Friday, January 15, 2016

To My Teachers: Now I Get It

Since starting at a huge public middle school this year Anna is always coming home and regaling me with stories about her sixth grade classes. More often than not, they involve descriptions of teachers who are exasperated, snippy, moody, corny, or even downright ogre-like...

...which is why it's really funny when we actually visit the school and I see or meet some of these teachers, I realize quite quickly that they are perfectly human and, even better, usually about my age.

The other evening we were over at Anna's school for the sixth grade "winter concert." For weeks all I'd heard was how the songs embarrassed her; she didn't want to do the hand motions; the kids weren't motivated to sing; her teacher was always frazzled and yelling at people.

That night the kids got up on the stage and sung their songs very sweetly (albeit quietly; no sixth grader believes in singing with gusto). I happened to have a question about where to sit beforehand and was directed to ask, wouldn't you know, the infamous choir director I'd heard only described through Anna's eyes.

I looked across from me and saw a woman about my age, who politely gave me a suggestion and then went back to wrangling a group of chatty adolescents...and had yet another one of those weird epiphanies in which I realized my generation was now the one being mocked as "out of touch," and that I no longer viewed school through the disgusted eyes of a young adult but through much more empathetic ones.

In short: I felt simultaneously awed by what teachers do day in and day out and very, very sorry for the way we all acted, back then.

As I listened to another choir teacher behind me, hissing at a group of younger kids, "Boys and girls! What is all of this talking? Why are you getting out of your seats?!" I sat and remembered this substitute teacher we'd had in high school: Miss Pauvre. She was about 80 years old and no more than 50 feet tall and 90 pounds. In Chemistry people kept giving her the wrong names while she took attendance until she was thoroughly confused. Later someone threw her bag lunch out the window.

I thought of the times I volunteered in the nursery at church. First, I tried the babies but grew bored because they couldn't talk to me. I switched to the preschoolers, which was a little better...except somehow 45 minutes with 10 three-years-olds felt like three years. How do people do this every day? I wondered. I wanted to gather every day care worker and preschool teacher into my arms and embrace them.

I thought of watching at Ethan's school each year as the teachers attempted to corral their classrooms of 20+ kids at the "holiday singalong" in the gym. Every child seemed to have ants in their pants. The teachers had to watch like hawks to be ready to intervene on anyone who might decide to poke or hit their neighbor, yell across the gym to a friend, get out of place, talk when the principal was talking, and so on. Again, I always wondered: how?? How do you do this and enjoy it? Only a certain, special type of person I think can.

And as I watched Anna and the other sixth graders that night, I could only look back to my own sixth grade year with a completely different set of emotions.

Is there anything more difficult than sixth grade? Really. I spent my sixth grade year at Springfield Christian School. It wasn't the type of experience most kids have. I mean, how many tweens do you know that are forced to write chapters of the Bible as punishment (or the Gettysburg Address, or the Declaration of Independence, both of which I had to copy five times on different occasions)? How many sixth graders are allowed to go "soul winning" in shady inner city neighborhoods on Friday afternoons? Nope, my experience wasn't everyone's cup of tea, but, Christian school or not, we were really like sixth graders anywhere:

I see now. My teacher may not have been perfect, but we were absolute brats.

Whereas for years and years I could only remember my mean teacher and his writing assignments, I now remember the way the class would wait for a time when he left the room to go completely wild. Boys chased each other, running across the tops of the desks. Kids hid all the chalk and erasers. Several plotted putting tacks on the teacher's chair. Someone inevitably would push their chair back until they fell; work on their supply of spitballs; grab someone else's homework.

My teacher spent a lot of time just trying to wrangle a group of 25 hormonal, prepubescent kids into focusing on something, anything of value.

My sixth grade teacher was most likely the same age I am now, when he came into the room that January afternoon, for once subdued, and told us the space shuttle Challenger had exploded.

He was, like Anna's teachers, not an ogre...just a regular human being trying to do an incredibly difficult job.

These days I feel as if it's my mission to thank Anna's teachers, thank any middle school teacher especially, as often as possible. How do they do it? I don't know. But I'm glad they keep trying.

I think of her art teacher, who Anna says gets completely exasperated, as Anna and one other boy are the only two who actually sit and listen in the classroom. Anna called her a werewolf one day because of her wildly varying moods. That's what will happen to you, when you teach middle school. It's not for the faint of heart.

So thank you to Mr. Gagne, Ms. Szwed, Miss Wallace, and all of the others Anna tells me about. Thanks for not giving up on these crazy kids.

And Mr. Cunha? My sixth grade teacher? Yes, I think I finally forgive you for cancelling our field trip to Washington, D.C. because of our bad behavior. I'm on the other side now. I get it.

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