Life is their teacher now



Teaching—or living with teens can be challenging, but keeping your eyes and ears open sometimes leads to unexpected moments. ©Thinkstock

As a high school teacher, I know teens can be exasperating: those adolescents who expose their bare feet to the freezing cold by wearing summer flip-flops in the winter, and who think they absolutely know everything! And we adults can say, “yes” to them a hundred times, but let us just say “no” once, and they roll their eyes back into not yet fully developed brains and whip their necks back like the MGM lion.

But guess what? Teenagers are my all-time favorite students. Oh I know, I know, as a teacher I’ve caught some sticking out their tongues at my photo ID tag, but they instinctively know I like them—a lot, so for many years now an equilibrium has been established between us. I’m sorry now for instilling guilt into those few would-be-troublemakers when I’ve asked them if they wanted my cerebral hemorrhage on their conscience, because I thought there might be a chance of them becoming disruptive in class. Sure I’ve had to yank those stinkin’ iPods out of their ears, and practically arm wrestle them for their cell phones, but without structure, order and their ability to hear in the classroom, they might as well be learning their studies at the circus with a clown as their instructor.

As this year’s seniors prepare to embark on the outside world and leave the security of hearth, home and school, I’d sure like my little talk with them to take on the theme of “The Test.” Okay, so this is where I might be losing them because you mention tests and they yawn so wide and long you can see clear down into their tonsils. But this is a different kind of test—a test of character.

I wish I could tell more of today’s teenagers that anybody can do well and look terrific when things are going their way. Big deal. Where’s the test in that? For just like it’s so easy for the educator to gravitate toward the more cerebral and beautiful kids who never seem to have disciplinary problems, it’s the less favorably endowed students who need the love and attention the most. That’s the real challenge in a classroom and in life.

There will be times in their lives when their spirits will be so elevated, (high on life, NOT drugs) and then times when they won’t feel like they have the heart or guts to go on. That’s when something inside of them will kick in, and raise them above the turbulent times. That something can be a connection with God. Life is a series of risks, a barrage of tests. And how we handle those detours will determine how life turns out.

He had the audacity to reach again for the label, and I was just about to bop him over the head with my pointer stick, and risk being on the national nightly news.

A disconcerting thing happened in the classroom this year. I made reference to the word conscience, and one young man asked seriously, “Conscience? Hey, what’s that?” I was tempted to cram a chalk eraser down my throat to keep from screaming, because I thought, “We’re really in trouble here.”

But then about a month later, something so surprising and incredible happened, that it almost brought me to my knees. It also reinforced my belief  young people do indeed know what a conscience is and as a bonus, a kind act, too. If nothing else ever happens again in my life that is so poignant and endearing, I will always believe in what I once read—”One moment of joy is worth living a lifetime.”

I was writing notes on the blackboard with my back to the students when I felt something tugging at the back of my sweater. As I quickly spun around, I was appalled and infuriated that a bruiser of a football player was fondling the label on my sweater.

“Get back into your seat, NOW!” I ordered, but the kid didn’t budge. Maybe I should have said please? I thought to myself.

He had the audacity to reach again for the label, and I was just about to bop him over the head with my pointer stick, and risk being on the national nightly news, when he softly said, “ Yep, Mrs. W., just as I thought, this label reads ‘Made in Heaven.’” And he was sincere, not brownnosing or showing off. A teacher knows.

How can a teacher that’s overcome with emotion continue to write notes on the board after that? She can’t. I’m not sharing this to illustrate how loveable and good I might be, for I’m no better than the next person. I just want to stress that even before this incident, I’ve never paid much heed to disparaging remarks about today’s youth. Some young people will soar to great heights because of their staunch determination and tireless work.  Others will remain status quo because they won’t have that fire in their belly, that hunger that propels them to accomplish wondrous things. But you know something? It’s okay, because they’ll be the stabilizers, that calm that is “as constant as the North Star.”

I don’t even worry about those who may fall on the fringes of society, because some of them may just be late bloomers and late bloomers have contributed greatly to society—those who have given much but were not the brightest and best in their class.  Edison and Churchill, both ranked in the lower half of their classes—way low.  And wasn’t there once a father who asked his son’s seventh grade teacher how he should direct his son’s studies? The teacher, disgusted and impatient, dismissed the question by saying something like it didn’t matter much because the boy would never amount to much. That boy just happened to be Albert Einstein.

I wonder if those who will be graduating next spring can recall how over the years their teachers, in their sometimes whining, sing-song, nasal-sounding voices, would say, “Now class, class, pay attention, and all eyes up here on me.”

Well, now all eyes are on them as they prepare to go out into the world, and after that “Made in Heaven” incident, how can I not have hope in what I see?

KAREN WHITE-WALKER is a freelance writer from New York.


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