A Different Kind of Superhero

“Teachers are super heroes.” You hear that sometimes, people pointing out the important work teachers do, the important role they play in society, the challenges they deal with. People think about the struggles of being a teacher, the thankless nature of the work.

What they probably aren’t thinking about when they refer to us and our superpowers is the amazing ability to deal with all things awkward and handle them with tact, grace, or at the very least grim resolve. Personally, I think that is often our biggest superpower, especially for those of us who teach students going through the throes of puberty and early adolescence.

Yesterday, I achieved the highest super hero rank. I taught my 6th grade class all about reproduction and conception, while visibly pregnant. I stood up in front of 2 dozen 11 and 12 year olds and basically said “This is what you do to get this way, and this is exactly what I did.”

Ok, maybe it wasn’t that detailed. But it felt damn close.

Our district has a curriculum for grade 6 focused on human growth and development. All the things you should know as you transition from kid to teen. It covers nutrition, stress, puberty, and reproduction. The kids dread it and yet look forward to it, loudly complaining about it for a year prior and making a huge deal out of any reference to it. Usually we as teachers stay calm, grit our teeth, and get it done. It’s honestly not that bad, and in the years I have been teaching it I have gone from feeling incredibly anxious to not caring at all.

Until, that is, the timing of my third pregnancy lined up perfectly with when we needed to teach it. I don’t know who was dreading it more, me or them!

The day before THE lesson, as they all referred to the lesson on conception, a small group of students had volunteered to stay in for recess and help me organize the library. While we stacked books, one solemn girl I’ll call Marta turned to me and said, “I figured it out, you know. I know exactly what you’re going to teach us tomorrow.” She went on, “You told us about sperm and egg being needed to reproduce in the last lesson, but you didn’t say how they got together, so I know you’re going to tell us that next, and I already know how it happens because I thought about it and there’s really only one way it possibly could happen.” I told her that when we had the lesson tomorrow, I hoped what she heard confirmed her ‘theory’ as she had referred to it.

Then it got worse.

Other kids joined the conversation. I listened, reminded them I wasn’t going to really confirm or deny or answer anything because the full lesson with the whole class was tomorrow.

“It’s weird because we’re all going to be thinking about the fact that our parents did IT.” One pointed out.

“I think youngest children have it best because you know your parents never did IT when you were in the house.” One replied.

“No, only children have it easiest, because then they know their parents only did IT once!” Another argued.

Marta shook her head. “I don’t think it’s that simple. I don’t think IT works like that.”

One boy piped up “Guys, do we even know what IT is yet?” That was greeted with “Kind of?” “I think so.” and “I don’t want to know!”

(And yes, during this conversation they did stress the word IT that way, and yes, I imagined it in all caps, and yes, I did think of the scary clown.)

Then, IT GOT EVEN WORSE.

Marta turned to me and said, “This must be really awkward for you. It’s not just our parents we’ll be thinking about, it’s you. I mean, we all know you have kids, and we know everyone who has kids had to do IT, but with this right in front of us”, and here she gestured at my big ol’ pregnant belly, “we’ll all be thinking about what you did, and thinking about you doing IT.”

Outwardly, I was very calm and reminded her that this is a totally normal, scientific topic, and nothing to feel awkward about. My inner dialogue alternated between You have to run away immediately and never see them again, and screaming.

And that is why I am a superhero. A student told me the whole class was going to be imaging me ‘doing IT’, and I remained calm and collected. I can now accomplish anything. I have reached the highest height of Mt. Awkward, and nothing that comes next will faze me.

The next day was the actual lesson. The structure was this: Diagrams on the board of anatomical parts, me explaining what each part did and how the parts, ahem, got to each other, and the kids then glued a set of cards onto a blank chart titled ‘steps to conception.’ When the cards were first handed out, Marta immediately shuffled through them, found the one that apparently confirmed her ‘theory’, held it up, and yelled “Called it!”

After the lesson, kids anonymously submitted questions. Most were some variation of ‘Does THAT really go in THERE?’ To which I answered, yes. Yes it did.

