One of the things I do for assorted reasons (travel money, get out of my introvert shell, get a periodic kid fix) is to work every week or so as a substitute teacher. High school is my favorite. After two decades of running my own classroom, walking into a room full of teens is invigorating rather than daunting.
This past week two friends asked me to cover for them. One teaches 9th and 10th grade English, the other upper level, college-bound science. If you know teens, you know there’s always the good, the bad and the ugly.
That day’s ugly lay in a 15-year-old boy taking some cheap shots at another kid who clearly doesn’t approach life the same way. Maybe on the autism spectrum, maybe just socially disastrous. We all know that kid. The annoying comments, the clueless observations that pinpoint flaws, the uncomfortably pitched voice. The current climate about bullying in school made it happily easy to nip that harassment in the bud without any hard feelings. The awkward kid got vindicated and experienced a small triumph; the would-be bully got a reminder that persecuting someone isn’t a joke, ever, and we expect more from him. All good. I won’t go into what used to happen in classrooms – we all know that one too well.
The bad got a boost from a state-mandated lock-down drill. That’s the one where the kids huddle in the dark and practice what to do if an armed intruder is in the building. They know, we know, that life today makes this scenario a terrifying possibility. Our boogeymen have become real.
When you spend a lot of time with teens, you discover that behind the stupid bravado, snarky comments and eye rolls, there are kids whose personal lives are so awful you don’t know how they get up and get to school every day.
In my own classes I’ve known kids whose parents refused to buy them food, stepdads who beat the beejoobies out of every vulnerable member of the family, adult addicts who made sleeping on a friend’s couch for just one more day, a better choice than going home. Hard to do your homework in those situations.
A drill to prepare kids for the worst shatters some fragile coping mechanisms. I didn’t know these kids, but their ugly became visible. One of the girls dashed around the classroom creating an uproar. Her friends giggled and deflected my attempts to settle her down. When I tried to get her off her phone, she enacted the entire rude teen repertoire. Deep breath. Hold on to my temper. Finally, she told me her mom was in hospital with a potentially fatal infection and she was trying to get through to her. Yeah, I might not act my best either.
Next period, another kid created havoc with play dough – she had been supplied it by the school grief counselor. She acted like a preschooler on a sugar high, but the previous week I had seen her give a speech to the entire school – poised, thoughtful, admirable. Counselors in a high school don’t hand out play dough for nothing. Her friends had circled the wagons around her too. Frustrating as it was in the moment, I’m grateful they did. Whatever was going on, she needed more support than a substitute teacher could offer.
And then there is the obvious good. Right now I’m watching a group of students write a test that quizzes them on their theoretical and practical knowledge of analyzing DNA for mutations. They can do it. They are already proficient enough and understand the theory well enough to work in a professional lab. Amazing. Despite all the pressures of teen life, they are inhaling this knowledge. I’m okay with trusting them with my future.
These kids are why, after years of interacting with teens, I am always optimistic. Life is as hard for some of them as anyone. Harder maybe. But these kids, even the difficult ones, give me hope that they will build on or fix what came before. I hope the weird kid will be protected so that he can achieve what is in him to achieve. I hope that kids with a hard start have friends and professionals to gather around in times of trouble. And I hope the students with enquiring minds will thrive for the benefit of all of us.
When I hang around teens, no matter how exasperating, frustrating and generally mindless one kid can seem in the moment, the stream of kids I see carry me into hope. It’s all good.
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