About five or six years ago, I presented a workshop during an annual school event to middle school students who were selected to come up to the high school for the day. As my actual students had written, produced, directed, and edited documentary shorts that the little ones would be watching later (“Is it appropriate for a twelve year old to watch a documentary on piercings that starts with the extreme close-up of a nipple?” I wondered – probably too late. But then I thought, “Fuck it; it’s a male nipple. The kids will be fine.”), I did an activity about how to turn a defining moment each kid has experienced into a documentary film.
I had never taught such little people before, and I was actually terrified. I was scared I wouldn’t know what to say to them or that I’d make jokes they wouldn’t get or that they would just sit there and stare at me – like some of my actual students do, though after ten minutes, that just feels weird – but the group who toddled up to the high school were kids who had entered and won an essay contest to attend the event. They wanted to be there. They liked school. And they all raised their hands immediately whenever I so much as spoke a sentence that mildly ended with an upwards question-like inflection.
“I’m legitimately afraid you’re going to pull your arm out of the socket,” I said to one blonde boy whose hand shot up so quickly that the papers on my desk would move by the force of the breeze. Still, it was an actually enjoyable afternoon and I had a moment while I was driving home where I thought to myself that maybe what I should really be doing was teaching middle school kids.
I also sometimes think about how nice it would be to own a pony or my very own otter who could live in my tub and sometimes I think about which bra I own that would be the hottest one for me to wear if I did a strip-tease for someone who is not my boyfriend, so I guess the lesson here is that I think about a lot of things and only some of them happen. And the teach-middle-school thing never happened and I wildly hope that it never will, because though I had fun that one day, I don’t really know from middle school kids.
I teach four classes of seniors and one class of juniors who will be my seniors next year because they are in a two-year course that offers a diploma in the International Baccalaureate program. My juniors are lovely, and it’s always nice that I already know a few kids who will show up next year, but the majority of my day is spent with my second semester seniors.
Ah, May. It’s a memorable time in the life of someone who will soon graduate from high school and move on to college or the military or to work or to almost-immediate parenthood, a fact that is terrifying and also sometimes true. It starts getting sunny in May and the picturesque courtyard directly below my classroom begins to get loud now during lunch periods. The hallways are less cramped somehow, but it’s not because there are fewer students abounding; it’s because spring clothing takes up less room than bulky blizzard sweaters and there seems to be a new ease with which they all go shuffling down the hall. I watch them with a smile as they try to stuff lacrosse sticks into their locker and as they break their new spring clothes out for the first exhibition and, as for me, I waited until today to go bare legged with open-toed booties and I’m not shivering in the least.
The windows of my classroom start being opened around this time of year. Sometimes a bee flies in. That kind of insect should scare nobody, but at the start of the year I get a note from the school Nurse that lists all the names of all the kids who cannot get bit by a bee, lest that kid go into some kind of shock – and very little scares me more than a kid potentially going into shock while sitting in one of my desks. There was one time a kid fainted in my classroom. I had just shown the bathtub scene from Fatal Attraction as an example of how audiences and filmmakers often choose to punish the female characters for an event in which the male character was also involved, and just as Alex wielded that knife and slammed it across that white tiled bathroom floor, one of my seniors slumped over in his seat and I realized something terrible was going on. I did what I had to: I called the Nurse, told other students to get other teachers on my hallway to help, and held the kid and didn’t allow him to move because I was afraid he’d crack his head open on the hard classroom floor. Help arrived quickly and it turned out that he was diabetic and his blood sugar was running low, but every single time I show that clip, I get a shiver that has nothing to do with a bunny recently boiled until it became al dente onscreen.
I know a lot of teachers who would rather teach Kindergarten than twelfth graders, but I’m not one of them. I like teaching seniors, but it definitely has its challenges and May brings all those challenges forth. There’s a lot going on for these kids right now, and I try to be there for those who need me even though I continue to do things like assign them papers to write. I have to do that stuff – and really, I’m the one who then has to read a ridiculous number of papers – but I never forget that my class and this paper is not the only thing going on in their lives. Their lives are complicated these days, and they take those complications seriously and so I do too.
I’ve seen promposals every single day now. Two of them have happened in my classroom. Times have seriously changed; I was asked to the prom when the guy and I were walking down the hallway at school. He said it in a rush – “Willyougotothepromwithme?” – and I could see that he was nervous and I found that sweet and I said yes and that was it. But today? The whole thing is way more elaborate and elaborate often means there’s more pressure, though I also think that putting all this effort into asking someone pretty much guarantees that, unless the person is a total asshole, the response will be the one the promposaler wants to hear. And yes, I am very aware that promposal and promposaler are not really words, but for a long time neither was GIF.
Lately, besides prom dresses my girls show to me on their phones – “What color shoes are you going to wear?” I ask while thinking, “Please don’t say ‘turquoise that’s dyed to match my dress.’” – I’m seeing a lot of once-secure relationships begin to spin in ways that is causing a shitload of confusion that sometimes gets in the way of caring how Hitchcock managed to get certain scenes of Psycho through the censors. There are those couples who have been together for years now, but come September they will be in different schools and in different states and I can see in their eyes that they are simultaneously craving freedom while being petrified by it.