Blasphemy and Other Age Appropriate Topics

Kids are great about loudly and openly discussing sensitive topics, so of course religion is no different. I first learned this as an assistant teacher a decade ago. Out at recess on a snowy day, students discovered a small gouda cheese- the kind wrapped in red wax. Since it was waxless and had a bit out of it, I told them to throw away. They told me they were keeping it, and had named it cheesus. After a debate about whether to toss it, I confiscated the cheese and, in lieu of a better plan, hucked it into the parking lot.

5 minutes later, I came back to find they had built a shrine out of snow next to the parking lot, complete with CHEESUS carved into the snow, and a large cross of snow. We had a discussion about how this wasn’t the most appropriate thing, but I didn’t want to flat out tell them not to (partly because I was worried the next step would be to climb the fence to retrieve it). I did point out that we didn’t actually know the cheese’s religious beliefs.

5 minutes after that, I walked back to find they had added a Star of David and Islamic star and crescent. We’re a multicultural school.

Fast forward a decade, and on different recess on a warm spring day, my class found a jelly bean. Logically, they named it Jeebus, constructed a system of worship around it, and insisted on bringing it into the classroom, where they gave it a place of honor on the book shelf. For days it was brought out to every recess, until signals got crossed about who was bringing it, and it was left behind. On that day, someone jumped off a rock, landed wrong, and needed stitches. It was decided that it was the wrath of Jeebus, and he was diligently brought outside to every recess until the year ended.

This fall, one of the students who was arguably a high priestess of the Jeebus cult came to visit. She chatted with me and my current class, then added “Did she ever tell you about Jeebus?” The new kids were entranced, especially because it was a cool middle schooler telling them about it! The next day, a gummy bear (no one had any jelly beans, apparently) named Jeebus Reborn (it’s official name) was brought into the class. Feeling this inadequate, another gummy bear named Lord Blorking was added to the shrine. And a gummy worm named, underwhelmingly, Jeff.

I assumed that, like many things kids get obsessed with, they’d forget this one in due time. That was 6 months ago. The shrine still stands.

Actual transcript of a conversation that perfectly illustrates everything wonderful and frustrating about working with 6th graders:

Actual transcript of a conversation that perfectly illustrates everything wonderful and frustrating about working with 6th graders:

Scene: Me, with muffin in hand, walking over to check on a student’s homework.

Student: Is that a muffin? I thought you were trying to eat less sugar.

Me: I am, but it’s just a muffin.

Student: I bet it has a LOT of sugar.

Me: I’m not going to worry too much.

Student: You should worry. Sugar is not good for you, I know because YOU told us.*

(*In a lesson on nutrition that we’re required to teach as part of a wellness program)

Me: How about I don’t tell you how to live your life, and you don’t tell me how to live mine.

Student, increasingly shrill and outraged: You tell me how to live my life ALL THE TIME! Every day. It’s LITERALLY your job to tell me how to live my life. You get paid to do it!

Me, increasingly defeated: Well you’re not being paid to tell me how to live my life.

Student, even shriller and more outraged: Well, I’m doing it pro bono, which is a word I know because YOU told me it. I’m doing it out of love, did you ever think about that? Because I CARE about you.

Me: That’s… actually really nice. I promise I’m eating mostly healthy, I appreciate you worrying about me. Now, do you have your homework.

Student: What homework? You NEVER told me we had homework.

Scene

 

 

Holiday Foods

I don’t know if this is true across all elementary schools, but it certainly is in ours: the day before a long vacation, we wear pjs, watch a movie, and eat a ton of food. The food, for my classes at least, is usually always the same: snacks and desserts. Popcorn, chips, fruit, cookies, brownies. I ask for volunteers, generous parents send them in.

This year, I wanted to do something different. Like most good ideas, it came to me at 3 am apropos of nothing: ‘What if we had a taco bar?’ Or something similar. If instead of the usual, we picked a theme and got creative, had a whole lunch instead of just a post recess gorge.

So I broached the subject with the kids. They loved it! We had just finished up a great discussion about allegory in literature and how it connects to metaphor. I was so impressed with their thinking and eager to reward them by talking about something fun.

I laid out a few parameters: It couldn’t be anything that really needed to be served hot or cold, either for taste or health purposes, and it shouldn’t just be a suggestion of the usual things, like desserts. We’d do desserts, of course, but let’s come up with a theme! We had ten minutes before math class started, so I asked for suggestions. Tons of hands went up.

