Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Unmentionables

Adolescence is an interesting phase in life, and if you take the time to ask, most people have an opinion about it. Good or bad, I have yet to meet anyone who would like to go back to junior high. The awkwardness of transitioning from being a child to an adult is exhausting, and I observe this phenomenon regularly as my students try desperately to learn the unspoken rules of being an adult. Occasionally, and sometimes frequently, these teens fail miserably as they misread or just totally miss a key rule in "grown up" existence.

Perhaps one of the classic moments in the teenage-filled classroom is the moment that a bodily function happens: burp, sneeze, gas--silent, smelly or noisy. The reaction from the doer is sometimes pride, other times embarrassment. The reaction of those surrounding the perpetrator is sometimes silent ignorance, other times gleeful proclamation. In professional adult existence, these things are typically ignored. In teenage existence, they ruin concentration for minutes at a time.

Then you have the visible snafus: food spilled on an article of clothing, shoes that are clearly worn well past their prime, pepper etched in between teeth and overly zealous makeup application. These tend to be less distracting in the general scheme of things, though an unaware student might still proclaim the existence of one or more of the above items. In these moments, in a way not so different than when I discover the presence of bodily functions, I strive to run interference. I ask the student with foot odor to not take off his shoes during class; I note to the girl with smeared make up that a quick swipe will remove the distraction. Yet as much as I try and protect the students against the tactless observations of their "friends", I fall far from reaching all students before the attack. Inevitably a student falls prey to the honest observations, and when I note to attacking students that their commentary is neither appropriate or necessary, their reply, "but it's true!" is a difficult one to combat.

Perhaps the hardest observation to counter is when a student is absent. When the student is sick, most students hear. Modern communication with cell phones and texting leave me to find out what is going on with students from their peers long before I receive an email from a parent. But other times a student is out for other reasons--problems at home, personal issues, decisions that have left him or her suspended or enrolled elsewhere. Most of the time I am aware of why a student is missing from my class, but I of course can't divulge this to the students. Yet they notice, and they ask. "She's out," I reply when they ask where "she" is. Such an answer communicates nothing; all I have done is repeat back to them what they already declared. Yet somehow, when I note an absence with that clear declaration, they know that the appropriate response is to move on and be quiet. Wherever "she" is is not someplace they want to go.

I try to create an attitude of transparency with my students over the course of the school year. If they ask me how my weekend was, I like to be honest. If they ask why I was absent, I typically tell them. In return I expect the same from them. When I sit next to a student that is refusing to work and ask him if he's planning on passing this quarter, I expect an honest response. When I sit and grade stacks of essays and journals, I am rewarded or cursed with volumes of honesty they would probably never say to my face, or even their closest friends. Unfortunately this leaves me with a problem at the end of the school year when I have created relationships with so many of my students only to find they have quietly disappeared, departing my classroom without a word or even any warning.

Spring is upon us, and with it comes an onslaught of poor choices, it seems. Everyone becomes crazy when the snow melts and the school year nears the finish. For a handful of students this manifests in ways that leave them absent for a week, two, or even the rest of the year. And when my students ask where a particular student is, I can't mask my frustration, my disappointment, my hope for a student that has been dashed.

"He's out."

1 comment:

  1. OK, in my "professional adult existence" these things STILL ruin my concentration. and then i gleefully recount the story to nathan later and we descend into immature hysterics. these things will never cease to be funny. we are immature. good thing we found each other.