All Hormones, All the Time

Ahh, May of the fifth grade. A glorious time. The flowers bloom, the weather warms up, the kids are suddenly taller, crankier, and stinkier. Spring is in the air, and so are the hormones.

We have officially hit the preteen period. They are talking about who likes who, desperately jostling to sit next to specific people only so they can roll their eyes at everything that person says. They are more aware of clothes, and music, and what they are ‘supposed’ to like. For my friends who teach primary grades, this time is terrifying, but I don’t mind it too much.

It’s a tough time for them. Emotions are high. They are likely to laugh too loud, cry at the drop of a hat. Little things can make them angry and ruin their day. Their bodies have started changing in weird, uncomfortable ways. Even worse, people know this is happening and expect them to talk about it. Relatives and older family friends around them wax emotional about the wonderful, amazing changes ahead, while they cringe awkwardly.

All of the above describes puberty, but it also describes… pregnancy!

I feel your pain, guys.

You cried yesterday because your friend didn’t want to play tag with you. I cried because I could not reach my foot to buckle my sandal. You became inexplicably angry when your mom insisted you go with her to your brother’s soccer game. I went into a rage when my husband ate the last pizza slice.

You’re suddenly getting taller. A lot taller. When you stand up, it’s disorienting to see how high off the ground you are. I’m getting wider. A lot wider. It’s hard to remember that I can no longer fit between small spaces like desks. (Related note: I’m sorry my belly has hit so many of you in the back of the head when I walk by. You’re right, we do need more space between the tables.)

You’re growing hair in unexpected places that you don’t want to talk about. I am sporting luxurious side burns (don’t worry, your facial hair will come in soon) and a hairy belly of truly epic proportions. I, too, am simultaneously ashamed and proud of this.

Your body has started doing all sorts of strange, weird, gross, but sort of cool things that I won’t talk about here. I feel you, my small friends. Humans. Gross, am I right?

So here we sit- 23 pubescent preteens and a 6 month pregnant teacher. Sometimes I ask my assistant what it’s like to be surrounded by a sea of hormones. She says she doesn’t mind, but in all fairness she may just be afraid I’ll cry. Or eat her.

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Why You Don’t Discuss Race With Second Graders

We have reading buddies once a week, so second graders come into the class to read books with my kids. After they finish reading, they can play a game. Today one of my boys and his second grade buddy were playing chess, while another fifth grader and his partner looked on.

I missed the first part of the conversation, but came by in time to hear one of the fifth graders saying that chess was racist because it was black against white. Before I could speak up that this a) wasn’t accurate and b) not a subject you discussed with 7 year olds, one of the little ones piped up. “What’s racist?” He asked.

The two older boys stared at each other for a second, then at me with something like panic. Before any of us could say anything, the second little boy announced “I’m black.”

He is not. He is definitely, definitely not. He has sandy brown hair, blue eyes, and very fair skin. The fifth graders, again, looked at each other, then me with a mix of confusion and panic. Again, they were interrupted. The same boy said, in the same definitive tone as before “I’m not black.”

“Gabriel is black.” The other little boy said, looking over to where Gabriel and his buddy were drawing together. “Yes, he is.” Said one of my boys, clearly relieved to have something he could answer clearly. Gabriel is definitely black. Then the same little boy leaned in and said quietly to his buddy, “Is Gabriel black?”

The other second grader interrupted again. “Are you black?” He asked his buddy. “No, I’m Chinese.” My student answered. “Black Chinese, or white Chinese?” The little one pressed. At this point, his buddy put his head on the table. The little one patted his hair gently, and moved his chess piece.

That’s Not Your Name

I have two students whose nicknames are very similar. Three letter names, one letter off. For anonymity’s sake, let’s call them Jim and Tim.

Yesterday the kids were getting packed up at the end of the day, and I found a paper that should have been put away on a desk. I looked at the name- Jim. So, logically, I went over to Jim and told him he needed to put his paper away.

Without looking at the paper, he informed me “It isn’t mine.” I told him it had his name on it. “No, I already put mine away. That ones not mine.” At this point, you might assume I would think something was wrong. If so, you clearly do not work with kids. I have conversations like this ALL THE TIME. I once had a student pull out a tooth and place it on the table, then vehemently deny it was his tooth. This after I literally saw him remove it from his own mouth seconds before.

With conversations like that in my history, I’ve learned to ignore the “It’s not mine” argument. So I called Jim over to the table and showed him the paper, and his name. “It’s not mine!” He insisted. “Look, that’s not my handwriting.” I looked closer. He was right.

“Who wrote your name then?” I asked him. “Whose seat is this?” Of course… Tim’s. Jim and I tracked down Tim together. Or rather, I went out to the hall to find Jim and Tim followed me. “Is this your paper?” I asked Jim. “Oh, yeah, it is. Thanks!” He reached for it. I held onto it. “This is yours? With your name?” He looked at me like I was crazy. “Yeah…” “Look at your name, Tim.” I pointed. He looked. “What?”

At this point Jim couldn’t stay quiet. “You wrote my name, Tim!” Tim looked at the paper again. “Oh yeah!” He said with a grin. “I did!” Then he went back to packing his backpack.

