Tuesday, March 13, 2018

To the kids in eighth period study hall who made me cry

Dear Eighth Period Study Hall,

To start with, I didn’t sleep well Sunday night. I woke up around 1:30 a.m. and started thinking about the week- about you, about friends I’d been meaning to check in with, about bills I keep forgetting to pay, about how the dog makes it really hard to roll over in the bed, about how I really, really wanted to be asleep, about things that happened years ago and that things that might happen months from now. Trying to find a comfortable sleeping position when you’re pregnant is impossible. When 5:30 arrived I stumbled out of bed feeling as though I’d just arrived there minutes before. It all felt very unfair and unjust. Two feelings you know well I’m sure.

Then I left my coffee on the counter. I don’t drink a lot of coffee, but on an over-tired Daylight Savings Time Monday morning I really could’ve used it. Especially because Mr. D was elsewhere in the building for the day and it was up to me to teach lessons on reading the periodic table of elements to two classes. I’m not a science teacher. I haven’t studied the periodic table of elements since sophomore year of high school and it was a nightmare. So I was nervous about standing in front of two classes and acting like I knew what I was talking about when describing the anatomy of an atom and the role of valence electrons and how to figure out how many neutrons there are. Two students in second period kept yelling at each other across the room and half of fourth period was asleep for most of the class it seemed. If I asked them to keep their heads up or to stop chatting, they looked at me as if I’d grown a second head.

And I was so thirsty. I usually dump out my coffee and replace it with water part way through the day, but I didn’t have my cup. So that didn’t help things.

I know. None of that seems really all that awful on its own, right? Adult problems are so lame.

It’s just that when you arrived in the classroom eighth period, I was already kind of done with the day. You know how it goes. You’re sometimes done with the day when you sit down for first period. Like, you don’t want to be there. I get it. 

And at the start of eighth period, there was just a series of things- little things- that got my eyes twitching. The person who turned off my computer for no reason. Finding papers from my desk thrown on the floor. Discovering the word “Fag” has been written on my blackboard in pencil for who knows how long. Seeing the box of tissue I brought from home all mangled on someone’s desk.

I know that none of it is earth shattering. None of it is even surprising coming from a bunch of cagey, hormonal 13 and 14 year olds. The things I’ve gotten accustomed to after spending a better part of this year in middle school. On most days I can roll with shenanigans. Even laugh at the funny ones. You geeking out over Pokemon, loudly singing the lyrics to “Fruit Salad” by the Wiggles or offering each other relationship advice (for the record, the term “you gotta cuff” is definitely cringey in the age of #MeToo). I love when we can have conversations about weird internet memes or books you’re reading or plans for your weekend.

But I’m just kind of tired of hearing words like “fag” and “retarded.” The loud, out-of-nowhere aimless yelling is startling and annoying. And I don't really want to listen to a bunch of eighth grade boys talk about “having a strong pull-out game” or discussing pre-ejaculate while using the lotion I bought for the room. I don’t really want to have to remind someone 10 times to stop banging the school calculator on the desk or to stop wandering out into the hallway to talk to students who also shouldn’t have been out in the hallway. 

You know I’m only supposed to give you three passes a quarter to use the restroom or get water? But I bend that rule. The bathroom’s right across the hall, the water fountain’s not far. I let you use both once a class usually. If you ask. I know the room is small and it’s the end of the day and I don’t want you to feel like this is prison, even though I think we all kind of feel as if you’re the inmates and I’m the warden. I’m trying to be flexible where I can be flexible.

But when you ask to use the bathroom and then don’t return to class for 15 minutes (if I’m being generous) and I’ve already accumulated a list of lesser offenses (I feel like I shouldn’t have to remind you again that the “F” word is not appropriate for school) then I start to feel a bit more rigid. Like I’m being taken advantage of. I reported you for cutting class because it’s my job to know where you are, to keep you in the classroom and to help you be successful. No, the fact that you were hanging out in the bathroom to text your mom doesn’t change the fact that you took advantage of the situation. And the fact that you’re pissed about receiving consequences does not make it my fault.

