They’re all grown up, I thought to myself last June at Thornton-Donovan School’s commencement ceremony. Sitting among my colleagues, I watched some of my first students rise to accept their diplomas.
Ones who used to make out on the bench outside my classroom, smoke cigarettes on the street, try to pass Sparknotes off as homework. Ones who used to turn their nose up at others, who used to blame others for their problems.
Yet, I was not lamenting they just don’t make kids like that anymore. No, instead, I was reminiscing about when I was their teacher and a select few taught me as much as I had taught them.
In my damp, chilly classroom with the radiator that sparked sometimes and always smelled like burning toast, I stood before a classroom of seventh graders. I had never taught middle school before. And I hated middle school probably as much as they did in that moment.
I introduced myself as Mr. Chapin although I said they can call me Andrew if they wanted to. Thankfully, they never took me up on that offer. Looking back on it, I wouldn’t even consider saying that now, for we’re not on the same level. They call their peers by their first names; however, teachers need to be given the title to show the distinction between master and pupil. It’s one of the few remaining shreds of institutionalized respect we have in our profession. However, in my naivety, I was trying to ingratiate myself to them as if that were how you garnered respect.
We talked about Jersey Shore, Southpark, and the music we enjoyed. This all played into another callow conception I had at the time: I subconsciously wanted them to like me. And on that first day they did. However, once I tried teaching them the difference between action and linking verb the next day and why it was a crucial distinction if they ever wanted to write even decently, that was when the calling out, the side chatter, the doing work for other classes, or the doing nothing at all took place.
It was then that I came to understand that my job was not predicated on if they liked me or not, but rather if they learned. Kids need a role model – someone who does things the right way – before they need a friend. And besides, as I told them from that day forward, we’re not friends and we never will be.
Thus began my first year at Thornton-Donovan School. And what a year it was.
After I stopped trying to be their friends, I established a standard and held them to it. I started talking to them like adults and framing many of my lessons around anecdotes from my own life. Then, just when I thought we were making someheadway, elevating themselves to my level, they let me down.
I’ll never forget when I caught a couple of them copying vocabulary homework. One of the students walked into class. Two books fell out of his jacket – one his, the other belonging to the girl he had a crush on. I called their parents, which automatically destroyed my image as the young, hip, cool teacher. Now, I was the heavy, and I was against them.
Yet, they respected me for holding them accountable to a standard. The whole class did. And I came to see that I had to have realistic expectations because kids mess up, some a lot before they figure it out. That and vocabulary workbooks teach vocabulary about as well as watching cartoons does.
I can write stories of my coming-of-age that first year for hundreds of pages, yet I will leave you with this anecdote:
That same seventh grade class was as diverse as any I’d ever taught; cultures included Guyanese, Albanian, Black American, African American, and Caucasian American. When they were in eighth grade, we read and studied Of Mice and Men. After Chapter 4 when Curley’s Wife viciously berates the African American stable worker Crooks, we had an authentic discussion about race and the N-word.
One of the students looked at a cheesy teacher poster I had on the wall. It read as follows:
‘Our differences bring us closer together’, which after some tears and some real talk was where the conversation ended up. This student said one of the more profound statements any has ever said to me. It was something to the effect of, “If they’re different, then why do all the penguins look the same?”
I smiled and gave the students different markers and pens and let them color in the penguins’ bellies to add some diversity to the poster. Fast forward to this student’s senior year, last year; he was the same student who I caught copying the vocabulary workbook. He was also a student who always questioned why we couldn’t be friends. And the answer was always the same: because I was his teacher.
No longer. Yet, they still keep in touch – sending me emails, setting up lunch. And I’m still parceling out whatever remaining wisdom I can. To me, they’re still kids. But I guess, for some of them – now eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, even older – with families, jobs, responsibilities of their own, they can consider me a friend.
I guess I’m getting soft in my old age with my hair line receding, belly protruding, gray coming in everywhere. And my former students aren’t in middle school anymore. They’re adults.