Calmer heads prevailed, and the two warring girls were only suspended for a few days. When they returned, each apologized to the class and retook their seats. On the second day, during a prayer followed by petitions, one of the girls asked for good thoughts for an ailing relative. The other one then quickly followed with a request for best wishes for her own upcoming exam, and then for her former antagonist’s family member.
“Here, here,” the top scholar in the class said, while everyone lightly applauded.
“Okay, enough of that,” I said in my teacher voice. “Let’s talk about opposition paragraphs in persuasive essays.”
I figured it would be best to quickly move to another topic, but the glow in the eyes of both young ladies moved me. The thing I love most about teenagers is their uncanny ability to read between the lines. Sure, sometimes they charge without warning like attack dogs in an alley, but I know it’s just energy fueling their brigade, not malice. Even the ill-tempered ones usually let the steam evaporate if I toss a peppermint candy his or her way.
I just get kids, especially teens. I remember so vividly both the thrill and the terror my juvenile dreams evoked. I remember the list of grown ups I vowed to never become, and the few I sought to emulate. I remember trying on clothes that never seemed to fit. I wanted so much, not just for me, but for my friends, and my family, and my nation, and the world. Sometimes, when my creative writing seniors are not looking, they share poetry and literary portraits so poignant I have to stop what I am thinking and sit down.
Listening is what they crave, with as little judgement as possible. Direction, maybe. Judgement, never. It is not always an easy order to fill. Adult reflex suggests some form of lesson is in order. A necessary lecture draped in precaution and once-upon-a-time is what they always do in the movies and those sitcoms where the children run the show.
Resisting the urge to instruct is never easy for a teacher, especially when some of the things students say and do make no apparent sense. When the proportions appear mismatched, and little hurdles paralyze while big ones unduly shrink, you want to give a little shake to the shoulders and tell them what to do, or not do.
“All of that will pass,” you want to say.
And maybe it will. But most of youth is the yearning to find out for yourself. Why does that road hold a Caution sign? Who put it there, and when? I got burned more than twice before I really listened, and, even now, I sometimes wander where I probably should not.
Mistakes are such a part of learning. In high school, I always redid the math problems I got wrong–on paper, or in my head. I want my students to understand that failure is the first sign of success. The human spirit seems to crave some type of adventure. It’s the way we define a well-lived life. My students want what everyone wants–someone who loves them, no matter what.
Until you feel that, you can’t feel safe enough to repair your damage and proceed. I do not believe you can treasure something really worthwhile unless you’ve lost something valuable too. When boys write about fathers who stayed away, or girls pout about a boy who lied, or a friend who betrayed, I always try to assure them that what they feel is real, but so is the sun shining outside, and the tomorrow waiting to rise.
“You can do it!” is one of my favorite chants. I usually jump up and down when I say it. Some students look at me and laugh. They think I am too old to leap with enthusiasm. “I told my mother about you,” one girl shared. “I told her about this man older than dirt who just keeps coming.”
“Yea,” another boy said. “I wanna be like you when I get old. Where you get all that energy?”
I want to say, “From you, from all this life around me. From the answers I still don’t have.” But instead I turn to the boy or the girl and scowl, “Who you calling ‘old’?”
Then I break out in a Michael Jackson dance before returning to the board.
That move gets them every time.