The uncertainty and shock of feeling as if I’d entered a distorted dimension, splintered and shapeshifting, grew into a full-time stint as a middle school teacher. Everyone should have to teach middle school. I’ve said this ever since I realized I wasn’t going to quit teaching after all, ever since I got through those first few years.
I usually say it at a disgruntled moment when it seems as if the people who I’m listening to or observing just don’t appreciate the complexity of heartache and the simplicity of discipline.
Those people usually have Bobble Head egos and tell really bad jokes that they laugh at because nobody else will. But, sometimes those people are people who I would normally get along with and they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be shoved into a tween body and told to cheer up and be happy about it.
Teaching middle school reminds me of this on a daily basis.
If you pressed rewind to the day I began, it feels like one of those nightmarish dreams or thematic moments in a film. I’d spent fifteen years as an artist, writer, and editor and then I woke up in khaki pants and wearing a bun in my hair with a bunch of tweens and teens blinking at me.
What’s worse, I had to attempt to entertain them for hours on end, a daring and nearly impossible feat in a society where social media and video games rule the world. So, I didn’t. I did the opposite. I talked to them. I looked them in the eyes and I talked to them. And, it was eerie.
There were moments when the world went winding around into a useless array of clutter speckled with static electricity that reminded me there was still energy left somewhere for me to tap into, even though the exhaustion accompanying my new career left me broken at times.
Teaching hundreds of students that reading still mattered shifted my perspective of right and wrong. It buried my sense of reality and scraped at my soul. Students openly berated me for daring to talk to them about the beauty of reading, for deigning to announce that the written word stands more powerful, more insightful than the latest flick.
Every fear I’d shut away in the dark corners of those storage closets, where you can’t even reach in order to pull down a box or everything tumbles out, those fears fell, crushing parts of me that I had thought were never to be seen again.
It was subtle at first. Sometimes, it was just a simple observation. A girl cried because someone called her a name. I needed to listen. Yes. These things happened. And, it happened to me so, really, I could help her. But, inside me all these emotions arose from somewhere left alone, somewhere kept quiet.
And, I tried to quiet them again.
But, there they were staring at me, waiting for me to recognize their existence. So, I did and what a twisted ride I took from there.
You’re pushed to a point that most of us runaway from and never really address. We simply encounter it over and over in our lives. We have run-ins with the classroom bullies who insidiously stick a foot out while we’re just walking to our desk, but this time, the bully’s a co-worker or even a boss, maybe even the person we love.
When I see kids come to school with their hair cinched into a bun or even disheveled, I chuckle. They don’t know how to just live, just be. If they do, they overdo it. They don’t have a sense of individuality and if they do they hide it. Muted and blended, they try so hard not to be different. But, when their appearance masks missing homework or no pencil or even a missing backpack, I know there’s more to it.
No matter how hard I try to forget, there I am too. I’m sitting in school without my pencil, no homework. My mother had had a fight with my stepfather. My grandmother had too many kids to care for and I had to help. My sister’d thrown a fit. I’d stayed up late doing my work because what else was there to do? I needed something to get my mind off the fighting. But, in the morning, sleep and chaos left my work at home.
I sat in class, reprimanded for not doing my work. It wouldn’t be the first or last time.
I remember that, my past, when I stay with my students organizing their folders. I remember that when I sit at lunch listening to their problems. I remember what it was like to be them when I give them the extra bag of chips I buy because I know one of them will be hungry for many reasons. Someone forgot to pack lunch. They just have no money. Or, maybe they just starve themselves. But if a teacher hands them a bag of Tostitos and everyone else is grabbing some, they might just take some too.
As adults, we get caught up in our problems and forget the kids who came with those problems. As adults, we forget the life we left behind. We forget what’s important in order to chase meaningless wants and desires.
Sometimes, as parents, we look at the social media and general consensus that education and agree knowingly. But, it doesn’t really matter when kids still go to school anyway. We love to justify our neglect, our smug lives, our rush forward. But, we shouldn’t.
How do I know? Well, I’m a middle school teacher. You should try it someday. You might learn something.