I called on the first kid. “Soup.” He stated. I paused. “Remember, it can’t be anything that needs to be hot, or cold. Soup at room temp wouldn’t be very good!”

Next kid. “Sushi!” A longer pause. “Well, room temp sushi could possibly make us sick, so that won’t work.”

Third times the charm, right? No. Of course it isn’t. “Cookies.” A long, sigh filled pause. Based on facial expression and body language (and I am really, really good at reading those), they were not trying to be funny. Other kids were nodding enthusiastically.

“Ok guys, listen again- something that maybe we could pick a theme of, like all foods of a certain type. Not just things we’ve already done. So I see a lot of hands, I want all of you to be sure you’re not just naming different types of desserts, right? You’re all sure? Ok.”

Fourth kid. “Cupcakes.” Forget the pause, I straight out yelped. “Gah! No! Are you listening?? That’s a dessert. Ok, Sasha, I’m going to call on you next. Before you talk, I want you to be absolutely sure that you are not just going to say the name of a dessert. Are you sure? Ok…”

“Cake.”

“SASHA! SERIOUSLY! WHAT IS HAPPENING!”

“Wait!” She called out, “Listen… different types of cake.” I put my face in my hands.

“Call on me!” Chris yelled. “Mine isn’t dessert!” I stared at him. “Please let this be a real suggestion.” I begged.

“A hot pot!” He crowed. Several kids oohed in agreement, nodding excitedly.

“A hot pot.” I said. “As in, a pot of near boiling oil for us to cook meat in?”

“And vegetables!” Ruth added.

“A hot pot.” I repeated. “In the classroom.”

“Oh, that might be hard, huh?” Chris mused. “Maybe brownies?”

I laid my head on my desk. “I give up. It’s time for math.”

And that, in a nutshell, is sixth grade: The ability to reason about allegory in literature, but being unable to think about the fact that cookies are dessert and hot pots are, ya know… hot.

Eventually, we came back to the discussion and did get some real suggestions. Someone said Mexican food and I nearly wept with relief.

“Yes! Exactly! And we could all bring in Mexican dishes, including desserts. Perfect! Next suggestion!”

“Italian food!” “Great!”

“Indian food!” “Sure, yeah.

“German food.” “Ok, that one might be tricky. I think most of us have had Mexican food and Italian food in the past month, but how many of you regularly eat German food? That might be too specific.”

“Algerian food.” (It’s worth noting here that none of them are Algerian.) “Ok, maybe no more ‘country or group’ followed the word food suggestion, ok?”

“Norwegian food.”

Head on desk.

Tell Me Everything

Once a week my class pairs up with a first grade class to read books. It’s one of my favorite traditions, and the older and younger kids all really love it. It’s also a chance for me to interact with first graders, which is always an adventure.

Today one little girl brought a non-fiction book about fish to read with her buddy. They were near my desk as I answered an email, so I could hear my student patiently answering questions about fish. Do they blink? Do they have eyelids? If they don’t, how do they close their eyes when they sleep? My student patiently answered as best she could, including to say she didn’t know and maybe they could do more research together in the library. I smiled to myself, so proud of my student.

However, after awhile they hit a point where my fifth grader was all out of answers. Which was when I looked up from my computer to see a tiny person staring at me solemnly. As soon as I made eye contact, she demanded “Tell me about goldfish rectums.” In a heavy Russian accent, which made it even better.

I stared back at her as I decided where to start. “What do you want to know?” I asked. “Everything.” She answered.

Thus followed a detailed discussion of the digestive system, fish eating habits, and official terminology of body parts. Always an adventure.

Jumping Off Bridges

A couple weeks back, I was leading lines of kids from the gym to their buses at the end of the day. A jacket was left on the floor. “Whose is this?” I asked, pointing to it. After a short pause, two second graders literally flung themselves at the jacket, smacking into the floor and each other, then wrestling for it.

