But manners don't always mean good manners.
We try to do what people want, but they have to know what they're asking for. That search for understanding is often itself a search for, and an act of, translation as well.
Several years ago I was doing an Artists in the Schools residency at the high school in Eloy, Arizona. Two memorable events occurred. The first was among a group of gifted students: a fire alarm rang, but nobody got up. We were having such a good time that nobody seemed willing to stop. One student said, "It's probably fake anyway. Couldn't we just send someone out to check?"
That was nice, but something else occurred on the same day, a Thursday. I was also working with a group of--what to call them, what were they called? Non-gifted students? In this class, there was an attentive group of four or five students in front, but in back and to the sides students were in various states of engagement, the most active of which was a poker game.
The students were Mexican and Chicano, mostly, migrant worker children, and those not being entirely attentive were comprised mostly of cholos. Cholos are what Pachucos used to be. The young men, in particular, have a uniform: chino pants, black belt, thick, black shoes, two tee-shirts--a regular one over a thin-strapped one--and a hair net.
The hair net by itself is interesting, and to an outsider perhaps effeminate. But there were many reasons for a hair net. These boys' older brothers often worked, for example, in fast food restaurants, and had to wear nets. And a net, it was a show of attitude--you took your net off when the important things happened. School was not that.
In working with these students, I was also faced with a substitute teacher, who had no ideas on how to control the class and who was very glad that I was the one standing up in front.
The week went its own way, with me talking and reading, the students in front responding, and the others playing cards and throwing pencils. But I know this classroom, and that was the thing. I also understood what happened next.
On this Thursday of the week, one of the boys in back got up, starting walking his walk to the front, ostensibly to sharpen a pencil, but he kind of hung around me at the desk. I was done for the day, and everyone was working, or supposed to be working, on a writing assignment.
"Hey, ese," he said to me, with a small pointing of the right hand.
"Hey," I said.
He nodded his head. "You really like this poetry shit," he asked.
"Yes," I said.
And then he followed with the very best thing I could have hoped for. "So, how many fights you had?"
In that moment I knew exactly what he was asking me. He was trying to understand, to make some bridge, to make some sense for himself. It was a moment I won't forget. Whatever I answered doesn't finally matter. He had already found some kind of answer in his question.