Moving On

The end of last year was really hard. Harder than previous years, for a few reasons. I started out teaching third and fourth grade, then moved up to fifth and sixth. I didn’t get any of the same students for the next loop, but it meant I saw my former kids all the time. So out of the 100 kids at this grade, I had 50 of them. In the four years with these kids, I got engaged, bought a house, got married, became a mother. I really became an adult, and hit so many milestones. These kids were with me for them.

It’s hard to move on after two years with a group no matter the situation, but it’s especially hard when they leave the school. When my fourth graders moved on, I still saw them all the time. Granted the sixth graders moved across the street, but it still means I see them far less. So visits from my former students have been so important since school started.

When the first day of school ended, I looked up to see one of them in the door. “Hi,” she said. “I need you.” And she started to cry. Turns out she was just feeling a bit overwhelmed by the transition to middle school, but was totally fine. Other kids have popped in throughout the week. Sometimes they wave from a distance. Sometimes they run to me and hug me. On one occasion, they snuck in while my current class was still here, and sat on the rug with them. It took 3 minutes before I even noticed. Yes, they timed me. So far every day I have seen at least one former student.

I love these visits, but I know they’ll taper off soon. And that’s good for both of us. They need to start feeling like their new school is home. I need to start feeling like my current class is where my heart is. It’ll happen on both ends. It always does. But the transition is hard.

A colleague and I were talking about it in the staff room yesterday.

“We go into it knowing it has to end, that it won’t last, but it’s still hard to say bye.” She said.

“And we want them to be happy, and like where they are now, but I don’t want them to forget me.” I said.

“I know I’ll love the new ones just as much eventually, but right now I just really miss the old class.” She said.

Then another colleague leaned over and said “Until you said class, I assumed you guys were talking about exes.”

We laughed, but that analogy really works.

So here’s to a new year! To teaching fifth grade again (I’ve found I like the 5/6 loop more than the 3/4 one.) To kids who don’t yet smell like sweat and cheap cologne, complain about hormones, and roll their eyes at everything. To a new group, and all their quirks, charm, and uniqueness.

I love my job.

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.

 

Adventures with Tiny Kids

In the summer, I usually teach a few community education classes. These are awesome. You can make up whatever it is you want to teach, and kids will sign up to take it. I’ve done a few over the years. Hands on Science, a.k.a. mentos and diet coke! Creative Writing a.k.a. I feel guilty your parents are paying me to sit here and watch you write on your own. Introductory French a.k.a. what can I remember from a class I took over a decade ago.

My favorite has been cooking, and that’s what I did this year. In the past I offered one class for grades 3-6. This year, the program director encouraged me to expand the ages. So I had a morning class for K-3, and an afternoon class for 4-8. The older grade scared me more. I know kindergartners. I’m around them, we share a space, and occasionally I interact with them. Middle schoolers are a whole different animal. I thought the little ones would be easy, the older ones more challenging.

Good god, was I wrong.

Little kids have no logic. I’m sure this is obvious to some of you, at least on some level, but I doubt many people realize this truth I’ve come to be painfully aware of: humans under 7 are feral creatures who thrive on chaos. Yes, they are adorable, and sweet, and fun. But I challenge anyone reading this to attempt to make a pie dough with someone who has not yet attended public school, and come out with your sanity intact.

Here are a few highlights from the week:

Bathroom Adventures

Little kids who have to pee will grab at and compulsively knead their crotches. They will make direct eye contact with you while they do this. When you ask if they have to go to the bathroom, they will say ” No…?!” In a way that is somehow a question and a firm denial. Then they will ask to go at the least convenient time ever. They also don’t like to go alone. This will entail either leaving a group of 5-7 year olds alone in a room to accompany one down the hall, or making a whole group field trip together to stand outside the bathroom whispering louder than most people yell while other classes look at you with clear concern and mild fear.

I’m going to eat this, but not that.

This was a cooking class. We cooked food, and we ate it. On one end of the spectrum, we have the boy who was grossed out by everything. The smell of potatoes, the feel of flour dough, the sound of apples being chopped, and anything, ANYTHING, to do with corn. He would loudly announce “Eeeeeew!” all the time. I tried to get him to switch to a different word- maybe he could say ‘bologna!’ instead. “No, I want you to know when I’m grossed out” was his response.

On the other end of the spectrum, we had the human garbage disposal- who also happened to be not only the smallest person in the class, but the smallest person I have ever worked with in my capacity as an educator. He had turned five last week. He was adorable, eager to please, and probably would have eaten the other students had they not been constantly in motion. I learned fast to say “Do NOT eat this!” when I put something down on his plate. On the very first day, when we started cutting up tomatoes for sauce (with plastic butter knives) he ate half a tomato in a bite before I could stop him.

That’s not to say he didn’t keep eating things. In 5 days he ate portions of an apple core, apple seeds, raw dough, and several tablespoons of butter. When we had leftovers after making pizza, he ate the cheese with a sense of single minded purpose that was frightening. At recess, he sat on top of the slide eating fistfuls of pepperoni and laughing to himself.

He also ate literally everything we cooked, which included portion sizes most adults would be daunted by.

Following Directions

I teach kids. I know they don’t generally follow directions. Third and fourth graders get distracted, they decide they know better, they’re too concerned with their friends to care about directions. I’m used to that.

But little ones? That’s a whole different story.

I had conversations like this multiple times a day.

Little girl: “Where does this go?” Holding up empty bowl and spoon.

Me: “In the sink, sweetie.”

Girl: Stares at me in silence.

Me: “Put it in the sink, please.”

Girl: “Where does the spoon go?”

Me: “It all goes in the sink.”

Girl: “Where does the bowl go?”

Me: “Everything in your hands goes in the sink. The bowl and spoon go in the sink.”

Girl: Stares at me, frozen and silent.

Me: “Sweetie, put the bowl and spoon in the sink.”

Girl: “Ok…” Walks away

7 seconds later

Girl: “Where does this go?” holds up spoon and bowl

Me: Moment of silence to figure out if this is a joke… “Where do you think it goes?”

Girl: “Um, the twash?”

Me: Silent, staring. “In the sink, sweetie. The SINK!”

Then she put it UNDER a table?! Why? Fourth graders would do that and then say “Ha! I put it under the table. Hilarious!” They would not actually go through a thought process and decide yes, this is where this should go.

Physical Contact

I’m used to kids giving me high fives, poking me when they need something, occasionally asking for a hug. Little ones are different. This week was about 85-90 degrees every day. It was also humid. When we went outside, everyone was dripping wet in about 3 minutes. When offered indoor recess, however, no one wanted to stay in and play games, preferring instead to go outside and risk 2nd degree burns on the metal playground equipment. I stayed on a nearby bench, watching to make sure everyone was safe.

Without fail, one of the kids would come sit with me. I would smile and chat with them, and meanwhile they would get closer and closer to me, while I scooted away until I was on the edge of the bench. Then the tiny one would either get next to me so their body was completely against mine, or climb onto my lap. The sweatiest snuggles ever.

Meanwhile, the middle schoolers were predictable. Every sentence had 14 ‘likes’ and 23 ‘ohmygods’ and there was eye rolling, but in the end, they followed directions, did what they needed to do, thanked me, and only threw handfuls of flour into each other’s faces while shrieking 7 times.

Early childhood and primary educators, you have my deepest respect.