Tuesday, May 9, 2017

From the Mouths of Babes . . .

At age 5, my nephew already knows more shit than I do. No sarcasm intended. Once when he staying overnight at my house, he offered a chip in response to my moaning about not feeling well. Of course, I ate it and he said, “If you can eat a chip, you can’t really be sick.”


I love that. What a great metaphor.  What a simple philosophy to guide one through life.  As long as you can eats chips--and chips can represent anything from oxygen to daily massages--you can never be sick--and sick can represent anything from grumpy to terminal.  If I can put a roof over my head, I can’t really be a failure.  If I can blog, I can’t really be unhappy.


Or maybe he just meant sick people can’t eat chips because they’ll throw them up.


Teenagers tout this I-have-shit-all-figured- out persona, but it is far less cute. Maybe it is because we can’t see beyond the constant rolling of eyes.  But really, adolescents are more children than not; therefore, they might possibly be throwing down some real truths or at least giving us jaded, out-of-touch adults new convictions on how to lead a more fulfilling life.


For example, a group of students shared with the theater teacher, “Ms. Vance really knows her shit.” What a compliment. They probably meant that I really know my subject matter, but “shit” could have multiple interpretations. I doubt my students were suggesting I could identify my turd in a poop line-up, but they might have meant that I am well in-touch with my short-comings. Lord knows they’ve witnessed enough of them after watching fumble around in front of a classroom one hour a day, five days a week, for the last eight months.


Having a goal of perfection is unreasonable; knowing my faults aids in my ability to shore up against
them.  It helps to keep my shit from complicating my life more than just being me does.  For example, I know I can’t remember shit, so I surround myself with post-it-notes. They’re on my desk at work, on my coffee table at home, on my bathroom mirror, on my front door . . . everywhere.


If one looked at my google calendar, he or she might think I was one over-committed and popular person. In reality, if he or she read what the “events” are, he or she would see “don’t forget your paperwork for Rio Hondo” or “call your sister,” or “put your pants on.”   If I know my shit, I can know when it’s coming to soil and stink up my life; I can get to bathroom with my V.I.P. Poo.  


Design by Karine Sultan
A teen’s perspective can also save lives.  When I wore a multi-strand necklace (back in the eighties we had to wear several different necklaces in hommage to Mr. T) my students said I was “gangster.” If all it took to get that rep was wearing a plethora of necklaces, how many lives could be saved without having to deal drugs and to shoot rival gang members in order to earn your street cred?  Status could be determined by true, brute strength: the number of chains you can wear without toppling over defines true toughness.  And those who face-plant on the pavement are only hurting themselves; the collateral damage would be minimal compared to drug use and shootings.  Unless you toppled in Disneyland and took out a few kids on the way down.  But I’m not sure too many serious gangsters roll deep at the happiest place on earth.


Finally, a teen’s tendency to see beyond the surface may be more wise than immature.  On Ash Wednesday, a student asked me what I was giving up for Lent and I said, “Nothing, because I’m not Catholic.” This student’s classmate rolled his eyes and said, “Duh, she’s Buddhist.”  Why Buddhist? Well, we had just finished the novel Siddhartha which centers on the founder of the Buddhist religion. Why do I teach it?  Because I can get my hands on a class set.  My students assume it’s because I want to share my religion (they haven’t quite figured out in the separation of church and state, “state” means public school).  They don’t suspect that I might teach ideas or beliefs that I don’t hold. How trusting; how optimistic to never consider I might misrepresent myself. That those who have a wide-reaching influence, politicians, police, firemen, doctors, teachers, would never be disingenuous.


So instead of disregarding observations of the youth, maybe we should get in touch with our Puritan, witch-hunting roots like they did in Salem back in 1692, and take their word as gospel.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

To Quote My Grandmother: "Why Are Teenagers So Stupid?"


My 4th period juniors have been quite a challenge this year.  They are good kids, but their collective ego could use some humbling.  I have several varsity football players in that class, and our team does quite well. Put a bunch of successful athletes who are also buddies in the same class and it becomes an ego-off.  I make one statement and I have six boys trying to out smart-ass each other.

Of course, I've been through the steps of smart-ass management.  First, I seat them far away from one another, and when they should across the room, I send them outside and call parents.  When those consequences wear off, I go to siting quietly at my podium, looking disgusted and bored at their witty banter, reminding them to "Waste all the time that you want.  I'm not the one whose gonna end up with more homework because y'all need to be the center of attention." That usually gets their peers, just as "over" by their antics to apply some peer pressure.

Yes, there are moments when I consider seating them together in the back corner of the room and telling them to just bro-love themselves to death as long as they don't disrupt what I'm teaching (and their grades will tank because they won't know what's going on), but I refuse to give in.

With enough patience and consistency, I usually get them in line within a month or so.

Then Spring Break hits and everything goes to shit. All systems break down.  All adherence to the rules goes out the window. It becomes pure survival: juniors want to be seniors, seniors want to be graduated, and I want to be on an Italian Vineyard sipping wine.

To keep both me and the students from going nuts, I find a compromise between my teaching integrity and their unwillingness to do anything.  I ease up on the homework, slow down my pace within the classroom, and do my best to teach something the students will enjoy (or at least not whine every time I ask them to get out their books).

Currently, I am teaching my juniors the novel, The Great Gatsby.  Of course, most have seen the movie, but my approach is to have students determine whether F. Scott Fitzgerald would approve of Bax Lurhmann's interpretation: does he represent the spirit of the novel or would Lurhmann's adjustments to plot and character representation give Fitzgerald reason to rise from the grave and sober up long enough to tell Lurhmann Gatsby never loses his cool.

But I digress.

As expected, my 4th period egos are interested in Gatsby.  He is a baller; the novel is full of drinking and drama. It's all about flash and display of greatness (I wait until the end of the novel to explain that Fitzgerald is criticizing these ideas).

Today, the class analyzed how the party guests who attend his parties and wreck his house and Gatsby himself are represented in the novel.  I told them to list adjectives to describe the characters' behavior. With the party guests, I specifically said to not use the adjective "drunk."

Immediately, the students start shouting out, "how about lit? Buzzed? Wasted? Wrecked? Trashed?'

"Nor any synonyms for drunk," I emphasized.  "What can you say about people who get that drunk all the time?"  Then I waved off any answer to that question, realizing that at that age being falling down drunk is cool.

I knew I was taking a risk giving this task to my 4th period full of the "in crowd" and ADHD, but I'm edgy.  Or stupid--the verdict is still out.

After a few minutes of vigorous scribbling, I have the students share their adjectives with their neighbors.  I specifically say, "With those sitting next to you."

Immediately, one of my rambunctious athletes, Caleb, who sits two feet from my podium, shouts to his friend across the room, "Hey, Freddy. I put lit, wasted, and fucked-up for party guests.  What did you put?"

The class goes silent.  Students look at me and then look at Caleb. My forehead hits the podium.

"What?" Caleb asked.  "What did I do?  Ms. Vance, are you okay?"

Wine, whether on an Italian Villa or no, here I come.