I teach junior high English. Actually, they call it middle school now, but in my mind it will always be junior high. In case you were wondering, I’ll let you in on something. It’s exactly the same as you remember it. Nothing has improved. Nothing. Junior high is still hell. A hell of pimples you attempt to cover up with goopy foundation. A hell of lockers that won’t open on the day your book report is due. A hell of strange odors, weird hair growth, crazed bullies, sadistic adults, and best friends who will abandon you on a whim in the Darwinian nightmare that is the cafeteria.
So why do I do it? Why would I choose, day after day, to vicariously relive some of the most nightmarish days of my own life?
There are, of course, the clichéd answers. Responses that involve Shaping the Future and Making a Difference. And I suppose there is quite a bit of truth in those clichés.
But I think I have decided that I teach junior high because teaching junior high has reminded me what love is.
As I walk the hallways and pass out the papers, I am shaken by my students’ love and by their passion. It is undeniable. From the moment the morning bell rings, when they force themselves into the building and barrel down the hallway, I am in honor of their fervor and their zeal.
They come to my poetry and creative writing club meetings and draw on their hands with Sharpie markers and write long, impassioned diatribes to boys named Marco who broke their hearts. They read The Outsiders by S.E .Hinton and cry at the part where Johnny dies. I mean, they cry in class! In front of each other!
They tape pictures of their best friends and cute girls and cute boys and actors and musicians all over their binders, and then they carry those binders around as a testimony to what they love, and so there is no doubt about what they love, and so everyone will know what they love.
They get in fist fights in the bathrooms over seemingly small and ridiculous things like someone was talkin’ smack about someone else, but these things are NOT ridiculous. Not to them. These things are worth shedding blood over.
They beg to leave class just a moment before the bell rings because if they don’t, they will not be able to find a certain person before lunch to tell them something incredibly important, and if they do not get to find this person, the world will come to an end. And it will.
They write long, rambling notes to each other that are full of terrible grammar, and they drop them on the floor where I find them and read them, and I am convinced even more of their love.
They are even in love with their hatred. They don’t dislike something. Instead, they love to despise it. They love to hate homework, and when you give them a day off from homework, they love you as if you were their own mother. They give you candy from their lunches and they cheer for you, and they say you are the best teacher they have ever had in their entire lives. And then the next day, when you assign homework again, they roll their eyes at you and they slump in their seats and they exhale so loudly you think you might get blown over.
Here is what I am trying to get you to understand. During a lesson on subordinating conjunctions, I had my students complete the following phrases:
If I had a crush on someone, I would…
When I see my crush, I feel…
After I talk to my crush, I think…
The following is one typical response from a student in first period:
If I had a crush on someone, I would tell them.
When I see my crush, I feel like throwing up.
After I talk to my crush, I think I would like to talk to them again.
I read their responses with awe and wonder. If I had a crush on someone, I would tell them. Who does that? What adult do you know does that? Not a single one. Most adults might answer, “If I had a crush on someone, I would Google them. If I had a crush on someone, I would ask them to meet me for drinks. If I had a crush on someone, I would wonder if our longterm goals were compatible. If I had a crush on someone, I would assume they were going to cheat on me like all those jerks before.”
But not my students. If they had a crush on someone…they would tell them. As simple as that. And they do tell them, and then it doesn’t work out, and they are devastated. Devastated! But then they find another crush. And it is as new and as wonderful and as precious as the first.
I started this little essay with the revelation that junior high is still hell. I think the other secret is that life is actually one big junior high. Only now, instead of your locker not opening on the day your book report is due, it’s your car not starting on the morning of a big job interview. And instead of pimples, it’s wrinkles. But basically, I think everything else is pretty much the same.
Except for one thing. We have lost our love. Our gusto. Our ardor for life and our certainty that anything that is happening to us at any one particular moment is The Most Important Thing That Ever Happened to Anyone Ever.
Now think about that and answer the following three questions for me.
If you had a crush on someone, you would…
When you see your crush, you feel…
After you talk to your crush, you think…