On Alpha Dogs and Being a Man:
I had a testy exchange with a student whose mother is incarcerated and dad is MIA, earlier this year.
March 8, 2011. Chemistry class.
W: “I QUIT!”
Me: “I asked you to act like a man, and you’re here throwing a tantrum like a child.”
W: “Well how bout I whoop your ass, Mr. G?”
Me: “You think threatening to ‘whoop my ass’ is acting like a man? Violence won’t solve your problems, W.”
W: “But Mr. G, violence is how I solve ALL my problems!”
When I talked to my friend about how I could reach this student, he offered the best advice:
"If dad is MIA, then maybe no one showed him what ‘acting like a man’ looks like. Start at square one, Mr. G."
Those words jolted me. He was right, and I was the jerk in my interaction with that student. But I knew that student, suspended multiple times this year for fighting, wouldn’t respond well to me just sitting him down and telling him what I think “being a man” means. This student and I had previously bonded over our mutual respect for the rapper T.I., so I decided to let T.I. do the work (this student was not in my class for the first half of the year, and so wasn’t there for the previous T.I. lesson I’ve posted on this blog).
I looked up separation-of-church-and-state standards in Texas, and apparently using the Bible as a text is OK. So I tied 1 Cor 13:11 to the T.I. song “Dead and Gone,” in order to talk about how to shift from thinking and acting as a boy, to thinking and acting a man:
Pay close attention to T.I.’s lyrics here. Many of my students have this idea that in order to be an alpha dog (a man), they have to fight to maintain their position at the top. What T.I. illustrates is something different altogether.
What T.I. says is that when he was NOT alpha dog (not a man), he felt the need to fight, to earn his stripe, and these decisions cost him the life of one of his best friends. In fact, looking back, T.I. admits that had he known the consequences, he would have “took the ass-whooping”:
Maybe my homeboy would still be around
Had I not hit the n* in the mouth that time
I won that fight, I lost that war
I can still see my n* walkin out that door
Who’da thought I’d never see Philant no more
Got enough dead homies I don’t want no more
Cost a n* his job, cost me more
I’da took that ass-whoopin now for sure
Now, things have changed. T.I. is a successful rapper, businessman, and actor, and he’s done fighting people to prove something:
Now think before I risk my life
Take them chances to get my stripe
A n* put his hands on me, alright
Otherwise stand there talk sh*t all night
Cause I hit you, you sue me,
I shoot you, get locked up, who me?
This is the counter-intuitive message: in almost all cases, alpha dogs (men) don’t fight.
T.I. says he would only fight now if he was physically assaulted, because beta dogs (boys) aren’t even worth your time. They only bring drama, or future violence on yourself or your loved ones. Crucially, if you fight a beta dog, you let him know that he represents a threat to your dominance. You let him know that he CAN be alpha. So when you fight him, you’re not ending his quest to topple you; instead, he’ll regroup and come back even hungrier, with the knowledge that he makes you fearful for your throne.
With that in mind, if my students see themselves as alpha, they needn’t fight every beta dog who looks at them the wrong way. In fact, such a rush to aggression increases the likelihood that they or people they care about will end up hurt. Alpha dogs take the choice meat from the kill. Beta dogs fight for scraps.
Instead, the alpha dog, the man, is secure in his place, and is beyond proving things to beta dogs. The alpha dog is on his grind. This is why Jay-Z and Nas only beefed when they were beta dogs up-and-coming in NYC; now that they’re on top, there’s no more need for childish conflict. Like Paul in his letters to the Corinthian Church, the alpha dog knows he has to “put childish ways behind him.”
No more stress, now I’m straight, now I get it now I take
Time to think before I make mistakes just for my family’s sake
That part of me left yesterday the heart of me is strong today
No regrets, I’m blessed to say—the old me dead and gone away.