The boys are playing this game where one of them slaps the other, really hard. Like, so hard that I can feel it in my stomach when it happens in my classroom. Then they slap someone else.
“It’s a game, Mrs. Feyen,” they tell me, smiling. “What you do is you slap someone, really hard, then that person slaps someone else.”
“Yeah, Mrs. Feyen, it’s about being a man. You embrace it, and you pass it on.”
I’m not sure what this game has to do with being a man, but I like the phrase this one boy gave me: embrace it, and pass it on. I’d like to think about that for a while, so I write it down on my notebook that sits on my desk. I walk back to where they are and sit down. I’ve split the class into two groups: boys and girls. They are having a competition – which group can write a better poem? Each group came up with requirements for the other team.I figure if they write four lines a day, they should be finished by the last day of school. Today, the girls have about ten lines written. The boys have zero, so I am sitting with them trying to give them ideas. They cannot stop moving. They cannot stop talking. They cannot stop slapping each other. I feel trapped. I look at them and think of the boys I knew in 8th grade. They were silly and ridiculous, too. And they made me laugh. Sometimes, it was the kind of laughing my stomach would ache from, and that’s saying something because I don’t remember even smiling a whole lot in Junior High. I remember listening to Depeche Mode. And The Cure. I remember trying to perfect the green eyeliner around my eyes and wondering whether I was cool.
I’m sitting with these kids, literally at the front of their insanity trying to help them write a poem, and I’m wondering what it is I can embrace about this moment and then pass on because certainly this has to be the reason I teach middle school: the belief that something magnificent is happening right now and it’s my job to capture it, and give it back.
“You guys,” I say, leaning on my elbows. “Listen. You’re so funny. You can come up with a line faster than I can inhale.” I relay a conversation back to them that they had a while back. It was about threatening to beat each other up. “We’ll meet at McDonalds,” one of them said. “OK, great,” the other one said. “But first, I’m gonna order a hamburger.” “Yeah, sounds good,” the other said back. “I could use a hamburger.” “With ketchup?” “Yeah, ketchup, mustard, and a pickle.” “Yeah, and fries, too.” “May as well get fries.” “Then we’ll fight.” “Yeah, then we’ll fight.”
They laugh a big rowdy guffaw remembering that conversation. “Why don’t you turn that into a poem?”
“We could each write a line roasting each other!” one exclaims.
“It’ll be hilarious,” I say.
Class is over, though, and still, no lines have been written.
I drive home and feel horrible. What have I embraced and passed on? Who cares anyway? What does it matter at this point in the school year? Probably, I’ve embraced the wrong things, but I think of those two boys I knew and how they made me laugh and anyway it seems like something to be thankful for. I couldn’t have said, “Thanks for making me laugh,” when I was thirteen and fourteen because how awkward would that have been? But I remember it, and I see it in the students I have now, and I know they’ve caused pain, but I bet that at times they’ve made the girls laugh, too.
When I pick my girls up from school, Hadley says, “Mama, I wrote you a note today,” and she hands me a piece of paper. Her handwriting is neat and there is a drawing on it. “I decided that I’m going to write you one note every day until the end of the school year.”
Hmmm, like a gift every day.
“I wrote a poem, and I’m not sure if you’ll like it, but I didn’t know what else to do with what I had, so I wrote a poem.”
“Well,” she says, “those boys are funny, but sometimes I’m not sure what to do with them all the time.”
“I understand,” I say and we start to drive down the hill towards home. “Sometimes I laugh with them,” I add.
“Me, too,” she says, smiling.
“But I think it’s cool you took something from them and made your own thing,” I say, and she looks out the window at the family of ducks swimming in the lake we are crossing. We don’t have to go this way, it’s longer, but I love driving over the lake. Sometimes we see swans. Sometimes we hear frogs. Today, we saw a family of ducks swimming and stopped to take a picture of the mom and dad on either side of their children showing them what to do out in this great, big world. “I bet the mommy and daddy are giving them a tour of the water,” Harper says quietly.
“I bet you’re right,” I say. “So someday, they can do it themselves.”
“I love it, Hadley,” I say as we walk into the house. “Sometimes, you have to take inspiration where you can get it, and you did that today.”
Embrace it, and pass it on.