I haven’t been too active on my blog since September, as I’ve mentioned before, because I was offered to teach 10th grade English at a local high school when a teacher suddenly had to leave.
The strange thing is, I’d forgotten that I’d given up on the idea of teaching a couple of years ago. Burned out by grading and freshman college students’ attitudes, (“Wait, college is hard?! No one told me college would be hard!”) I had pursued a small business and my writing.
Then why was I suddenly agreeing to teach high school in a matter of days?!
I still don’t know why, except that, strangely, I really, really wanted to.
The adjustment has been immense—working full-time, learning how to teach high schoolers, reading their novels rapidly to be two days’ ahead of them. I’ve never worked harder in my entire life. I’ve never been so drained and depleted and exhausted.
And, shockingly, I’ve loved it.
Well, most of it.
Because there’s 2nd period.
Everyone at this school of 400 students and teachers knows about my 2nd period. A senior that I have in 4th period stopped by last week to turn in something, glanced at the back row of boys I teach, and exclaimed, “Whoa—you’ve got ALL of the rotten ones!”
Yes, yes I do. Out of 20 students, 17 are boys. One-fourth are retaking the class because last year’s teacher failed them (and yes, I’ve heard all about THAT injustice from them repeatedly). A couple are retaking English 10 for the third time. They’re juniors who are feeling a bit panicked.
As you might imagine they have attitudes. Disrespectful, bitter, bratty, insolent—yep, I’ve got the full gamut. This has always been my biggest nightmare: a classroom where half of the students are the school’s known bullies.
And, for the strangest of reasons, I love each one of them.
No, it’s not a strange reason, really; it’s an absolute gift. The first day I faced them—and I had been warned about them by the assistant head of school, the head of the English department, and their current substitute teacher—I gazed over their scowls and cynicism, and I was filled inexplicably, wholly, with love for them.
Realize, this is NOT my nature. I can be rather nasty and cynical myself, as anyone whose read my books can attest. But not right then, and not since then. I was filled with pure love.
It wasn’t my love, but God’s love for them. I felt at that moment such a profound sense of, These are my children, and they need someone to care for them. This is your task, and here’s how I feel about them.
Staggering. Absolutely staggering.
I never before realized how immensely God loves each of His children–even the rotten ones. So much so that He’ll send anyone He can find to help them.
He’ll use anyone willing. Even me, as inadequate and unprepared as I am.
The head of the department had suggested that what these kids needed most was someone to “mom” them, and since I have nine kids she assumed I knew how to do that.
I didn’t, but God does. And daily He’s tutored me in what to do when someone acts up; when a student etches poorly drawn male anatomy into the desk; when another student wanders the classroom in search of the garbage can to toss his breakfast sandwich into from fifteen feet away (the sandwiches tend to fall apart in flight, just fyi); when a frequent-failure, who is failing yet again, lays down on the floor and announces that he’s no longer writing but is listening, so keep talking and don’t mind him when he starts snoring; when another student, smelling strongly of marijuana that he claims is his parents’, looks at me with his bloodshot eyes and hazy expression and says, “What was the assignment again?”
And I’ve been tutored as to how to handle the other half of the class which is frustrated with the ding-dongs on the back row and yell, “She told us eight friggin’ [at least, I think he shouted friggin’] times what we’re doing! I counted! Shut up and listen for once!”
And I’ve been channeling Mahrree Shin, when she was teaching the delinquents of Edge. When I first drafted books 3 and 4 and described Mahrree’s experiences with her troubled students, I borrowed examples from friends who taught, and also my limited experience in once teaching English composition to the auto shop students at a local community college. They, too, were insolent and boorish. The college had thought that teaching them a humanities class might instill in them some humanity. That’s material for another post, but I’m happy to report I did have some success with them.
But that was long ago, and these are very different boys. And nearly every day I’ve thought, “What would Mahrree do?”
I’ve been taking her advice, which is also the Creator’s advice:
I never yell, although many of my front half of the class have told me to shout at the back half. “Just let them have it!”
But I never felt that was right; Mahrree never lost her temper. She’d stand in front of the class, smiling sweetly (sanctimoniously?) while waiting for the noise-makers to lose some steam. She’d stare at the worst ones intently until they squirmed and blurted, “What?! What do you want?!”
“To begin class. Are you now ready for me to talk?”
“Yeah, talk already! You’re creeping me out!”
Mahrree would never lose her cool, even when a handful of boys, upon hearing they could throw away their homework, crumpled the pages into balls and started hucking them, a dozen at a time, toward the garbage can. No, Mahrree would critique their terrible shots, exclaim loudly that she’s glad none of them are on the basketball team (while knowing that two of them were) because they couldn’t make a shot to save their lives. Then she’d pick up the balls of paper and chuck them back at the boys, demonstrating how to properly hit a target.
Mahrree wouldn’t insist on absolute silence or obedience, knowing that these boys trapped in her classroom were counting down the minutes until they could break free and run home to their four-wheelers, or their lobster boats, or their shotguns which beckoned them all day long. She’d play games in the class with vocabulary words, knowing that the teachers on either side of her classroom were forgiving of their volume because, “It’s 2nd period,” and even their students know about Mrs. Mercer’s 2nd period.
Mahrree would bring in the occasional treats, feeding them pomegranate seeds when they discussed Persephone and Hades, giving them “bird poop” cereal mix when we discussed Poe’s “The Raven,” and tossing Smarties to the students who won the last round of vocabulary Bingo.
Mahrree would worry about the students’ need to be heard, to be engaged, to feel like their 80 minutes in the classroom wasn’t an exercise in frustration.
Mahrree wouldn’t care about her ego, or her students’ lack of respect, because she knows she’s there for them, not for herself. It’s about the kids; it’s never about her.
Mahrree, by the way, is NOT like me in the least bit.
But she’s been tutoring me; God has been teaching me–daily, hourly, and every minute–how to cope.
And I’ve never learned more about teaching, about myself, and about God’s love for every one of his children—EVERY last one of them.
Mahrree would, however, count down the days until the semester was over. That, we have in common.
Eight days. Eight.
And I suspect that right after I do my Happy Dance on January 12th, I’ll shed a few tears as well, because this mom will have lost a lot of her children who she learned to love.
Because God showed me how much He loves them.
(By the way, Book 7, The Soldier in the Middle of the World? I’ve nearly finished proofing it. It’s coming, friends–it really is!)