Heritage

This time of year, both teachers and students start thinking about next year. The kids are asking older friends and siblings about each teacher, watching us in the halls with our classes- and we’re doing the same to them! It’s strange to think about having a new group of kids after what feels like so long with the current one.

Last week, a student in the grade I’ll have next year stopped me in the hall.

“You’re Puerto Rican, too, right?” He asked earnestly, gesturing at himself to indicate that he was.

I am not, in fact, Puerto Rican. When I explained that I wasn’t, he looked alarmed.

“But you’re Mexican, or Dominican, or something Spanish like that?” He pressed.

When I answered in the negative again (apologetically, as he was clearly distressed), he let out a deep sigh, covered his face with his hand, lifted it to eye me closer, and then pinched the bridge of his nose in a surprisingly adult gesture, sighing again.

“Ok,” he said firmly, clearly having come to some sort of decision, “Well if I get you next year, we’re just gonna tell my mom you are.”

Hormones Are Not an Excuse

Being a sixth grade teacher is weird in so many ways. The one that I’m reflecting on today is the fact that I deal with a group of people who need my help because they lost a tooth, and need my help because they have their period. It’s a strange sense of vertigo to realize that these two milestones that literally mark the end of childhood and beginning of adulthood happen simultaneously, often to the same person.

And as I write this I’m realizing that as strange as it is for me, it’s even more poignant for them. So I guess I should say that being a sixth grader is weird. Again, in so many ways!

Last year we had them watch THE MOVIE, as they all call it. All about puberty and changes and all that fun stuff. This year we went over it in even more depth, with even more overly scientific terms, and cartoon images that were even more graphic and detailed. Plus the added bonus of discussing conception and fertilization. Last year was a one day lesson. This year’s spanned four days. A colleague referred to the curriculum as “Girl parts, boy parts, how they go together.”

Last year I felt so proud of myself for getting through it without too much awkwardness or discomfort on my part. Last year was nothing. After this year, I don’t think anything will ever make me feel uncomfortable again. Until you’ve showed a detailed model of sperm fertilizing an egg to a group of 11 and 12 year old girls, you haven’t really lived. Some people go sky diving to get a rush. This is a lot cheaper.

(My favorite part of this was when one girl yelled “Woo, that worm is the winner!” when the first one reached the egg.)

One thing that came up a lot in our long, ongoing, and incredibly detailed discussions was that for a lot of the questions (Why do we get acne? Why do we have crushes? What determines when puberty starts? Why do you get emotional around your period?) the answer was ‘Hormones’.

Yesterday I met with a student about her behavior on the bus. For the past few weeks, she’s been having some ongoing issues with another student. She freely admitted she hadn’t been as nice as she could have been. “Ok, I’ve been mean to her.” I asked her why.

She was reluctant to give the reason for the original argument, but did let me know this bit of info: “Well, I got my period today.” I waited for her to explain more. I stared at her. She stared back at me. “Ok, but this has been going on for a few weeks, right?” I asked. “Yeah, well, my period!” She said happily. More staring.

“I’m confused how you getting your period today made you mean to her three weeks ago.” “Well, hormones, you know.” She informed me knowingly.

Sixth grade, everybody.

Ant Problems

We had a class breakfast last week, and in the ensuing chaos of twenty-three 12 year olds eating and drinking, some juice was spilled. Multiple kids attempted to clean it up, but only ended up smearing it across an even greater surface of the counter. Within an hour, sugar ants were busily crawling across it. We cleaned it up, but by then the damage was done and a line of ants kept scurrying across the counter.

That afternoon we had reading buddies, and the second graders of course noticed the ants. One little girl quickly pointed out that I could just poison them. I explained that they were there for the spilled juice, and that I didn’t want to use poison if we could just do a better job cleaning up the juice.

“You could put the poison in the juice bottle!” She suggested enthusiastically.

“Well I really don’t want to use poison, and the ants won’t be able to get the juice in the bottle anyway” I replied.

The little girl looked meaningfully around the table at each of the sixth graders she sat with. “It’s not for the ants.” She said to me. The sixth graders looked at me and each other, but the little one was already back to her book, head resting gently on her very alarmed looking buddy.

After the second graders left, my students asked “Did she suggest you poison us because we didn’t clean up the juice?” “I think she did.” I answered. “But I promise not to poison any of you.” Nonetheless, the juice was thoroughly cleaned up after that.

What I’m Doing With My Life

One of the first students in this morning was Evie, who immediately strode purposefully to my desk for the following very important conversation.

Evie: “What did you think of Kanye’s contacts?”

Me: Blank stare

Evie: “At the met gala? His contacts??”

Me: “Oh, I didn’t watch that.”

Evie: “It was all over social media!”

Me: Blank stare, slowly sipping my tea.

Evie: “What are you even doing with your life?”

 

Sixth Grade

I’ve never taught sixth grade before. So far, I love it. Yes, they are hormotional, as we call it. They are obsessed with each other, and their clothes, and who likes who. They smell like a combination of stale sweat and cheap, alcohol based perfume and cologne. But they are able to have deep, meaningful discussions far beyond what younger kids can do. We talk about global warming, what defines a civilization, social justice, and debate whether math is invented or discovered. They are deep thinkers and social creatures. I’m so glad to spend my days with them.