“Tim?” I asked. He looked up at me. “Why?” I pushed. I genuinely wanted to know why a ten year old wrote the wrong name on his paper. I wanted to know the reasoning.

“Why what?” He said. “Why did you write someone else’s name on your paper?” He shrugged. “Well, Jim and I were in the same class in second grade.” He said, with a tone that implied it was a completely logical answer. I turned to Jim, wanting someone to sympathize with me on that ridiculous comment. Instead, Jim was nodding his head. “Yeah, that’s true.” He said. He looked at me. “There ya go!”

These are the people I spend my days with.

The Answerers

When you teach, you start to see patterns in how kids answer questions. There are categories, and every kid falls into one.

The Rambler– It does not matter how short the answer is, this child will make it into an epic monologue. “What’s 3 x 3?” is answered “Well, you see, what I did, was I multiplied it, I multiplied the 3, and then I multiplied it by another 3, because that what it says on this paper, so I said to myself, I’m going to multiply that, and I did, and I got 9, which is the answer to this problem, which is 3 x 3.” If you are trying to get through a lesson before the subject ends, you do not call on this kid.

The Jokester– This kid is out for laughs, and you can’t blame them. Sometimes you need it. Other times, you want to throw things at them. For example, the student that responded to the question “What do we call polygons that look different and don’t fit into categories we know?” responded not with ‘irregular polygons’, which was the correct answer but “Michael Jackson.”

The Accidental Jokester– This is the kid whose answers make you want to laugh out loud, but you can’t because they aren’t doing it on purpose and you don’t want to make them feel bad. For example, the child who, when discussing political maps and asked who created the boundary lines between states, answers “God?” and you need to quickly turn your laugh into a snort and pretend to have a cold while the other kids eye the accidental jokester to see if he is genuinely answering this way, or trying to screw with the teacher.

‘I Didn’t Hear the Question’- The Blurters– Their hands are up before you even finish asking the question. Sometimes before you even start. You will need to ask them “Do you have a question?’ frequently, at which point they will shake their head, put their hand down, and shoot it up again as soon as you say a syllable. Often the answer leaves their mouths followed closely by the realization that they actually have no idea  what was asked. Like my old friend who answered a question about American government with “Ballroom dancing!” followed a heartbeat later by “Wait. What was the question?”

‘I Didn’t Hear the Question’- The Delayers- Similar to above, but when they are called on, the realization that they have no idea what was asked comes faster. You’ll say their name and they will say “Oh. I just… I thought… hold on…”

The Questioner- No answer is ever as good as another question. The questions themselves come in all shapes and sizes. Some are simple clarification, some can sidetrack us into off topic but often great discussions, and others are completely, utterly unrelated. “How many moons does Jupiter have?” How do we know any planets have moons? When will we have the technology to send people to Jupiter? What would Galileo think about it? When is lunch?

The Surprise Participant– This is the kid that never, ever raises their hand. When they do, it’s like a beam of light shines down on them and angels sing. They have finally participated of their own free will, and not just because you called on them and made them! Then if the answer is wrong, you feel like a jerk for not accepting it.

The Humble Ones-  These kids are never convinced they are right. Even when the answer is right in front of them, or one that can’t even be wrong (what’s you favorite food?) they preface the question with “So, I’m not sure this is right but…” Often lumped in here are the humblebraggers- “I don’t know if this is right, but I’ve read like 100 books on the subject and my paper on it was accepted by a prestigious academic journal so…”

The Old Faithfuls- They know the answer. You know they know. Their hands aren’t always up, but they participate when they need to. These kids feed on desperate teacher energy. The times when no one at all has correctly answered. When the clock is ticking, when everyone has apparently forgotten something you know for a fact they all knew yesterday, when you feel the desperation rising. You can meet that kid’s eyes. They will raise an eyebrow, just long enough to let you know they have the power, then they will sigh, raise their hands, and answer with devastating correctness. At which point the rest of the class will say “Ohhhh, yeah…” like they knew all along.

Peers

There are times that I feel far more similar to my students than I do to my colleagues.

My boyfriend and I have been considering buying a house. This freaks me out. In a way I still am expecting to be handed an official grown up certificate before I’m allowed to do things like buy a house.

When I talked about it with my colleagues, they said things like “That’s a really sound financial investment”, and gave me advice about mortgages and loans and contractors. I nodded and agreed and inside was thinking “What the hell does that mean?”

When I told a few of my former students, their reaction was disbelief. “Is it expensive?” “How will you get the money?” “Who do you have to talk to to do it?” “How do you even do that?” And it was to them that I could honestly answer, “I don’t know! I’m freaking out, man!”

We talk a lot at my school about peer groups. When we regroup students in new classes, we like them to have a comfortable peer- a friend they feel close with and safe around. My second year of teaching, when I was a special ed assistant, a student who had been in the previous class I taught in asked me on the first day “Are you my comfortable peer?” I’m still not sure to what extent she was joking.

I’m 16 years older than the students I had the conversation about the house with with. I’m more than 16 years younger than quite a few of my colleagues. I think it’s a good balance. Sometimes you need financial advice. Other times you need to acknowledge that you’re freaking out, man.