Thursday, September 10, 2009

Lessons Learned From Teaching, Escape Me Now

Before I was a Realtor I taught high school graphic arts for 16 and a half years.

My classroom was a free flowing, organic place created by my predecessor. It required juggling various activities and a sometime volatile student population. I wrestled with it, abused it and got my ass kicked by the place a time or two before I finally figured out how to make it work.

There were seldom concise lessons taught before neat rows of chairs. Instead, controlled chaos, as students were up and about working at various tasks. At times I worked with advanced students running an offset printing press while other kids screen printed nearby and others developed pictures in a darkroom while still others did graphic design on a bank of computers. It was that free wheeling aspect of the place that made kids love it, and made it hard to control.

I was ridiculously tough on kids at first, trying to show them who was boss. That was a loser’s game. Over a couple years I learned a finesse that made it work. Mixing firmness with a sense of humor I learned to disarm hecklers and even allow class clowns and macho boys to occasionally win small battles, just so long as I won the war for control. The boys were easy.

But while teenage girls were easier to deal with on the surface, they were harder to deal with in the long run. I learned to handle the unpredictable emotional ups and downs and the vicioius condescention they brought to the classroom by watching how they treated one another.

Teenage girls have the ability to be the meanest creatures on earth. They trade in a social cruelty that boys can only guess at and haven’t the fine touch or emotional intelligence to replicate. If you dare care about their approval or want their affection, you’re handed them the ability to crush your spirit. If you’re a social competitor of a smart teenage girl, may God have mercy on your soul.

Learning all that helped me survive as a teacher. The key was getting older, losing hair, gaining a little weight, and as a result, not caring about most of the things teenage girls found most important – like being stylish or cool or acceptable to a particular group.

I would sing out loud while I ran the printing press with little or no care for their protests. I would sing a Little Feat song, mimicking that slow, New Orleans drawl, “Oh Juanita, my sweet Chiquita, what are you up to? . . . there’s a fat man, in the bathtub, with the blues –ue-ues . . .”

Consider it my, “Whistle while you work.”

I’d sing Lyle Lovett: “She’s got big red lips, she’s got big brown eyes, and if she treats me right it’s a big surprise.”

They’d shake their heads and smirk at one another. It was my Madonna oldies medley that made them realize once and for all that they couldn’t hurt me. I’d sing, “Get into the groove, boy you’ve got to prove your love to me,” which somehow faded into, “We’re living in a material world, and I am a material girl.”

Over a couple years a group of girls came up with a response rhyme they’d sing when I finished a song, “ Mr. My-ya, you’re on fy-ya, and I ain’t no ly-ya.”

Of course the joke was if anyone was on “fy-ya,” it wasn’t me. And that’s okay. At least we were talking and doing productive learning amid the silliness. I had made myself likeably unthreatening and in the process pulled down the wall that often stands between adults and teenagers.

Over the years they drew their chairs up to my desk as I graded papers and shared painful secrets. “Mr. Meyer, my parents are getting a divorce,” as the tears trickled down their faces. “Mr. Meyer, my boyfriend hurts me,” or, “Mr. Meyer, I’m pregnant and don’t’ know how to tell my parents.”

On Take Your Daughter To Work Day, I would take my daughter Sally when she was little. We’d pick up donuts on the way to school to share with the students. They loved my little girl and saw in her the sweet little girls they once were – before boyfriends, before thongs, before the clamoring confusion of their teen years. They drew in coloring books with her and took her off to the lunchroom like a mascot to sit with their clique.

When my wife, Greta went back to teaching I was free to pursue another career. I jumped at the opportunity. I drove to my classroom late one July, cleaned out my desk, typed up a resignation letter and drove away like a guy who’d just won the lottery.

But now, 7 years later, I realize I have lost that magic, that good natured mojo that allowed me to connect with teenage girls. It shows up in my relationship with that little girl of mine who is a teenager herself now. Often both my sense of humor and my “clever” observations about the world are met with blank stares (if I’m lucky), exasperated sighs, or a bristled shrug of the shoulders. I don't dare even sing a rediculous song.

I said earlier that a teenage girl can crush your spirit if you dare care too much about her approval. Perhaps that lies at the heart of the problem. Now the teenage girl isn’t some stranger’s daughter, but my daughter.

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