Breaking News: Middle School Hard to Teach
Teaching is a lot like being a pregnant woman. I can’t drink or smoke while I’m doing it and I’m gaining weight. Just to shore up any metaphorical confusion: signing the contract is conception. Your boss is your husband. Your boss/husband can often be the scapegoat for your anger. Trimesters are trimesters. And eating too much is eating too much. Also, I think God forgot to mention that another result of the first sin, after toiling in the earth and pain in childbirth, was pain in teaching; ie, teaching middle school. But the aspect of pregnancy that translates directly to teaching, transporting all of its meaning and value without losing an ounce along the way, like a Deloitte employee’s paychecks to J Crew, is the mood swings. Some days (or hours), I’m as happy as a family crossing a river in Oregon Trail without any fatalities; the next minute, I could kill a 7th grader in front of his classmates as an example, the proverbial head on a stake. And these are good, well-behaved, affluent, Christian kids just doing their best, bless their hearts, in a tiny private school bubble. Imagine the bloodbath that would ensue if I was employed by a public school. All I know is, this one year teaching experiment is turning into a life-changing assault on my character and personality.
While I’m well into my first year of teaching, my desire to kill children has really only started over the last few weeks. I thought I had gotten my rhythm down as an Algebra and P.E. teacher, but, recently, after a colleague’s father’s sudden heart condition has taken him out of commission indefinitely, I have had to take on some of his duties, and this includes one particular Pre-Algebra class full of seventh graders who have waged war on me the only way class clowns know how: to get in my head like Metta World Peace gets into the head of the player he’s guarding, to drive me subtely nuts like Michael Douglass in Falling Down, to take me down the same way Kramer planned to take down the Mayan clothing store by removing all the desiccant packets from all the clothing: slow and steady sabotages win this race. Turn and face the board to write a math problem and you can guarantee someone will start wrestling someone else behind me, something will be thrown to someone or at someone, or someone will say something dumb to me about how they don’t understand when they’ll ever use this in life. Once, last week, without even turning around, I called Luke out for an annoying drummer imitation.
“How did you know it was Luke?” piped Gray, in genuine disbelief, “Do you have eyes in the back of your head?”
“I have ears in the back of my head,” I responded. I couldn’t imagine having this job if I was half-deaf. Depth perception hearing is vital to my survival.
Like a pregnant woman’s looks, I am clearly being changed by this. My prior teaching experience was in China, where fifty college students were my captive audience. I could be informal, play games, make jokes, and they would always follow my lead back to the subject at hand. Middle school kids need explicit boundaries about when to be disciplined and when to let their hair down. Creating those boundaries means becoming totalitarian, which makes a loss of popularity a foregone conclusion. This is not easy for me. I come from a long histroy of being liked. I was even homecoming king once, and those little mongrels can never take that away from me, but what they can take away is the street credit it gives me. Okay, I retract that. Let’s be honest; a homecoming or prom crown starts to work against you the minute you graduate high school, especially if you’re the one who brought it up. The only good a homecoming crown ever does post-graduation is you are still and forever a better person than the people you beat out, no matter how many times they are promoted or how big their house is in Georgetown 1.
Speaking of my grade school self, one of the eeriest, sci-fli plot twists about teaching is that the kids I have to kick out into the hall for being disruptive are mirror images of myself at their age. As a former Christian school kid, I know these Christian kids are fully aware that their tom-foolery isn’t inherently immoral, or worthy of any real kind of punishment. I used to do the same type of thing to my Algebra teacher in high school. As he would turn around to explain math concepts on the board, he would write them out. This was a dead giveaway to what he was about to say next; so, I’d say it with him in unison. Every word Mr. Miesse said was met with a deep, monotone echo from behind him. I don’t know how Mr. Miesse retained his sanity; although, he did once draw a circle on the board just a little too high and force me to stand on my toes and stick my nose in it as public humiliation. Believe me, I know what they’re up to.
It would actually be easier if one of the students explicitly antagonized me, or said something obscene so I could punish them outright, but no, they don’t go for the easy shock-value interruptions; they prefer slow building subtley that gets under your skin. It’s like watching Alien rather than Aliens, except that I’m no longer the director like when I was when I was their age; I’m a pawn. I play right into their game, constantly ratcheting up the tension in the class by telling a 12 year old to not talk back to me or to shut up in my best Palpatine voice, even though I’m thinking, “that was actually pretty funny.” Doing things behind the teacher’s back will always be funny to me. In general, doing or saying the wrong thing makes up at least half of the things I think are funny. I even call out my loving girlfriend for not getting or laughing at a joke I made, as if there was something wrong with her. I’m still a clown, and it has nothing to do with my recent attempt to force a pair of suspendors onto as many outfits in my wardrobe as I can.
The problem with this pregnancy metaphor is that something is being born out of this. My question about teaching is this: will I be giving birth to a more well-rounded, mature me, or will it be a snarling, undead delinquent from the underbelly of some other world that’s the result. Will I be introducing more life into this world through my birth pangs or will I be unleashing evil? Will I begin to, like all parents learn to, don glares and frowns rather than smiles? I am coming to terms with the fact that I will be changed by teaching, but the people who really should be changing for the better are my students. What brand of students am I giving birth to? What are they learning from me as a parent away from home, as a math teacher, and as a person? Is Emporer Palpatine watching me and saying, “Good,” or is Morpheus watching me through green binary code, saying, “he’s beginning to believe”? After sufficiently giving my homeroom students boundaries at the beginning of the day last Tuesday, and after countless begs for everyone to sit down and quietly do the class reading, all of my seventh graders sat in silence working diligently for a good ten minutes. At one point as I watched them work, I felt something in my chest. Is this love? I thought. A half hour later in math class I found myself telling Gray and Mitch to “shut up” firmly on two separate occasions. Maybe it’s not as clear as good versus evil. After all, only a sith deals in absolutes.