One of my English students asked me a question a couple of decades ago.
“Ms. N., why would you ever want to teach high school students?”
I wanted to give her an inspirational response, something about “Helping young minds grow,” and “the benefits of a rewarding career.” Instead, though, I told her the truth.
“This is the best job I’ve ever had,” I said, without hesitation. “But y’all do tend to perturb me from time to time.”
That, and I was in a unique position, each and every day, to watch the ways in which the teenage mind works. And there’s nothing on God’s green Earth more fascinating than that.
You see, I was the high school’s Journalism teacher for 23 testing, trying and tumultuous years. And as such, I didn’t spend a lot of time in the front of the classroom, lecturing my cherubs and stuffing their brains with factoids and finite theorems. To tell you the truth, my time within the confines of Room 215 wasn’t terrible. It was pretty terrific — but not every educator would consider it so. Nor would they dare to do what I did for so long.
You see, I was in the improbable position — as a high school teacher, at least — of letting the little ones lead. And as a mentor and a guide, if you will, instead of a by-the-book teacher, I taught them how to own their mistakes — and how to just go with the flow from time to time.
I spent more than two decades witnessing a gradual progression each school year, as my students’ frontal lobes — that part of the brain in charge of actions and consequences — matured. What’s it like to watch a youngun’ progress from the slouchy pimple-popping-in-public phase (most often present during 9th grade) to the ambitious straight-arrow senior three years later, who stands up in front as the class leader, exerting his or her will on a group of fellow teens, fully prepared to kick butts and take names? Pretty remarkable. And completely satisfying.
Simply put, my newspaper and yearbook students were “in charge” — although I did guide them with a firm hand — even though sometimes ceding power to the masses could be a painful experience. Having teenagers run the show can be enlightening and rewarding. The situation also can also wreak quite a bit of havoc and confusion — and that’s on a good day.
I’m probably stating the obvious here, but the fulcrum upon which the average high school student’s existence balances is procrastination. We teachers like to think that our students come to school every day for the “learning,” but that’s a somewhat misguided notion. The kids, for the most part, like hanging out in our classrooms because they get to fraternize with their friends. And our students — especially my Journalism students — flourished in any situation that would foster incessant social interaction.
That’s why I have a difficult time imagining what things are like for the Journalism Kids in Covid Times.
Of course, they pushed the envelope of possibility just as far as it would go, and sometimes far beyond that reach. Yes, they had deadlines, and for the most part they met those deadlines, in a not-really-the-real-world-you’re-still-learning fashion. Yes, they followed a strict code of ethics (something I insisted upon — and no “three strikes” gobbledy-gook was going to gum up the works. One false factoid, one invented quote, one misguided action in the name of freedom of the press, and they were transferred to another class), and they were trained on the ins and the outs of being good, honest reporters. And yes, they really did work hard — but they were also experts in the fine art of sitting around and doing practically nothing meaningful at all.
Over the course of my classroom career, where the only thing that ever changed was fashion (going from Grunge for guys to low-rider jeans for gals, to — ick — yoga pants that girls embraced for the comfort and boys ogled because, well…), the bane of my existence always remained the fact that when teens have the option, they’ll fart around, every time.
I’ll be the first to admit that the Journalism office fostered the lethargy and laziness that I so often denounced. The center of my journalistas’ world — the nexus of their nefarious unwillingness (sometimes — no, who am I kidding? Often.) to work — was a somewhat dilapidated couch.
The couch (we went through five hand-me-downs during my tenure) was always sunken, spotted, stuffing-challenged, smelly and in one case in the early days missing its left arm. No respectable person would sit on this particular furnishing (we ended up giving one to a couple of potheads at the end of one school year; it went to a family’s basement for awhile, then when Mom and Pop discovered it, this 1970s tribute to itchy fabric and hideous green plaid was trundled back to school property, where it was eventually picked up by the trash man). But we’re talking about teenagers. And, as a collective species, teens aren’t all that picky.
My students tended to try to cram as many kids as possible into the couch’s comfy recesses. Then, the rest of them would get chairs and pull them up in a circle. I called this “Classroom Kumbaya”. It was also sometimes known as the “Gossip Girls” circle, even though it contained quite a few young men, or the “Seance with the Lights On.” Pick your poison. ’Cause any gathering of teens sitting around and gabbing is always going to end up with practically nothing getting done.
Over the years, when the Journalism Kids got their “Kumbaya” on, they’d look like they were at summer camp. Any minute, I expected them to break into a chorus of that well-known ’60s folk song. But letting them hang out back in what one student called the “Bat Cave” was the price we all had to pay to make sure the students were decompressed enough to do some pretty heavy lifting.
They broke a few really weighty stories over the years. The scandal involving the administration trying to force students to forge their parents’ names on important federal forms; the girls varsity lacrosse team, which went on a Spring Break trip to Florida, and spent more time shoplifting at surf shops than competing in games (one young woman to the tune of more than $5,000 — which in the Sunshine State earned her a charge of felonious larceny); their peers who performed sexual acts under the cafeteria tables during lunch (the ex-cop who was in charge of the school’s security detail tipped my intrepid student scribes off to that blockbuster); the faculty member who drank Big Gulps on the job (full of vodka) and eventually had to retire early after being escorted from the premises by the principal.
I knew they had everything (mostly) under control, and that my students would report the truth and put together solid issues, but I was sometimes a tad uptight about all the “Kumbaya” time in the Bat Cave. And in answer to my pleas, the kids would tell me, on occasion, that I needed to “chill.” They were right, of course — All work and no play is, well, just that. They encouraged me not to worry, that everything would “get done.” And they were right — most of the time.
But I’ll let you in on a little secret. Sometimes, my students would blow through a deadline completely. And they’d need an extra push, often in the form of the teacher (that would be me) doing a little bit of their work for them. It didn’t happen often, but I would, on occasion, step in and crop a photo. Or write a headline. Or, as I did a couple of times, wrap up a story that was still dangling more than a few participles. I didn’t usually write for the student newspaper, but once in two decades I did just that.
What happened, when I penned a column for publication in the student newspaper about their recalcitrance and downright laziness in the face of a deadline?
They whined. They shrugged. They were more than a little embarrassed. Then they stood up from the gangly tangle of teenaged limbs on the smelly old couch and left the Bat Cave — at least for the time it took for them to do their jobs correctly, more or less.
And then they’d return to form. Lazing about, talking smack, maybe eating a slice of pizza or two. Because, you know, I aided and abetted them. We ordered pizza for the staff when the deadline was complete and the latest issue was hot off the presses.
The result? Another session of “Classroom Kumbaya”. Big-time.