I’d like to take a minute to remind you that while I’m the lame substitute whose name you can’t feel bothered to remember (I can handle being Fake Miss M, Bootleg Miss M, Miss M Negative 2.0 for the remainder of the year, whatever) I’m a human being. In fact, technically, right now, I’m actually two human beings in one. When you left my classroom the other day I cleaned up the broken pencils on the floor, straightened the chairs, checked the blackboard for expletives and then I cried. Because I was overtired and overwhelmed and felt like a fraud. Like a fool. Like I wanted to quit right then.Like I’d just been run over by a stampede of nine unruly middle schoolers.

I’d like to let you know that I see you as humans, too. That as angry and annoyed and frustrated as I get with you, I still see you as people. I still see your potential. I still see the goodness buried underneath all your crassness and assholery. I know you are passionate and have ideas about the world. I know your worldview is starting to take shape- that your brains are being molded like clay- and it’s fascinating and inspiring and infuriating to witness.

But as your teacher (even if it’s only your substitute teacher) I’d be failing you to not point out that the language you use matters. That the way you talk to people and the way you treat them matters. So when I say “hello” to you in the hallway and you look past me like I’m not there, that matters. I’ll continue to say “hello” to you, because I’m the grownup and I want to make sure you know I see you, but each time you fail to see me as another person, that sits with me. When I ask you to put your phone away so that I can share pertinent information with you and you tell me, “No, I’m good,” that matters. It tells me something about you. When you make jokes about suicide or your classmates’ sexuality or race, it matters. When you insist on using profanity despite my repeated requests that you don’t use profanity, that matters.

I get that they are just words and that you are in this middle ground where you are not children and want to test out all this seemingly “adult” language and ideas. Just because you can. If feels kind of good and kind of rebellious. Kind of like you’re toeing the line. Testing the boundaries. But it’s still all kind of disrespectful. Not just to me, but to yourself and your classmates.

I know right now, at 14, that doesn’t matter much to you. It doesn’t carry much weight. But it will one day. One you’ll know. Get it out of your system now- the rest of the world will not be as forgiving.

I’ve regrouped and reminded myself that you’re still children – well, half children anyway – that none of this is personal. That the people you are today aren’t the people you will be forever. That I was in middle school, too. Walking around with notebook page reinforcements on my nose and passing notes to my friends about boys as the civics teacher droned on about the three branches of government. I was annoying and obnoxious. And I still am today, but hopefully less so.

Come next eighth period, I’ll be right back on my stool. Rolling my eyes at your antics, keeping my ears pealed for the insightful tidbits about your lives and your perspectives that you feed me. I won’t forget my coffee this time and I won’t forget that every day is a chance to start over. And I hope the act of showing up and sticking it out will be a subtle to reminder to you as time goes on, that despite your best efforts, I still see you. I want to be a soft place for you to land because I know middle school can feel a bit like a warzone.

I’m only partly doing it for you. Last week we did a lesson on forgiveness. You ignored most of it, but I was paying attention. Did you hear the parts that said people who were able to forgive were happier and lived longer? Well I did. So I'm giving myself the gift of grace. Forgiving you for stretching the limits of my patience and forgiving myself for not always being up for the job. 

Mrs. J.

P.S. You know those days that go all wrong and you kind of dread having to wake up and face the next day? One thing life keeps reminding me is that waking up and facing the next day is the best thing for you. That doesn't mean the new day is all sunshine and butterflies, but if you don't face it you won't get to hear, for instance, that a student in fourth period thought you did a good job heading the class the day before. And you won't get to take home an out-of-the-blue thank you note from a student in seventh period. You won't get to hear another teacher confess that they lost they've lost their cool, too, making you feel a little less incompetent. It gets better. 

P.P.S. I know if I actually ever sent this note to any of you, most of you wouldn't get much further than the first paragraph and fixate on some random excerpt like "the dog makes it hard" and spend the duration of our interaction making inappropriate innuendo about bestiality. Because, middle school.


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