Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Stripped Away

"Can't you see I'm burning up, burning down, burning out?"
--Warren Zevon

My Morning Jacket--"Off The Record" (mp3)
Murray McLauchlan--"Met You At The Bottom (live) (mp3)

One of the pleasures of working with senior high school students, and I'm dead serious about this, is that you have to meet them where they are and, regardless of your own goals and intentions, you must compromise with them. You cannot do what you planned to do without steering through some crazy detours and making some stops along the highway that didn't seem necessary and only are designed to slow you down.

Yes, this is a good thing. Why? Because seniors are at an extremely vulnerable time in their lives when they're caught between leaving and staying, between safety and the unkown, between joy and dread. And, more often than not, they're dealing with all of those feelings simultaneously. And so they sleep, they text, they don't bring the book, they wander, they snuggle, they utter outrageous statements, they taunt, they challenge, they skip, they cling.

The extreme case of working with seniors reminds you about the entire human race, reminds you that at the bottom, when everything else is stripped away, people are all just trying to make it. This may be a fine school, but that doesn't mean that it automatically provides wonderful experiences, and some boys are already so damaged that they can't manage the opportunities available.

And so, I tried something new this year. Whereas I've been known to come in to a senior class jaded about the "thugs" whose accomplishments proceed them and am likely to make sarcastic cracks about them, this year, I thought, 'You know, I'm just going to be as nice to these guys as I possibly can. They are used to being punished, chastised, corrected, blamed, questioned, not trusted. Not much is expected of them. Not much is given them. They are barely tolerated. Maybe I can change the relationship.'


I hope you aren't expecting a rewarding story about the results of positivity. Don't think this all has a happy ending. One of these guys I really busted my ass for--befriended him, tried to legitimize him, wrote his college recs--and still, it ended up that my last words to him in the course were "What the fuck are you talking about? Shut up!" He was providing racist commentary about black people in pawn shops on Signal Mountain at the time.

Still, when I see him, I feel bad about what I said. I've since complimented him on his performance in the play, trying to reconnect. But I also look at him and realize that he came from some kind of bad place where when a teacher says something like that to him, it doesn't even faze him. Those are the kinds of interactions he has with the world everyday, and blaming illegal Mexicans for things that have no impact on him is one of the ways he copes. Though, not a good way.

You know, it's funny. We're doing a thing a school right now where students are given a strange fact and try to figure out which teacher it relates to. Hence, my story below. And those facts which involve dead bodies and flash floods and a man who put a rock in his future wife's mailbox every day for a year until she agreed to date him are interesting and titillating.

But when you remind yourself that, just like seniors, people around you are just trying to cope, then a whole different list of facts present themselves, stories that will never be told to students:

Why does a colleague wake up screaming at night, even when on an athletic roadtrip and sharing a room with other colleagues?

Why has a colleague hidden his first marriage?

How did that most anal colleague get to be that way?

Sorry, it's not a guessing game and there are no answers forthcoming or prizes to be awarded. Instead, these questions are meant to be reminders of the levels of pain that people around us are dealing with. It doesn't take a high school kid to avoid, to refuse to cooperate, to undermine, to insult, to overdo their need for any human contact. We all know plenty of full-grown adults who exhibit these behaviors, including ourselves. But it's easier to point them out in boys trying to figure out how to leave.

My Morning Jacket is available at Itunes; Murray McLauchlan's live album is out of print.


Anonymous said...

A really generous-spirited post. Kathleen Norris in The Cloister Walk noted that one of the nuns she met commented to her, "Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a great battle." I try to remember that when dealing with tough kids but am admittedly more forgiving of behaviors in the young than in adults. A fundamentalist teenager who tends to be ultra-conservative on social and religious matters I consider as someone who is probably going through a stage as a person of faith, but someone who I can also work with and help move towards a less ridiculous position. I'm not that optimistic (or generous) with my peers who hold the same attitudes.

troutking said...

The last two posts in this blog have 1) called out a top administrator and 2) admitted to saying fuck to a student. I'm glad I'm using a completely inscrutable nickname for my comments. ;-)

Billy said...

The last two posts make me want to sit in a New Orleans bar and drink myself halfway to oblivion while trying to find the silver linings to either of them.

P.S. Your name gives you totally away, troutking. And between you and me, that "Oceans" class you teach is a total joke.

Billy Bob said...

Well, okay, Trout, but I didn't "say" it, I SCREAMED it because he'd been making bigoted comments all throughout the presentations.

I consider it my "Chappy" moment, though no Bibles were thrown.