I have never felt so much love and hatred as I did for 8th graders.
I taught two sections of a combined 7th/8th grade North Carolina history class my first year of teaching. One section met before lunch and included a healthy mix of male and females of varying maturity levels. The other section was at the end of the day and included approximately 20 students, 18 of whom were male. It was my greatest challenge.
Each of them had their own personalities, but when combined I found that their sole purpose in life was to make me miserable. For example, after I painstakingly arranged a seating chart for this male-dominated class, I realized there was still a trouble spot on the far side of the room. Before too long (but later than the rest of the class), I learned why. One of these clever young men whose seat was next to the door took it upon himself to ask in a low, hushed voice, “Did you poop?” every time someone came back from the restroom. He was the gatekeeper of the class, and no one could enter until the status of their bowels was ascertained.
Most of these students were academically sharp. Let’s be honest, this was a private school. Their breeding and background had all the makings of success – mostly two-parent homes, upper middle class, etc. They misbehaved because they were 8th grade boys, they got bored, and I was a 1st year teacher who did not know how to handle the situation.
One such individual who shall remain nameless was particularly skilled at dominating the attention of his peers. All of the shenanigans that I discovered amounted to only half of the incidents that he was responsible for. And this was old school stuff, too, like spit balls across the room, wedgies, etc. On one particular afternoon, I had finally had enough and I made the threat. “You can expect a call home to parents this evening.”
Little did he know that this would be my first phone call home to a parent, which was just as nerve-wracking for me as it was for him. I waited until what I thought was an appropriate time – after work, before dinner, and early enough so that he would know it was me calling. The phone rang, and his father answered. I identified myself, he listened patiently, took a deep breath, and told me something I will never forget.
“Mrs. Russ, do you have any kids of your own?”
“Well, then here’s what I’ll tell ya. You gotta ‘fake it til ya make it’.”
Silence. Nervous laughter. “Excuse me?”
“There’s this look that he responds to. You don’t even have to say anything, but if you just stop what you’re doing for a few seconds, look him in the eye in a way that let’s him know you’re serious, he’ll get the message. You don’t have kids, but you can fake it til you do.”
This was a pivotal moment in my teaching career, and in my life. Why had no one told me about this “look” before? How had I never picked up on this from my own parents?
Sure enough, I had a chance to practice the next day, and it was beautiful. Perhaps we had an understanding because I had carried out my threat of calling home. Or maybe he was actually terrified of what was behind my eyes when I gave him the look. But either way, I now felt like a real teacher.
If I had a dime for every time I heard that today.
I wore my new glasses to school today. I got them last Friday and I was really excited to have new frames. It had been about 7 years and I picked some that I thought were classic enough to last, but modern enough to look good. I wore them all weekend, and thought I would give them a try at school today.
Mistake. All day students stopped, pointed, laughed, and offered their expert 14-year old analysis. Things like:
“Those make you look like Madea.”
“Did you choose those frames on purpose?”
“Those are almost as big as your forehead!”
“You should have gotten contacts.”
“You look really old in those glasses.”
“Those are some ugly frames Mrs. Russ.”
By the end of the day I felt exhausted, and it made me remember when I was in school and some of the mean things my classmates said to me then. With my liquid courage by my side, I’ve decided to take a stroll down memory lane. Names have not been changed.
1. In elementary school (4th grade I think), Brandon Taylor told me the lines on my neck were ugly. What a peculiar thing to say, right? Maybe that’s why I remember it.
2. In 8th grade (my toughest year ever) Marshall Swails (I think that was his name) made fun of my glasses. He had two other friends/colleagues who sat behind me, but I can’t remember their names.
3. In 9th grade study hall, some kid I didn’t know yelled, “chubbs” when I got up to use the bathroom. I remember I was wearing a skirt that day, and suddenly became very aware and self-conscious of my body.
4. In 10th grade, sporting my naturally curly hair that I didn’t quite know how to style, Whit Swords used to ball up tiny pieces of paper and throw them at me so they would stick in the back of my head. I think his full name was/is Whitney, so I’m not sure how I’m the one who got made fun of.
5. In 10th or 11th grade a group of young “men” from my church youth group thought it would be funny to use one of their sister’s AIM accounts to ascertain my bra size. They concocted this elaborate story about how she was in the middle of a move and didn’t have anything to wear…the best part was when they confronted me about it the next day at church and laughed at me.
I’m not angry at these people; instead, I’m most disappointed in myself. Even after their insults and not-so-nice words, I still felt the need to impress them and be a part of their group. What was I thinking? The people I really remember and appreciate are Jeffrey Stephenson, my only friend in 8th grade, or Nathalie Iniguez who speaks at least 32 languages and was always 12 cool steps ahead of everyone else. I could always count on a smile and a genuine conversation from Allison Horne, and if I was ever in the mood for baking cakes I had Besty Daniel’s number on speed dial. I choose to remember these people and their contributions in my life.
As for the insults from my 8th graders, I’ll keep telling myself what I told one class today:
“I’m twice as educated as you are, have way more money, and I look a lot better than you would if you were wearing these glasses, so get back to work.”