“WHOA!” I yelled, and they separated from each other, but continued to yank the jacket back and forth between them. I held my hand out for it, and they reluctantly surrendered it. “Who does this belong to?” I asked again. One of the boys raised his hand. “Mine.” “But he told me to race him to it!” The other cut in quickly. “Did you think that that was a good idea?” I asked him. “But he told me to!” The little one insisted.

Using the oldest metaphor in the book for this kind of scenario, I asked him, “If he told you to jump off a bridge, would you?” I meant this as a rhetorical question, but he got a thoughtful look on his face and cocked his head to the side.

“Hell yeah!” He answered. “That sounds awesome!”

The Dangers of Volunteering

A few times a year, we do school-wide activities where every student participates in mixed groups. It’s fun, but a lot of prep! This year’s activity involved painting rocks, so we needed nearly 600 roughly palm sized rocks. Needless to say, the preparation and storage for this was daunting. When we realized we needed to move 6 large buckets full of rocks from the first to second floor and down a long hallway, I immediately volunteered my class.

The reason I volunteered? Steven.

Let me tell you about Steven. At 11 years old, he is 5’4″. His shoulders are wider than some of his peers standing side by side to each other. When he walked in the room on the first day, my first thought was “Is this someone’s Dad?” He is also an incredibly helpful kid, willing to volunteer for any job. Perfect for rock lugging.

Of course, I didn’t expect him to do it alone, but I figured other kids could handle it, so I asked for volunteers.

Some background about elementary students and volunteering: They will volunteer for anything. It doesn’t matter what it is. If you say “I need volunteers to”- every hand will go up. I’ve tried to get them to realize they should wait to hear what is being asked. Otherwise kids go on errands to find teachers they don’t know, in rooms they’ve never been to. I always tell them one of these days I’m going to ask for volunteers to clean the restrooms with their own personal toothbrushes. It never works.

So this time, I explained, “Don’t raise your hand until you hear what I’m asking, ok? I need volunteers-” Every hand went up. “Guys.” I said. “Listen. I need you to carry buckets of rocks, very heavy buckets, quite a long way. This is not a joke. It’s literally buckets of rocks.” All hands still up. “They’re heavy. Please don’t volunteer unless you know you can carry very heavy things!” All hands still up. Since we were doing morning work, I added another caveat. “And you can only volunteer if you’ve finished page 127.” A few hands went down, including Steven’s. “Except for you.” I told him quietly. “You can still volunteer.”

In the interest of fairness, equality, and hopefully teaching some a lesson in forethought, I picked a mix of gender, size, and strength. For 6 buckets, I sent 10 kids. Then I waited.

A few minutes later, a trio of girls walked back in to the room empty handed, shaking their heads. Next Ethan, one of my bigger, taller, but not quite Steven-sized boys walked in. Or rather, waddled in, carrying the bucket between his bowed legs and swaying side to side so he could move it. After he put it down outside the room, he went and laid on the rug with his eyes closed for several minutes, breathing heavily.

Next, two groups of two came back, each carrying a bucket between them. One group managed to carry it, the other was dragging it down the hall where it made a horrible scraping shriek on the linoleum.

Then Steven came in, walking with a normal stride, standing tall, a bucket in each hand, arms held up so the buckets swung at his side. Ethan raised a fist from where he lay on the rug. “All hail Steven.” He said weakly. Steven smiled shyly, then walked up to me.

“Um, Riya is still in the hall with her bucket. Can I go back to help?” He asked. “Riya has one bucket by herself?” I asked, alarmed. Riya is the tiniest person in the class, but also arguably the most stubborn. I didn’t even actually call on her when she volunteered, but apparently she went anyway. He nodded. “Yeah, why don’t you go back.”

“She won’t let you help her.” One of the girls who came back empty handed called. “We tried!” Steven shrugged and left anyway.

A few minutes later, he walked back, his arms literally full of rocks, more than half a bucket’s worth. He placed them in the other buckets, then turned to look back down the hall. In the distance, Riya appeared, tiny arms straining, a look of grim and slightly terrifying determination on her face as she dragged her bucket, now nearly empty, down the hall. “She wouldn’t give up her bucket.” Steven explained as I walked over to stand next to him. We watched as Riya finally made it to the door, and then silently walked into the room, head held high. “Good job Riya.” Steven told her. “I told you I could do it.” She answered.