Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Two days back in middle school

Photo courtesy of Turinboy/Flickr
My brain on seventh grade.

I spent two days subbing in seventh grade this week.

My brain feels as if it's been repeatedly crumpled up like forgotten homework and tossed into a trashcan like a makeshift basketball (a pastime seventh grade boys still seem to relish, by the way). 

My memories of seventh grade are hazy– though I can say with confidence I don't recall that stage of my life with anything bridging on fondness. Mostly, I remember crowded hallways. Really crowded hallways. And giant backpacks. And everyone pushing against each other. And loud, spazzy adolescent boys who always seemed to be running or bouncing off walls and other people like pinballs. And equally loud adolescent girls with long hair and even longer judgmental stares. 

But mostly it was loud. The school always felt as if it were, like, a doublewide trailer careening along some poorly maintained, winding mountain road in the Himalayas. Just one wrong move from tumbling into an anarchic abyss.

Based on my brief foray back to romper room– it doesn't seem like much has changed.

I mean I've changed. Mostly. My go-to outfit no longer consists of a T-shirt featuring the Animaniacs and carpenter jeans (why would a seventh-grade girl needed a hammer loop on her pants? You ask. For style. D'Uh (double aside, the kids don't say that anymore)). I no longer carry around a rubber frog named Newton in my pocket or a bedazzled Orange Tic-Tac case named Bob. And whatever. As if you had it all together in seventh grade.

Also, I've changed because I didn't totally dread going back to middle school this week. It was exhausting, no doubt. But I get it. I get these kids. The ones stuck between wanting to make sure their Marble Composition books were totally covered in unicorn stickers and wanting to make sure their hair was styled just so (side note: The boys were the ones sharing hair product). You're just figuring out you have all these huge thoughts about life and the world and all its injustices (and all these thoughts must be shared at high volumes) but you're still also kind of freaked out about dressing out for gym. You still find yourself doodling Pokemon characters on your English notes or fawning over pictures of puppies. 

It's a time of transition. 

Your whole life kind of feels like that four minutes between classes– all rushed and harried and thrilling and scary.

I was subbing again as an instructional assistant, this time helping out teachers in classrooms with kids who had learning disabilities or emotional disabilities. This meant I spent a lot of time trying to get antsy, easily distracted 12 year olds to focus on their lesson or reminding them (again and again and again) what the instructions were from the teacher or asking them (again and again and again) to stop looking at their cell phones. I don't know how teachers teach when there are cell phones in the vicinity. If you've ever found yourself wondering, what would a seventh grader be interested in more- the Reconstruction Amendments or Snapchatting pictures of yourself with dog ears– the answer is always Snapchat.  

I got to work a few of the kids one on one. They were funny and smart, also overwhelmed and forgetful. They just wanted to go. Go to the bathroom. Go get some water. Go sharpen their pencils (again and again and again). Go to sleep. Go home.

One student was having an especially rough day– she wished she could go back to her elementary school. She walked into English class yelling that she just wanted to go to fucking lunch (her words, not mine). The bastards (her words again, not mine) weren't letting her. She slammed a water bottle to the floor, splashing her teacher. I waited with her in the hallway for the administrator. Just suggesting that she take some deep breaths, acknowledging that switching schools is hard. She did look particularly calmed.

But I got it, you know. I mean, obviously, the water bottle and the swearing was inappropriate. But she's a different sort of kid, too. And, hey, we've all been hangry before. And seventh grade is hard. It's the worst, if we can be honest.

There's this funny thing I noticed about swearing in middle school. It's like this new toy. The kids kind of know they shouldn't be playing with, but they just can't help themselves. And the "F" word is especially shiny and enticing. I'd hear it shouted in the hallways (followed by teachers shouting that they should not be shouting the F-word in the hallways). I heard it mumbled by annoyed kids in class. During some downtime in one class, I asked a student if the book he was reading was any good. He didn't volunteer much information about it– instead asking me if I ever read books with curse words in them. "Sure," I told him. "Sometimes." His glittered and he smiled a little. "I like books with the f-word in them" ... OK ... that's not quite accurate. He actually said, "I like books  that have the word fuck in them." But at least he wasn't shouting, it right? It was used in context... sigh.

I had no idea how to respond. How do you respond to that? I think I said something lame like, "Yeah, it can be fun to read books that have language we don't usually use... especially not at school." 

One girl came into class complaining that she felt discriminated against because it seemed like there were groups of kids in school who could get away with cursing in the hallways, but that she got in trouble for it. I later learned that she didn't get in trouble for saying a bad word between class among friends. But that she may or may not have dropped an expletive or two while arguing with a teacher. Po-tay-toh, po-tah-toh, amiright?

Another teacher helped her draft an apology letter. Then helped her re-draft the apology letter because the student seemed to be suggesting that it was the teacher's fault that she was arguing with and swearing at him. I wanted to take this teacher home and sit her down to have a similar discussion with Lily about why she can't blame Jovie when she chooses to pinch her sister. It seems I'll be repeating the "we have to take responsibilities for our own actions" from now until forever.

These teachers that choose to go into special ed– you need to know they're amazing. I've only been subbing for a few weeks, but it's mostly been in these classrooms. These teachers are charged with educating children with a wide variety of needs and abilities, who are sometimes mixed into a single classroom. Teaching them to read or write or learn history seems to be come secondary to just offering them acceptance, support, steadiness and structure. The goal to just help them function in a world with all these other humans. It's tough. They're so patient. And not begrudging. There's grace in how they interact with these kids.

The teacher in the class with the swearing, water-bottling throwing student had such positive energy. I could feel the kids relax in her room. She used an old Bugs Bunny cartoon to illustrate a lesson on characterization. She lip synched along with the Bugs. Poked fun at Elmer Fudd. She processed the onslaught of requests and needs and questions with patience and ease. When they pointed out that she had a lot of gray hair, she joked and named each hair after a different student. She also took the opportunity to share a lesson about being mindful of the comments we make. She told them that while she laughed about her hair, she was kind of self-conscious about it. One student apologized for pointing it out. Not that she was looking for an apology.

It's delicate with these kids, I think. With all kids, really, but especially these kids. Having to balance a certain amount of tension that allows things to get done, being loose enough to give students the space to relax and feel safe. So that they can learn. It's an art form. A ballet. I've gotten to watch some masters. 


A P.S. to the parents who attended back to school night. We really tried to help your children fill out their schedules with their teacher's names and room numbers for you to follow. For real. A month into school, this sounded like such a straightforward task. But asking a kid to remember both where they are from one minute to next and the name of the person standing in front of them was kind of like asking them to recall what the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments are. Maybe they should just Snapchat you a picture of teacher wearing a flower crown or spewing rainbow vomit ...

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