Going to the Dark Side: Why I Miss Working With–gasp!–Teenagers

“Wow, you’re brave.”

That’s the most common reaction I used to hear when I told strangers that I taught high school.

I knew the images they were reacting to: sensationalized news bits about school shootings or violently defiant juvies. Welcome Back Kotter sweathogs. Or maybe just the mouthiness or sullenness or SOMETHING-ness of their own kids at home.

“I could never deal with that.”

My standard response, laughing: “Oh, the kids are fine. It’s the parents that you should be scared of.”

Kidding–sort of.

It has been three years and ten months since I left the other Wing’s World, my classroom in Tacoma (Room 1603), and I. Miss. Kids.

Has rosy nostalgia clouded up my memory, blotting out all the frustrations with ____, who was obviously brilliant but only ever turned in one piece of writing (about ComiCon, which his mom pulled him out of school for a week to attend)? Or ____, the cheerleader who helped me understand the finer points of what it means to be a Mean Girl? (The secret is in the curl of the lips when saying apparently sweet things.) Or ___, who was such an uncontrollable chatterbox I made him sit at MY desk just to get him far enough away from any potential gossip-mate? (He tried texting.)

(Oh, and don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten their names. I not only remember those, I remember where they sat in my room, and what their handwriting looked like.)

So…is nostalgia distorting my memories of my old career? Of course! Isn’t that nostalgia’s job? Who would do anything hard if the positive memories afterward didn’t outweigh the pain? (Tempted to use the childbirth parallel here…)

I’m riding that wave of nostalgia for real this week, because I GET TO WORK WITH TEENS AGAIN! Well, “work” is an overstatement. And only for a few days.

Next week is the official Launch Party for my YA novel, The Flying Burgowski. And since it’s a book about teenagers, I figured, why not spice up the Author Reading with…teenagers? So I invited four of Lopez Island’s finest young actors (whose work I’ve seen in our Community Shakespeare performances–but that’s another post) to join me in a dramatic reading. We got together twice last week for a read-through. I’m still a little giddy. Call it a contact high from all that open-endedness that teens emanate.

It’s not “energy.” Most normal teenagers, before noon, have less energy than your average banana slug. What draws me to that age group is their sense of possibility. They are walking intersections–the kind with a gazillion roads crossing over each other, some with turns so sharp they appear to be going the opposite way from what the sign indicates. Sullenness might be quiet superiority. Cheeriness might be fear. Inappropriateness might be hope. (Of course it could also just be inappropriateness. Teens are teens!)

(orig. image courtesy Shutterstock.com)

(orig. image courtesy Shutterstock.com)

You may, at this point, be wanting to ask the obvious question: Gretchen, if you like teens so much, and there’s a high school on your island, why don’t you go teach there? Or at least sub? Or tutor?

It’s a damn good question, although one my husband hates to hear. (He once famously told me, “I’d be more excited to see you without essays than without clothes!”) 

My answer is: When we moved here, I promised myself writing time, which does NOT fit with a full-time teaching job. (Believe me, I tried it.) As for subbing or tutoring: I know myself too well. I am #1, really bad at being peripheral–I like to be in the middle of things, if not running them. And #2, I’m horribly susceptible to being needed. So if any kid came to me saying, “I HATE history–Mr. So-and-so is BORING! Why don’t YOU be our teacher?” Ohhh…I’d be toast.

So I’ll make do with four kids reading aloud the various parts from Chapter Five of my novel. But inside, I’ll be soaking up those possibilities.

What do you think of my teenager metaphor? Do you have one of your own? (I mean metaphors, not teens–but you can share about that too.)

2 thoughts on “Going to the Dark Side: Why I Miss Working With–gasp!–Teenagers

  1. Before the end of this year, I will have a teenager living at my house.

    I am thrilled!

    He’s been amazing, bright, generous, funny, ethically minded, independent, responsible, thoughtful, and sensitive for over twelve and a half years now. He’s not likely to become something completely different when the calendar says he’s 13.

    I think the “problem” people perceive today is that independence is being pushed back to later and later ages in our culture. In some places in the world, and in past American, 15 and 16 year olds were getting married, moving away (sometimes so far away they would never see family again), having children, building homes and communities, and surviving.

    That’s vastly different from high school life. Some kids don’t handle that as well as others do. Like my husband, who skipped school for six weeks – and hung out at the county courthosue, watching legal proceedings in action.

    That chatterbox? Maybe a mind that craved more interaction, more sharing of ideas that were more relevant to his right-now life. The Mean Girl cheerleader? Probably unhappy – and maybe in many ways. The brilliant one who only turned in one essay – on Comic-Con? I’ve never been to a Comic-Con, but I have learned amazing things and met amazing people at Star Trek Conventions (including just chatting with George Takei). It’s a whole different type of learning, but no less valid.

    For all these kids, school may have felt more like a prison sentence.

    My almost-teen? He might not have a lot of energy before noon (or he might- his sleep/wake cycle naturally varies, with the moon). But, when he’s not lively before noon, we may haave been having a deep conversation, or reading together, or playing games, at 4am. As a teacher, you didn’t get to see those kids, then, to know what was going on at those other hours. In a more mainstream home, maybe even parents don’t know (mine didn’t know that I was often up all night reading or writing; they were asleep).

    My son – never a day of school in his life. He could go, if he wanted. So far, though, he’s happy with the life he lives. This week alone, he’s worked with his grandfather, gone for a couple of long walks, learned how to use a Rainbow Loom, read and commented on a variety of My Little Pony fan fiction, begun his own, registered it on a site, and ordered a pizza he shared with all of us, and paid for with money he earned. When I offered to pay the tip, he explained that it was important that he do this with money that did NOT come from his parents.

    He also still likes to hug me – even in public! =D

    Teenaged people get a very bad, and usually undeserved rap, in my opinion. I hope you enjoyed your few days of adolescent enthusiasm. =D

  2. Thank you for this wonderful window into the life of the home-schooled. I hope others get to read it. My goal was always to try and individualize the one-size-fits-all grid of public school, but I am glad some kids have alternatives. (As long as public school funding is not threatened, I have to add, because when it is, that grid can become VERY confining to those without choices.)

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