I spend a lot of time volunteering, because I like to be wrapped in the comfort of social interaction, and while I can’t afford a lot of things–like whiskey–that would allow me to see more people outside of my home, I can force 2nd graders to take my writing advice and call me Ms. April, which is, I suspect, why a lot of people go into the profession.
I met a young teacher at a volunteer gig today who had an almost Jedi-like control over her 24 students. Every time she said something that rhymed, 48 doe-eyes tranced in her direction and repeated something back to her that also rhymed. She seriously had like 6 different child-boot-camp chants. Here’s the thing: while she was “amazing” with the students, her interactions with other humans (me) were akin to rude with a dash of self-righteousness.
While typing up a story for the class and trying to navigate the meandering thoughts of 24vampire-story-theme-consumed minds to figure out what the hell they actually wanted me to write, said teacher actually turned around and reprimanded me for making too-difficult spelling mistakes. (I had to purposely make spelling mistakes, so the children could edit them.) OK, teach. I get it. You want to create a can-do culture instead of an I-couldn’t culture. But what bothered me about how you said this to me was that it was while the whole class was listening (kids might be oblivious sometimes, but if you tell them you’re purposely making spelling mistakes, they will believe you are purposely making spelling mistakes and not trust you), the tone of your voice sounded a lot like how it sounded when you told that spikey-haired kid doing the crab walk that he had no self-control, and I’ve also been an educator since I was, like, 13. Seriously. I’ve been teaching kids in one way or another since I was that young, and I’ve most definitely taught 2nd graders writing, spelling, and grammar. BUT, I respect that this is your class, and I understand what you’re asking, even though I am an unpaid volunteer helping to educate your children in creative writing, and you chose to bring your class to us to learn something you didn’t have the means to teach. (I don’t know if I felt this scorn at the time, but I did feel it a little later after this:)
Then came time for kids to split up and for volunteers to help individuals as needed on the completion of the story. I got a few started with some verbal storytelling prompts, standard stuff, but I had one difficult nut who wouldn’t crack. Her excuse was that she didn’t celebrate Halloween, so she wouldn’t know how a story about two kids dressed up as a vampire-cheerleader and the devil trying to scare people inside a haunted house in the woods while a scary clown and a bad witch dressed up as ghosts (yes, they were wearing costumes, too) were going to steal their candy would end, because she didn’t celebrate Halloween. Hmm. Lots of juggling and big-picture questions about how the story could end led me to just wanting her to write at least two words on the page to get started. I said, “What if we write Angel on this paper. Is Angel, the main character, the subject?” She nodded and wrote “Angel” down. I said, “So what did Angel do? If Angel is the subject, our person, then what should follow the subject? Do you know a verb that could follow this?” She said, “Yes,” and wrote down “ran,” and just as she wrote down ran, teach came up behind me and reprimanded me again, said that I needed to not focus on “complicated subjects and predicate language,” because it would confuse her students, and I needed to only focus on verbally asking them what would happen in the story. (I never said “predicate”) Then teach asked the girl, “Tell me what would happen in the story.” The girl said, “Angel ran,” and I thought to myself that it took me ten minutes to get to that, and teach just took credit for it, shamed me loudly in front of her students, and then physically wedged herself between me and the kids. Did I mention that there were, like, 10 other volunteers there that she could have harassed? I think I know why she chose me, but I’ll get to that later, because this isn’t the first time this has happened to me.
Back when I was living in Idaho, I was teaching writing workshops to at-risk kids at the high-school level. I got paired up with a teacher who was supposed to be a total ball-buster, and she completely delivered. Mrs. P was in her 60s and liked to play the open-minded, but tough-love lady that all the kids loved, but they most certainly did not love Mrs. P, at least not in the year I was there. Something told me Mrs. P could have been an M. Pfeiffer at one time, but the degenerating will and mind of Mrs. P was not tolerated lightly by the kids. Half the time I could only get them to write about their mushroom trips (they all had mushroom trip stories, even the wiccan chick with the “Goddess” t-shirt…especially the wiccan chick with the “Goddess” t-shirt), which was a lot less interesting than I’d hoped it would be, and there were a few writing savants who would give me their hand-written fantasy novels to read at home, and I would have to find ways to skim pages comprised of 10-syllable made-up words and eventually have to read the whole damn thing, but mostly, the kids just wanted to be difficult. The world had been difficult to them, and they wanted to return the favor. Now, I was hired to teach creative writing to both the students AND to the teacher, Mrs. P, but from the minute I walked in, Mrs. P treated me the same as her high school students, often ordering me to tuck in my shirt and sit in a chair and listen to her talk. The kids and I bonded over this, because I also did not like being penned in, but it only widened the gap between what I was paid to do there and what I was actually doing. Nobody could pay enough money for me to agree to be a high school student again. (This is also the major flaw of Never Been Kissed.)
