks before the New York State Global Regents Exam. Every June, I look at my classes, drill them constantly on their “moves,” encourage, scold, and prepare them to get the “best” grade they can earn. She is doing the same thing: she is showing them that perseverance breeds excellence. Her frequent refrain is, “Do it again.” She would make an outstanding educator. She has got “it.” You can’t teach that sort of with-it-ness. It shines off of this strong, young woman.
After the cafeteria is unavailable one day, the squad moves practice from the cafeteria to the auditorium commons, a large space that does not require the time of tearing down and setting back up of cafeteria tables. The open space in the commons allows other students to stop and watch the team practice. I enjoy these voyeur students’ expressions: they smile, they clap, they take video.
However, I wish the team could have a space of their own. I teach in a large building that is always busy, with the two gymnasiums and the auditorium reserved far in advance. What this team needs is a room with mirrors!
The captains want this year to be drama-free. They want a faculty advisor to stick around. They tell the members to bring problems to me. I act as their human boundary, happy to let the captains lead the dance. I am strong enough to handle the management of people. My role is one of organizer and advocate. This group, I repeat, is student-run.
By Thursday, October 5, 2017, the pep rally is only eight days away, and a long Columbus Day weekend interrupts the flow. Everyone is feeling tired, run-down. The student dancers have a poor first rehearsal on the field. The pressure mounts with only three more possible after-school practices. They are allowed only thirty minutes on the turf until the football players are suited up and ready to practice. Time is the enemy. The captains are worried, but I have faith in this group. I can see that they only need to tighten up a few moves.
On the eve of the pep rally, the team is a well-oiled machine. Their timing is on fleek! (My twelve-year-old gave me permission to use that term.) As they practice, I notice that they are truly enjoying themselves. I drive home smiling.
On the day of the pep rally, I wake with nervous excitement. I normally have very little enthusiasm for pep rally days — they make my teaching time shrink and the kids get off kilter. Typically, when I wear my school t-shirt, my husband (who thinks he is hilarious) will ask me:
“Did you bring it?”
I will respond with, “Bring what?”
He will say: “Team spirit.”
This day, however, I am actually bringing it. I am both excited and a little bit nervous for the Step Team. They are an amazing group of students, but there is also enormous pressure on them to perform at a high level.
At 12:45pm the athletes are dismissed, the lead captain, who the kids affectionally call “Grandma” instructs the dancers to meet her in the auditorium commons for one last run through before we take the field.
When I arrive, they are decked out in red shirts, black leggings, and red shoes. Those are not the school colors of orange and blue. The excitement is electric. The quickly rehearse their routine one, more time.
Walking to the stadium, I ask the kids why the color red. No one can tell me why red is important. We will need to discuss colors and their significance later.Today is not the day to discuss the future, it is a day for them to show off their hard work.
The students wait on the field for their turn in the pep rally, a group in red, in a sea of orange and blue. I tell them that they will perform near the end, joking that the best is saved for last.
When they perform, I feel like a proud parent. I didn’t choreograph the moves, or pick out the music, or act as a dance “coach.” All I did was make some meetings calendars and help organize the group. That is all that they needed.
We still have more to learn and prepare for: another pep rally in December and February’s Black History celebrations. There are still many questions to answer: Are they a dance team, a step team, or an African-American cultural team? What are the team’s colors? We need to discuss the group’s name and identity.
Right now, however, we are a happy group. Next week, we will celebrate with pizza in room 811 where my classroom might become a dance floor yet again.