"Don't laugh at a youth for his affectations; he is only trying on one face after another to find a face of his own."
- Logan Pearsall Smith, "Age and Death," Afterthoughts, 1931
The weather was strange today. I awoke the steady patter of raindrops, but could tell it wasn’t cold outside, sweltering in my flannel pajamas. The rain did not cease while I got ready for school or on my commute to school. Last night I received another call to report to the high school, but not for my favorite learning “Community”. After I parked, wearing my cap, and pulling my hood tightly around my face, I popped open my umbrella and kept a quick pace to the school, noting that it felt too balmy for December. Just before reaching the doors, a fierce wind forced my umbrella inside out, forcing me to face the elements on the gray day.
I went to the office and got my assignment. The lesson plans were clear; I’d teach two 12th-grade Anatomy and Physiology classes, taking them to the computer lab to work on a research paper and one 10th-grade Biology class, having them watch a video on cloning. I had a feeling that it would be a decent day, and was ecstatic that I realized that I didn’t have a fourth-period class, so I could leave early to do laundry and make meatloaf. Yes, ecstatic.
The first class trudged along with me to the lab about twenty-minutes after I entered the building. Imagine our surprise to notice ribbons of sun peeking from the edges of the window blinds. I was watching the students working quietly when the computer lab teacher came in. After a brief exchange about the change in the weather, it occurred to the woman that I wasn’t the regular teacher and this wasn’t my class. Without introducing herself or asking my name, she asked where the teacher was.
“She’s absent today,” I replied. “I’m the substitute.”
“Well, substitutes aren’t allowed to bring students into the lab,” she said.
Was she kidding me? “The have a research paper they’re working on next week. The teacher booked the lab time. It’s in her plans.”
“Well it may be in her plans, but she’s not allowed to do it. I’ll let her know when she gets back.”
I wanted to point out that I’d never heard of such a rule, not only bringing students to labs in plenty of other Cambridge Public Schools, but that I’d even been a computer lab substitute (Albeit a poor one)*. Swallowing my words and refraining from rolling my eyes, I nodded and smiled, glad that third-period was booked in another lab.
I spent the time looking for a job, but as it has been for at least a month, there were no new jobs. After that, I edited a manuscript and worked on some Art Committee responsibilities I have coming up for my children’s school. I also periodically walked around the room, checking on the hardworking students, baffled as to what the lab teacher could possibly be concerned about.
When I returned to the classroom, I came across something weird. At first, the room appeared perfectly normal for a science room, with a model skeleton and a torso with removal organs. But on a shelf, were a number of frizzy-haired naked dolls with markings on them. One reminded me of those plastic surgery shows when the patient is marked up just before she gets a lot of “work” done. In fact, since this doll was made of plastic, it was an appropriate analogy. She was supposed to be white, but her skin was an unnatural shade of pink. Black marker numbered various parts of her body. On her frozen smile was the number “11” (Tooth whitening shade?). The other doll was dark-skinned, but since they use the same mold, with no regard to differences in features for different ethnicities, I couldn’t tell which group she was representing. Nor could I understand why she had little folded fragments of paper attached to various body parts. I thought the papers were labels, but upon closer inspection, it must’ve been from scrap paper. For what purpose these dolls served, I had no idea, but they were creepy. Each time I was in the room, especially if I was alone, my eye would gravitate towards them. I could only imagine how the students reacted when they had to label the naked dolls.
The Biology class watched the movie with some minor grumbling. Although someone predicted it would be “boring”, seeing the now deceased Christopher Reeve go from being Superman to sitting in a Wheelchair was compelling, as he advocated for cloning. And they all got grossed out seeing organs and a cow birth. I could tell this was probably a trying class, with a lot of sneaking out of electronic devices.
The Anatomy and Physiology classes were researching medical topics. They’d hate this description of themselves (and I would’ve hated it when I was their age), but I find teenagers cute. In many ways I find them cuter than young children, even though those are supposed to be the cute ones. But if a small child isn’t mine, I find the dripping noses and whining less appealing. Older teenagers usually can control their impulses, unlike elementary and middle school students, and have less to prove, unlike middle school students. Teens in the upper-grades are on the brink of everything, and most of them are eager and sincere. Even if they put up a front, if I talk to them I can usually get through.
Last period, one student whom I’ve subbed several times, asked me if I remembered he’d had a cast. I told him I did, and he wanted me to know all about how it didn’t heal right, so he was about to have surgery to re-break it, put in a screw, and plate. The student also told me about how he was doing his research paper on the same medical issue he was facing. Then we talked about how he got his injury in the first place.
Throughout last period, I had to keep reminding them to get back to their projects as they excitedly chatted about college applications. One male student kept talking to two female students, discussing his applications, asking for help on the paper, all the while trying to impress them. When class ended, the three students lagged behind as the computer teacher and I got ready to leave. As the girls walked ahead, he called out to them, “Can we hang out together?” They hesitated, and one female said, “Sure. We can hang out sometime.” As he collected the rest of his things, he turned to me and said proudly, “I never thought I could go to college. Now I think I’m going.” I’d only met him that day, but I was rooting for him.
Upper-grade teenagers are in a gray area; their childhood is nearly behind them, and the future is uncertain, but thrilling in its potential. I remember that time vividly, trying to figure out who I was. The drugs, sexual mores, music, and technology may change, but teenage turmoil is universal, regardless of decade. Which is why I want to teach them, and why I like to write about and for teenagers.
I left the school, squinting in the blinding sun, as I made way through crowds of teens enjoying the seventy-one degree day.
“Adolescents are not monsters. They are just people trying to learn how to make it among the adults in the world, who are probably not so sure themselves.”
- Virginia Satir, The New Peoplemaking, 1988