They are on the cusp of childhood and the teenage years, holding on desperately while they also push away. I get to watch them become the people they will be- and help them along the way. This mix makes for some poignant , sometimes heartbreaking moments. I’ve watched friendships that are nearly a decade old fall apart, see kids realize their parents flaws, and helped them confront things like racism and terrorism.

But of course, there is also humor.

A few weeks ago at recess, I had two interactions that sum up sixth grade to me.

One of my girls, Rosa, shyly asked me if I would go on the swings with her. “Of course!” I told her. “I love the swings!” We swung together, feet pointed to the sky, talking about how while you may never be too old to swing, our butts were definitely not the size of the little butts these particular swings were made for.

“OMG!” Another student yelled, running over to us. (She actually said this phonetically- oh-em-gee.) “Hashtag teacherontheswings!”

Will, one of the boys strolled over. “You guys are on the swings?” He said disdainfully. “Yeah.” Rosa said between pumps. “The swings are great!”

He raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, if you’re like, six.”

Just then, another girl walked over to us. “Will, want to go on the swings with me?” She asked, smiling at him

“Yeah, definitely. I love the swings.” He said with a totally straight face, and immediately followed her to the open swings. Rosa looked at me with a raised eyebrow. “Interesting.” She said.

 

I’m Back! And I’m Tired.

Turns out having a baby really eats up your free time. Who knew! After a long hiatus, I’m officially back. I’ll write a longer post soon, but here’s a quick one.

One thing I like about teaching older kids is their ability to be a bit more tactful. I’m the type of person who looks tired even when I’m not (thank you, genetic predisposition to under eye circles). When I actually am tired, it’s really bad. Kids, of course notice this, and comment on it. Their responses change based on their age, though, as both empathy and tact develop.

Third Grader- “Are you tired? You look terrible.”

Fourth Grader- “You look really tired, are you ok?”

Fifth Grader- “You know, if you wore more make up, you’d look less tired.”

Sixth Grader- “I notice you look really tired, which is totally understandable! Some under eye concealer might help with that, and some light colored eye shadow on the outer lid.”

Later that day I found a note on my desk with a list of concealer brands.

How I Know I’m a Grown-up

When I started teaching, I was 22. In my first week at work, a custodian yelled at me not to run up the stairs, and was mortified when I turned around and he saw I was not a kid. A student once told me “Sometimes I think of you like a grown-up, but it doesn’t last long.”

I am no longer the youngest teacher at school. Several of my colleagues now have the dubious honor of being yelled at by custodians, and staff in the parking lot who tell them high school parking is on the other side of the campus. I’ve passed on the torch.

Since then, I have hit a lot of adult milestones. I went to grad school, got my masters, travelled all over, payed off my car, bought a house, got engaged, got married, had a baby (almost, anyway! One more month!).

None of these are the reason why I can now truly say “I am an adult.” No, that statement hinges solely on one reason- I watched THE MOVIE and handled it like an adult.

THE MOVIE refers to the human growth and development video we have the kids watch at the end of fifth grade. It can be summed up the following way: “Feelings. Hormones. Wash yourself real thoroughly or you’ll stink. Menstruation. Nocturnal emission.” The kids start talking about it in fourth grade, and the lead up to the movie itself is fraught with sweaty palms, awkward laughter, and red faces.

The teachers handle it much better, of course. Except for me. Awkward situations make me even more awkward. If the kids are laughing and know they shouldn’t be, I am most likely busting a rib trying not to laugh with them.

In my second year working with kids, I student taught in fifth grade. When we watched THE MOVIE, I went with the girls. (We split the grade by gender, and have each watch their own movie one day, and the opposite gender movie the next.) I was not looking forward to it. During the event, I did my best to blend in with the wall. Despite this, one girl felt the urge to turn around and make direct eye contact with me every time a part of the male anatomy was mentioned. It was intense. When I reminisced about this with the colleague who at the time was my mentor teacher, she was surprised that I had been there. “I don’t remember you being in the room for that at all!” She said. Good. That meant my attempts at blending in with the bulletin boards had worked.

This time around, I was in charge of my own classroom. I had to run the group. There was no blending in with the walls. Not only did I have to watch the movie with them, I had to teach the associated curriculum, and answer any questions. There was no backing out.

My colleagues and I had a talk about who would take which gender, since we split our class and send half to another teacher. “I’ve taught the boys class before.” “Me too, and I used to be a doctor.” “I have three sons, I can do this.”

They looked at me. I answered honestly. “I am not mature enough to handle this, so if no one minds, I’ll take the girls group!” Have I mentioned I love my colleagues?

On the day of, my boys all went to a colleagues room, and her girls came to me. We watched the movie. They giggled, turned red, and then wrote down a million questions, which ranged from serious to confusing, insightful to accidentally hilarious. I answered them all. Was it hard to explain how to insert a tampon? Yes. Was it hard not to laugh when explaining that boys did not get their periods? Of course. Was it hard not to be embarrassed explaining what, exactly, testicles were to a group of 11 year old girls? Good god, yes. But I did it. I didn’t laugh, I didn’t turn red, I didn’t try to become one with the walls.

And that is how I know I’m a grown-up. It’s kind of nice, to have finally stepped away from the intense awkwardness of caring about being embarrassed. I guess I just don’t care anymore. So please, feel free to ask me any and all questions about puberty, tampons, and nocturnal emissions.