When I brought up my concerns and how I was unable to do my job to the organization that hired me, they said that Mrs. P was just from an older generation, and I could learn a lot if I stuck with it. The next day, we did an awesome poetry activity that involved some super-dark elements of solving a murder case (sorry, but kids watch Law & Order, too, and a lot of these kids either owned a gun, had been shot by one, or had known someone who was shot) and relating the pain one may feel from the loss of a loved one to the project. It was supposed to focus in on the differences between violence as depicted on screen and violence in real life. It had a lot of layers, but it was pretty real-world stuff for these kids, and seeing them with heads down, busy and excited about some fucking poetry, was the happiest I’d been in education. And then something weird happened. One mostly-Spanish-speaking student was getting help from a friend with translation. The students were conversing quietly. Out of nowhere, Mrs. P shot up from her desk, crying, and shrieked that they’d better be quiet and respect her, and then she launched into a ten-minute sob recounting the details from her husband’s murder trial in the 70s and how she will never forget the look that killer had in his eyes as she testified against him on the witness stand. And that ate up the rest of my time for the class. Sorry, no sharing today, kids! (Let me reiterate that absolutely nothing disrespectful was said about murder or someone’s loss, and the kids were being just really empathetic and adult about everything. I was, in fact, beaming proud of them.)
I’m trying to figure out what is appropriate for kids, like should we push those fuckers right out of the nest? If the fuckers have been previously pushed out of the nest, should we recognize that they have been pushed out through dance, drawing, and the occasional obligatory slam poetry recital followed by juice and cookies (why do people think that all kids raised in an urban environment like slam poetry?)? Or should we treat them like the definition of “child” that was developed in post-war America, i.e., like, totally sweet and innocent. And jobless. Childs don’t have jobs.
Also, am I a child?
Quick answer: yes. I am a child. During the break today, I was in the bathroom washing my hands when I realized how I looked. I was (and am) wearing a pair of over-sized hot blue Dress Barn skorts with some weird stains on the ass that I had cut super-short, paired with a dull olive green tank top whose seams were unraveling, black anklets, and lime green and orange tennis shoes. Most toddlers wouldn’t go out wearing what I did, but this is my everyday wardrobe, so I decided to teach 24 kids in a trailer-park Tammi uniform, and I hadn’t thought anything of it until teach shamed me twice. Not many people take me seriously because of what I wear or how I talk–I often forget this–and you know what? I don’t give a shit. When I taught at the at-risk high school, administrative staff younger than me always stopped me to ask where my hall pass was, and I would have to show them my plastic badge. And that happened almost everyday. And I still don’t give a shit.
I think a lot about what is appropriate for children, and one of the things I think is most important is that kids learn to treat other people like capable human beings by being treated like capable human beings, and seeing others get treated like capable human beings, no matter how they are dressed. (How would you want your kids to react to homeless people, for instance? You want ’em to be dicks? Really?) When I talk to kids, I curb my swearing and try to avoid opening up with “masturbation trashbag!” jokes, but I also treat them like adults. This may be completely wrong. I have no idea. But when teach had those kids in zombie-land obeying her every wish and command today, I couldn’t help but feel tired and like something, some sort of chaotic energy, was missing from the room today, because one of the best things about kids is that they are, essentially, chaotic energy in a world of continuous self-control. I love it. And when Mrs. P took off on her macabre journey down memory lane, I felt that a lifetime of misplaced anger led to a demeaning explosion that insinuated these kids who tried the best they could that day were somehow complicit in the death of her husband, because they had disrespected her. I can’t help but wonder what her classroom would have been like if she had shared her experience in an honest and sincere way with these kids and offered the opportunity for them to do the same from the get-go. Like how people just talk to other people.
I should reiterate that I don’t teach full-time, though I did at one time, so it may be very easy for the Peeping Tom to sneer at some unclean panties, because I’m not the one wearing these panties everyday, and why the hell is the Peeping Tom even looking? Nobody really invited the Peeping Tom. Anyway, I want respect. And I want to respect that little girl who gets totally fucked by not being able to celebrate Halloween, and I also want to respect the teachers who do this shit like every single day, but sometimes they make it difficult. Sure, we look like kids, but we’re fucking people, too. Kids is PEOPLE, damnit!