I've learned quite a bit from my students. I've learned how to teach. I've learned what it's like to have a large group relying on you. I've learned how to grade (and flunk) people. I've learned to help others succeed. But, without qualification, the single most excellent thing I've learned has been inner-city slang.
Of all the interesting words and phrases, my favorite is the word "roller." Pronounced "rolla", I've come across it several times in my teaching - it seems to be the "in" word among African-American highschool-aged youth in the DC area. Or at least Dunbar High.
The first time I heard the word I was teaching my students about homicide - the different classifications, the corresponding punishments, how to hide the body, etc. In order to familiarize them with the various types of homicide I had them perform skits acting out them out. The theme of the skits was, appropriately, Clue. Each of the groups randomly drew two Clue characters, one of the Clue rooms, a Clue murder weapon, and a type of homicide. They then had to put all of those into the skit, and the class had to guess each of the variables.
Putting together the skits was a challenge for some of the students.
"Hey dawg!. I'm sorry, I'm sorry - I mean - Hey Mista Novak!"
"Can I help you Ron?" (Ron is one of my favorite students, though he's quite rambunctious and often gets off task very easily. He's also got a terrific sense of humor, though little sense of when it is appropriate.)(Can you see why I like him?)
"Yeah, man. ... How'm I s'possed ta do a negligent homicide with a wrench?"
"Well Ron, you have to act out negligent behavior that results in someone getting killed with a wrench. It's a tough task, but I think you can handle it."
"Like, what if I were like, throwing it up in the air - say like we was playing football with it? And then it comes..." [and he acts this out] "like up," [a rolled up tube of paper in his hand, arcing over his head] "and it's like spinning in the air, and he goes to catch it" [he twirls the paper and leans as if to make a diving catch] "and comes like, crashing down on my man's head," [he drops the tube of paper on his own head as he flings himself forward into a desk, which he then bounces off of, into the black board, and then onto the floor.]
"Yeah Ron, I think that would work."
"Aw man, I got chalk on my jersey. I outta frickin' negligent homicide this blackboard."
"'sup Mista Novak?"
Most of my students had never seen the movie Clue, and none of them had ever played the game, so they were unfamiliar with the characters. I had typed out descriptions for them to follow, picking just a couple of traits which the students could work with. For example, Colonel Mustard was described as "a man's man. Formerly in the military, proud and tough." The students had no trouble exaggerating those few characteristics, and most of the roles came across loud and clear.
The best - and the class favorite - was the part of Miss Scarlet. The description read something to the effect of "Greedy. A seductress. Very womanly." Several of the guys in my class drew that role, and they laughed it up quite a bit. One of the young women in the class had also picked that part, and she played it well. Just before this Miss Scarlet was about to clob Mr. Green over the head with a lead pipe, Ron interrupted with a surprise commentary.
"Man, she's playin' a rolla', and she is a rolla!"
The class burst out laughing. I was baffled.
"What's a roller?"
A bunch of the class responded with the same question, "You never heard of a rolla, Mista Novak?"
"No, I've never heard of a roller."
"Man, listen to him - he says 'roll-errr' like some old English man. 'Roll-errr!'"
"Dawg, Novak, I don't think we can tell you what a rolla is."
"Yeah, you don't wanna know. We don't wanna take away your innocent-ness."
"Seriously, I don't think you're going to take away my innocence if you tell me," I replied, "I want to know, just tell me. What's a rolla?"
My weak attempt to sound like them drew more laughter.
Ron decided to answer my question. "Well a rolla, I don't know how to describe it - it's like - it's like she been with that guy, and that guy, and that guy," as he pointed to fictional guys that the student had "been with." "You know what I mean by 'been with' Mista Novak? I don't mean no like, she seen him a couple times I mean like -"
I cut him off, "Yes Ron, I know what you mean."
That was my first introduction to the word 'rolla'. I had some lingering questions about the word, but I never knew how to approach the subject with my students, and so just kept them to myself. The thing I really wanted to know was if guys could be rollas too, or if it was only the ladies.
Today, I found out.
I overheard part of a conversation between Ron and a female student in the class.
"Ron, you such a rolla."
Excited to have my answer, I interrupted, "Oh! So guys can be rollas too!"
" 'Course," answered Ron, "How'd you know 'bout rollas Mista Novak?"
"You guys told me all about them, remember?"
"We did?" Ron seemed genuinely puzzled, "Why would we tell you 'bout rollas?"
"Because I asked. We were doing those homicide sketches."
"Oh yeah, I 'member now! And she [pointing to the student who had played Miss Scarlet] was all like, throwin' herself at that guy."
She protested, "I was not! That was the characta!"
Ron was about to respond, but I cut him off. "That's all I wanted to know though. I was just wondering if guys could be rollas, or if it was only the ladies."
"Oh yeah, guys can be rollas," Ron answered. "Girls can be a rolla. Guys can be a rolla. Anyone can be a rolla."
He smiled. "Even you could be a rolla Mister Novak!"
Big wheel keep on turning,
Proud Mary keep on burning