“This I Believe”

I believe in teenagers.

Whenever I meet someone and they ask the small-talk conversation starter of “What is your job?”, I always say, “Teacher.”

“Oh,” the person responds enthusiastically.  “What do you teach?”

“English.”

“Oh,” the person says now blushing a little.  “Hopefully you aren’t judging me for my grammar.”

I do the traditional laugh and assure the person that, no, I am not judging him/her for his/her grammar.  Even though, once I hear this joke, I usually start mentally going over his/her sentences.

Then, after a quick pause in which the person collects him/herself and stops worrying about my grammar judgmentality comes the next question.

“What grade do you teach?”

“Seniors.”  Wait for it.  Wait for it!

And now, ladies and gentlemen, the conciliatory response:

“I don’t know how you do it.  I couldn’t do your job if you paid me.”

My mental response, “That’s okay.  They do pay me.”  My verbal response:  “I love what I do.”

And then the conversation peters out at that point because I am a bit shy and not good at small talk and the person isn’t about to start asking me for stories about teaching and I am not going to invade his/her privacy about his/her career path.

Here’s what I hear about teenagers:  “They’re no damn good.”  “They’re nothing more than a bunch of egotists.”  “They’re a pack of fools.”  “They’re selfish,” “narcissistic,” “dangerous,” “scary,” “mean,” “trifling.”

The list goes on.  Maybe I should try to make a WordPress list….nah.

Yeah.  Teenagers are egotistical.  And they are very self-absorbed.  And they do care about themselves.  They can be dangerous or scary and even a bit mean.

Not unlike the arrogant drivers who cut me off when I am driving the recommended safe-driving distance behind the car well in front of me.  Or the lady who honked her horn at me and flapped her hands at me and flicked me off because I wouldn’t let her cut me off when two lanes merged into one and I was in the lane that wasn’t disappearing.  Or the old man who nearly hit me with his car at Wal Mart because looking over his shoulder was not convenient and he had mirrors.

I face more danger on a daily basis in the Wal Mart parking lot or in the access road that leads to both the gym where I work out and the Starbucks next to it.  I deliberately drive out of my way because people will not wait the five extra seconds to let cars get out of the way before they will accelerate across six lanes of traffic for their lattes.  My daughter’s elementary school parking lot is a battleground over who can pick up their child first and then leave as fast as they can because “second is for losers.”

Yeah, teenagers can be disrespectful.  I had one girl try to attack me because I made her move her seat so that she couldn’t sleep in my class and maybe she would be one step closer towards graduation.  Okay.  I ALMOST got hurt.  But I didn’t because other people stepped in.  I also had an adult chase me down in her car because she was convinced that I passed a school bus and her and put lots of little children in danger and “How could [I]?”  Maybe she’s right.  I don’t think so.  My kids who were in the backseat thought the lady was wrong.  My kids might also be biased.  Doesn’t matter.  I apologized and she stopped her fussing and all went well.

I also had a student whom everyone thought was “no damn good.”  He passed my class with good grades.  On graduation, he came up to me, hugged me, kissed me on the forehead, and said that he loved me.  Yeah…that kid is up to no damn good.  By the way, last I heard, he was serving in the military.  From what I can tell, that kid’s up to a damn lot of good.

When 9/11 happened, the students in my school raised over $10,000 to donate to the American Red Cross.  When Hurricane Katrina happened, they did it again.  Yeah…these kids…they’re up to no damn good.

They don’t get the tax incentives that I can claim so I can pay fewer taxes to the government.  They didn’t get certificates of appreciation.  No one walked down the line of kids and shook their hands.  They were anonymous faces in the football stadium when the BIG check was given to the American Red Cross.

One day, a student came to my trailer bearing a cardboard box.  Inside it was a baby squirrel she had found beside the road.  For a day, that sweet, little animal curled up in my hand (or ran down my back at one point) until the student could come and take Peanut-Butter (I decided that was the perfect name) to a rehabilitation shelter.  Now, I can hear all the animal rights activists screaming at me that we did the wrong thing.  Yeah.  You’re probably right.  I don’t care.  Peanut-Butter was cute and soft and fuzzy.  And helping one baby squirrel not become cat chow or one of “nature’s furry speed bumps” is okay in my book.

Teenagers are mixed up hormones and chemicals sealed into a package of skin and emotion.  They can be walking time bombs.  They are also, frequently, incredibly selfless and altruistic.  They think of others before themselves.  I don’t hear kids asking me, “What’s in it for me?”  They might grumble about the newest book they might have to read or the next paper they need to write.  But, in the end, they get the work done.  And I have yet to meet an adult who jumped with joy over an updated honey-do-list.

I have had classrooms of students buys gifts for children on the Salvation Army Angel Tree.  They have collected food and Christmas decorations for a former classmate who was deployed with the military.  When the aging and diabetic Latin teacher needed yard work done, four or five boys who were usually the “rough and tumble” type drove to her house on a Friday afternoon and cut down trees, mowed her lawn, and raked up leaves.

We have a food pantry in our school.  Although a teacher runs the entire thing, guess who is helping with the inventory and making sure the right people get the food?  Yup…teenagers.  By the way, they’re also the ones who help with donating food.

They were the first to volunteer to help with philanthropic causes for cancer research, feeding and clothing the homeless, caring for animals in shelters, and getting books for impoverished schools.  These teenagers are the first to step up and fight for social justice because, sometimes, adults are too tired or too jaded to think they can do anything.

So, yeah.  I believe in teenagers.  And if they are “no damn good,” then neither am I.

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