Thanks to the wonders of social networking, I reconnected recently with a friend I hadn’t spoken to since high school. As it was bound to happen, our conversation eventually drifted to the topic of how things are so much different in school now from the way they were when we were there. To be sure, a lot has changed, what with Columbine, No Child Left Behind, and budget cuts out the wazoo, but you know what? Some things never change.
When I was a bratty teenager, any time one of us said or did something boneheaded, my mom would heave this long-suffering sigh and say, “Kids these days – send ‘em to school, give ‘em books, and what do they do? They eat the pages!” I don’t know if she heard that somewhere or came up with it on her own, but I heard it a lot, and it stayed with me throughout my tenure in our great nation’s public education system, through college, and on into my own brief stint as a teacher. During the short time when I was responsible for shaping the minds of 150 or so 12th graders, or at least keep them awake during the hours they were supposed to be gaining mastery over the English language, I’m pretty sure I reached a few of them, but the rest, well… They mostly just made me hear my mom’s words echoing in my head, especially on one occasion.
Being fresh out of college, and therefore not much older than my students, I thought I could relate to them and try to at least ease the pain of force-feeding them concepts like punctuation, allegory, conjugating the verb to run. I learned early on that one thing these kids actually enjoyed was telling stories – true stories, urban legends, stuff they’d made up – so I built my assignments around that concept, and with pretty good results… most of the time.
When the time came for my darling students to learn about metaphor, I thought instantly of the comic heroes I’d grown up with and what a brilliant literary device it is to take metaphor literally and allow a hero to actually shoot lasers from his eyes or destroy cities with the force of his will. Thus, an assignment was born, and I kept it simple: write a story in which you are a superhero. You can make up a new hero or take on an existing persona, but the story must be original. At the end of the week, an enjoyable day was passed as several surprisingly entertaining tales of daring-do cracked me up and made me proud. That is, until 7th period.
I don’t know what it was about this particular class, but [insert scene from every high school movie where the exasperated teacher's shouts are drowned out by boomboxes as paper airplanes and spitwads sail overhead]. At least I knew these cretins, and therefore knew better than to just let their fearless leader – a great, big, dreadlocked smartass, lovingly dubbed “Junior” by his peers (for no explicable reason) – stand up and say anything out loud, especially when he’d had time to prepare and perfect his words.
My caution paid off, as it became apparent by the time I’d read the first paragraph, that in Junior’s perversion of the DC Comics universe, the Justice League was a street gang and Wonder Woman was to be the next new initiate. Guess where it went from there.
Lucky for me, I have a pretty good poker face, and I simply looked Junior in the eye and informed him that if he cared to complete the assignment according to the parameters of the Student Code of Conduct, he could turn it in and present it the next day with a minor penalty to his grade. Shockingly, he didn’t find my terms agreeable, and he chose to make his displeasure known by the simple expedient of balling up his paper, cramming it in his mouth, chewing, swallowing, and returning to his seat.
I stood by and watched, incredulous, rendered utterly dumbfounded and speechless until the little bastard had the nerve to say, “Uh, Ms. Harris? Can I go to the nurse? I think I’m gonna throw up.”
Despite the blinding fury reaching critical levels within me, I kept my cool and said, “sorry, kid. I think your indigestion’s gotta wait for the bell.”
He stood back up, looked me in the eye and said, “You know, Ms. Harris, you kinda look like Wonder Woman. What are you doing after school?”
I don’t know if the security guard who escorted him out ever let him go to the nurse, but when I came back in to my suddenly-silent classroom, I was done for the day. I had them just trade papers and read each others’ work while I stared out the window and thought, “kids these days, send ‘em to school, give ‘em books, and what do they do?”
My mother the prophet – who knew?