They ask me for advice sometimes. I tell them that I went to college with a boyfriend and we stayed together for almost four years, even though he went to school a plane ride away. I adored him almost beyond comprehension, but I wish I had been single at school and I tell my students that and I know that nothing I say really will sway them in this area, so instead I concentrate on warning them not to stalk the Twitter and the Instagram of the other person while they are away next year.
Stalking is never a good sign of sanity – that is something I know for sure.
Then there are the problems that are not just their problems but their family’s too, and it usually involves money. One of my favorite girls applied to a ridiculous number of schools. I would be out at a bar or at a hockey game or at home late on Thanksgiving night, and I would get another email from this kid asking me to read yet another scholarship essay for which she was applying. Those essay topics? I have read and coached kids through them all:
· How would you be an asset to the campus community?
· Why would you fit in with a diverse population?
· What is your greatest strength and your most glaring weakness?
· Compose a tweet that explains your current mindset in 40 words or less.
The tweet one is an actual essay topic, and I’d like to commend that southern university for at least varying shit so I don’t have to only read nonsense essays where kids say that their biggest weakness is that they try too hard. I mean, does anybody believe such a thing?
But after all those essays and all those applications and all those recommendation letters, my student started getting some good news and some bad news. She got into several colleges she saw as “reach” schools and she got into just about all of her safety schools, and she spent a good two weeks pondering and examining and losing her entire mind over which school she should actually go to in the Fall, and then, just a few weeks ago, she stopped by my classroom before first period to tell me she made her choice and that she would be attending a beautiful private school on the east coast. She seemed secure in her choice, and I saw on her face that it was a good day because she knew where she would be come September.
Then, late last week, another teacher told me the kid had been looking for me and that she looked very upset and I finally found her and she was hysterically crying. They were the sort of tears that refuse to stop rolling and I went into a bathroom and found her toilet paper because all of these fucking kids with their fucking allergies have used all of my tissues, and I finally got her to explain what was going on and it was that she couldn’t go to the college she had finally chosen because it would be too expensive. Instead, she would be going to a really good school – one friends I have who went absolutely loved – but that doesn’t matter and it certainly didn’t matter in that moment. The kid was devastated because her carefully laid plans had been uprooted just as she’d started to see them like a future memory, and there wasn’t much I could say except that I was sorry and that I understood how she felt.
See, the thing about teaching kids this age is that some of what they go through and react to is kind of a big deal. My sister Paula teaches really young kids, and one of the things she has to deal with constantly is having one kid tattle on another. She’s become so prepared for such a probable annoyance that she’s got herself a little system in place where the kids now know that they are not allowed to tattle to her; they have to talk to the stuffed dinosaur toy she keeps in the classroom, the Tattlasaurus, and the kids must air their grievances to him so she doesn’t have to fucking hear it.
I don’t have a Tattlasaurus. I’d have to say, “Tell my five-inch heels your problems, but please remember to compliment them because you’re not the only one with faltering self-esteem, okay?” And that right there is yet another reason why I should only be tasked with relating to the oldest kids.
I teach students who are in the throes of having a future. In these last two weeks alone, four separate kids have approached me after class to ask what I majored in and how they could get a job like I have, and that question is nice on so many levels. I appreciate that they recognize the passion I have for what I do and I love that my enthusiasm is sometimes more contagious than mono, but what I really love is that some of them are looking to live a life that brings them continual joy – and knowing how hard life is and how hard it is to sometimes get it up for that joy, I wish them only the very best.
The hallways will smell like suntan lotion soon. I teach right near the ocean, so many of my students will leave school right after the bell and head out to get some color. They will stay out later and later, not heading home until it’s pitch-black-dark, and they will arrive at school in the morning looking very tired. They will get their yearbooks in a few weeks, and not one of them will go anywhere without it until the very end of school. Some will ask me to sign it and to a bunch of kids I’ll write something sweet but mildly generic and to others I will write long messages that often indicate my pride in who the kid is and will become. On that last day, just as the bell rings, many of them will come and hug me goodbye, and it’s bizarre to know that they will not be back.
I stay in touch with some of them. Kids will add me on Facebook and, after they graduate, I’ll accept the request. I get emails that tell me that the newest possession film totally follows the theories I taught them and sometimes I’ll just get a brief email that says something like, “Goodfellas. Best tracking shot ever. Show your classes.” And moments like that never stop me from smiling.
Just like they are, I find myself lately counting down the days until school ends. I want to write more. I want to sleep later. I want to work out at any hour besides four in the afternoon because I don’t think I’m ever as unmotivated as I am at four in the afternoon. But before that day in late June when I wave goodbye to the teachers and my students, there is a lot to do and part of that job is to pull or push these kids over the finish line so they can go line up for a new race and I can finally go relax and get a tan.