These are the 8th graders I got to teach this year:
Good gracious, I love them all.
Yesterday we had a little ceremony for them. There was a cookies and cream cake with chocolate ganache filling that I’m still thinking about. Also, I said a few words.
I am to tell you good work, congratulations, and good luck in high school, and I will tell you these things, but first I want to tell you a secret: I had no plans to teach this year. All my lesson plans and “how to teach” books, everything I learned about teaching in college had all been thrown away years ago because, and I quote myself, “I am never teaching again.”
I suppose I said that because I was burnt out. Perhaps I decided that middle schoolers are insane (and you are), and I couldn’t keep up with them anymore. It could’ve been I said this because I was afraid to try.
But I know one reason I said it was because I was becoming a mother. I decided that I could not be a mother and be a teacher. I make up rules for myself, you see. I believe that if I am THIS, then I cannot also be THAT. There’s safety and security in this sort of rule making. I don’t have to worry about trying. I don’t have to worry about failure.
But like the little girl who wanted to fly in Only a Witch Can Fly, or the dinosaur who had a dream to dance in Brontorina, or like Bobby who wanted to be a musician in Sleeping Freshman Never Lie, I started to dream again of teaching. My dream scared me because it would mean I’d have to break my rule, and I don’t like to break rules.
Throughout this year though, you showed me that this is a ridiculous rule because nobody is just one thing. You are hard working, talented students concerned with doing what’s right and what’s best, and you are downhill skiers, speeding down slopes and surprising yourself with your fearlessness.
You are gamers who know the intricate design and mechanics of videogames, but you can also describe and define the difference between what it means to be happy and what it means to have joy.
You are quiet, maybe a tad overwhelmed, but you can give your classmates pause when you ask why To Kill a Mockingbird is considered a love story. You get your peers thinking about the different kinds of love there are in the world.
You are loud. So loud. And many times, so inappropriate, but you can write Tom Swifties, memorize Bible verses and have an understanding of language and how it works far beyond your teacher. You wonder about King David, and that statue of the turtle outside the preschool you attended. You sit on a bench during a soccer game, exhausted, and a family member asks you why you’re playing afraid. You decide to play brave and that is when you begin to think you’ve found your footing.
You might struggle in school, but you name what you’re afraid of: maybe it’s surgery, or what high school will be like. Whatever it is, you name it.
You are confidently quiet, letting your poetry, stories, and your stunning (sometimes haunting) sketches speak for you. And you can shoot paper baskets better than any boy in her class.
You’re beginning to see that the tedious work of skills and drills in a sport is bringing out a talent I don’t think you knew you had, but you also know that the best time to play this sport is at dusk, beneath the trees, with your brother or dad when no one else is around.
You don’t like to write but you relay articulate summaries and make astute observations about what we read in class. Like this one: “Romeo and Juliet is an action packed story that got interrupted by a love story.”
You are into sports – soccer, reffing for soccer, baseball, golf. Let’s be honest, homework gets in the way of these activities but you come to class and you write about the freshly cut grass on a ball field, the smell of hot popcorn, the crack of the bat, and I understand why writing about baseball isn’t the same as playing it.
You can’t stop moving or you won’t stop moving, I haven’t figure that out yet, and you insist you need to write with a sombrero on, and so I let you because you can come up with ten different metaphors for “slow” and when I tell you you can write about anything you want – just write something – you write, “I would like to pray.” And so you do. You pray on paper for five minutes.
You are quiet. Maybe you see yourself as shy but I think you’re taking your time figuring yourself out. You remind me of me when I was 14. And when you played Juliet, it was as though a light switch had been turned on and you proved to all of us what the quiet ones are capable of.
You can describe the difference between a split-finger fastball and a sinker, but you can also describe how it feels in a home when a sibling has gone away to college.
You make your classmates giggle. I know it’s you, though I haven’t been able to point it out yet. You’re subtle and sneaky, and you can write about loving to swim in the pool while at the same time worrying about the bees lurking behind the flowers nearby. I don’t know how you captured fear and excitement in one sentence, but you did it.
You are tired. I’m not sure if it’s sleepy tired or if it’s a mundane feeling that makes your eyelids droop and your footsteps heavy. But you write, “nothing beautiful has no scars,” and I think, yes, that sort of beautiful scarring can make one tired.
You write evocatively: about friends and playing cards late at night, about going to the movies and trying to sit next to somebody without making it look like you want to sit with them. And you look out for your classmates – making sure they are included, that they have the work they missed. Nobody asks you to do this, but you do it anyway.
You are a slow worker, often forgetting to turn in an assignment, but you can pick up Shakespeare and read it aloud to your classmates as though you’ve been in a professional acting company for years.
You are dramatic, creative, and I think you believe God is in the big things, the perfect things. And this is true, but then you get hot chocolate for your dad (and you don’t want to do it because you just sat down), and you are standing behind an old lady who can’t carry a tune and she’s driving you crazy and you realize God is in these anticlimatic errands and imperfect efforts, too.
You have so many questions, and you often say you have nothing to write about. And then you come up with an essay that tells the story of your adopted sister; in her voice.
You point out that you want to do great things, but you are afraid of failing. You say you hate to be sad. But, I think writing about these things allows a space for you to be fierce.
You are a jokestar. You come to class late because you fell asleep somewhere – in the previous class? In the bathroom? On a bench? No one knows, but you walk in and you can write about soccer and make us feel like we’re on the field with you.
You question every assignment I hand out, you are bored or you seem bored, and you are incredibly friendly, and all of you write in the voice of Bob Ewell, one of the most evil characters in fiction, and show that there might be more to him then what I allow myself to see: “I am thinkin’ ‘bout my wife again,” you write. “I wish she could make her famous cornbread pancakes. I wish I could stop drinkin’.” “I don’t know why I write you these letters and bury them by your grave, but it makes me feel better,” another one of you writes. “Every time I look at our children, Mayella especially, I feel an anger. I don’t know where it comes from but it consumes me.” You explore early childhood pains Bob might’ve endured: “Me and Atticus lived in the same neighborhood. We weren’t friends, though. I was jealous of him because he went to school. I always wanted to learn new things but my parents didn’t have time to teach me. Plus, they would be fighting every day.”
Your phone goes off during the public school kids’ spring break and you say, “Listen. This wouldn’t happen if we had the same vacation.” And I have nicknamed you the Professor because you find Shakespeare’s reversed thoughts in Romeo and Juliet as though you have a PhD.
One of you has to go to the bathroom every day at the same time, another is absent quite a bit, one of you is concerned with perfection, another walks into the room, slams down your books on the desk and asks saucily, “What are we going to do today?” But each of you is bold in your writing, always taking risks: you write about songs you sang with your mother while you were getting ready for school as a child, you write about worrying about your parents, what it feels like to say goodbye to a pet, and walking around the neighborhood at Christmas time, drinking hot chocolate and looking at the decorations.
You are a bulldozer of a student: quick and articulate with every assignment, but then you surprise me (and I hope yourself), and write in a voice that to be honest, I never thought you’d be able to pull off. You say it didn’t take time to write, but nobody could write in the voice of their beloved, deceased dog if he wasn’t paying attention. That is slow work.
You are all insane and delightful. Snarky and sweet. You are all both and.
And so, dear 8th graders. Good work. Many congratulations. Good luck. And thank you for helping me break the rules.