“We hated her! Mr. Filholm, you don’t understand! We hated her! We wanted to bring her down!” These actual words were uttered to my husband by one of my all-time favorite students, now a grown-up man visiting his hometown for a long weekend. They were spoken over a lovely dinner in the company of friends, with no trace of lingering animosity. The student and I had long since made our peace, of course; he had in fact become like a big brother to our young boys. But it was a great reminder of how every school year with seniors begins.
Welcome back to school, parents of teenagers! Isn't it just the Most Wonderful Time of the Year? Right now--while the school supplies are still fresh and Homecoming Week glimmers on the horizon--let's take a moment to consider what our kids are doing in those hallowed halls of High School. It's bound to get messy as the year unfolds. They're apt to resent a lot of the upcoming year and so are you. Before we know it, the school year grows stale and we're all juggling the demands of academics, activities and adolescent angst. Here's an insider's look at what teachers think they're doing and why. It's also a good priority-check. Parents and teenagers alike tend to get mired in daily details and lose sight of the big picture.
Although some students remember me fondly (enough to spend grown-up time with me and my family), I was not the kind of teacher who inspired a life-long romance with literature. As I reminded them often, I didn't give a whit how much they liked a book (only I didn’t say “whit”). We had bigger fish to fry. Namely, I wanted my students to graduate with a solid command of language and rhetoric. I wanted to see improvement in their ability to make and de-construct an argument. More specifically, I wanted to strengthen their B.S.-detectors so they would have shelter against the arguments preying constantly upon their beautiful brains. Most high-school students would rather talk about anything besides grammar. Literary analysis interests them only slightly more. Discussions of tone, theme, purpose--and God forbid syntax or diction--inspire resentment, apathy, even violence in the average teenager. And yet, nearly every day of my teaching career, I insisted on talking about grammar and analysis. And it was awful. I didn’t care how deeply the Twilight series moved them personally; I wanted to know if they could protect themselves from the barrage of arguments aimed squarely at them, 24/7. It was drills, diagrams and repetitive, scaffolded exercises. All. Day. Long. They hated me. They wanted to bring me down. Why not change tack? Why make it so rough for myself and unpleasant for them? Why sail against rough winds instead of taking the smoother course of young-adult lit and how it makes kids feel? Because their brains are worth it. Because, by God, they became better writers and readers because of it. Maybe they’ll know when a politician or advertiser or newscaster is selling them down the river with a logical fallacy. The end justifies the means for this teacher: no regrets. It was worth it, being reviled for a few months, because I had some spectacular outcomes in mind as I began each year.
I have asked you to try and remember your teenagers as they were when they were toddlers. In fact, let’s go back even further. Take a moment and recall the sweet brand-new smell of your infant son or daughter. When we carried their little car seats across the threshold to establish our families, the future looked bright indeed. When they are babies, our dreams for them are simple and expansive. We want our children to be happy. We hope they will enjoy their time on the big blue marble. We hope they will feel loved and useful and full of joy. We hope they will do well in the world and we hope they will do good. We can’t really imagine what shape they will take—nor which course they will chart—and we don’t much care. We know with everything we have how amazing, beautiful and possibly enchanted our children are; we trust the universe will respond appropriately. We worry less at this stage about ACT scores or which medical school they attend. We care less about which scum-bag friends they bring home or what hideous video game they want to play. Backward planning for little children—what we wish for their futures—is painted with broad, happy strokes. Somewhere along the line (I blame the puberty hormones), we lose this sunny perspective and forget our goals.
While the luster of Back-to-School still shines brightly and the backpacks are still free of moldy leftovers, let's take a deep breath and keep the end in mind. It's rarely easy, raising the adults we hope our children will someday be. Let's try to remember teachers share our goals; let's all slog through the school year together and trust our kids are worth it in the end. They are worth the headache of reinforcing their boundaries and their curfews. They're worth the arguments when we monitor their homework, sleep intake, web browsing and video games. Don't worry about being liked by your teenagers--especially as the school year revs into high gear. Worry about why they're worth it.
[For more on why I taught grammar to kids who didn't care, please read Gimme Shelter. To read about how teenagers are the new toddlers, check out Handle with Care. And for a good reminder of what high school is really like, refer to Parts One, Two and Three of "Notes from the Teenager Trenches!"]