How to Avoid Surface-Level Sympathy

She sat in her desk at the back of the room, eyes red and unable to hold back a few tears.  Four or five of her female classmates hovered around her, kneeling on the floor or leaning in from the seats nearby.  I’ve never met this girl in my life, and I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but her body language was all too familiar.  Stop asking me to talk.  Stop telling me everything’s going to be OK.  You don’t know.  You don’t get it.  Stop it with all this surface-level sympathy.  All the things you can’t say to someone who thinks they’re trying to help but doesn’t have a clue how bad things really are.

I don’t know what upset her.  It could have been anything from a breakup to a family problem to a bad grade.  It doesn’t matter.  Whatever it was, it was bad enough for her to cry publicly but not want to talk about it publicly.  So I may have seemed heartless to her classmates when I asked them return to their seats for attendance.  I kept my tone gentle, but more for their sake than hers, since I knew they wouldn’t understand my reasons.  I didn’t look at her more than necessary, either.  I’m the sub.  I’m no one to her.  But whether she realized my intentions or not, I could at least save her for the hovering masses who were unsuccessfully trying to get her to talk.

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The Hard Battle

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.  -Socrates

The eponymous Fellowship from left to right: (...

We are not meant to face our battles alone. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Normally I ignore the school announcements as they ramble over the intercom.  Pretty much everything they announce has nothing to do with me as a sub.  But I did catch the quote of the day.  I know I’ve heard it before, and I almost passed it off as cliché.  Almost.  Then I realized how sad that is, because I also know how true that statement is.  We all have our struggles.  We all have our battles.  Most of them are secret, simmering underneath the surface of smiling faces and polite attitudes.  It’s so easy to believe the facades, to think that others don’t struggle as we do, but that’s just not true.  We are all fighting a hard battle of some kind or another.

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The Adult Who Should Have Been There for Me

I have a confession to make.  When I strip away all my ambition and dreams of preparing teens for their futures and revamped career explorations, I need to admit that there’s another reason that drives what I do every day as a teacher.  There’s a story behind why I fight so hard to connect with my students and invest everything I can in them, no matter how short a time I spend in a given school.  As I look at my adolescence, I see the glaring need that no one stepped in to fill.  I see the cracks I fell through, and I want stop that from happening to someone else.

I need to be careful as I write this post.  I’ve had 10 years to recognize and deal with the fact that when I was 17 and 18 years old, the adults in my life failed me.  I’ve come to terms with it, and I don’t blame anyone.  I haven’t always been this level-headed about it, though.  When I first looked back on that year with the perspective of adulthood, the realization of what had happened hit me with a wave of anger.  Not at my parents, but with the teachers and other adults in my life back then.  I was hurting and scared, but they did nothing to reach out.  I know that in outward appearances I held the world in the palm of my hand, but when your smart, popular star of a student breaks down in tears in class on a regular basis, when she spends half a class period twisting and mangling a plastic water bottle out of recognizable shape, and finds relief in the act of banging her head against her locker?  Something is wrong.  Help her!   Continue reading

A Story With a Question

I did something today that I don’t often get to do.  I visited my former students.  After a year away travelling, I’m back in Boston for my husband’s graduation, so I arranged to visit the school where I taught last year.  A few teachers knew, but my arrival was a surprise for the students.  Before I walked through the front door, my former boss met me and gave me a big hug.  She smiled as she asked, “Are you ready to be mobbed?”

Fortunately, the students didn’t all see me at once.  If they had, I don’t think I would’ve remained upright.  As it was, they came at me so fast that once or twice I didn’t know who was hugging me.  Then most of them moved on to stand in the popcorn and cotton candy line near the main entrance (it was “Family Game Day” at school).  They were happy to see me, but even that wouldn’t distract them from food.  The older students handing out concessions simply yelled their greetings to me and offered me a snow cone “on the house.”  I declined.   Continue reading

The Dance of Words

It used to bother me that the poetry is gone.  I remember that electric feeling, the words flowing together in moments of powerful emotion, naturally falling into rhythm and rhyme schemes on their own.  I remember the teen angst expressed in picturesque (if cliché) metaphors of volcanoes and oceans, walls and towers, broken glass, rain, and leaves floating away.  I remember articulating the broken hearts of friends lost, trust broken, and boys that didn’t like me back.  I remember the identity confusion, wondering who saw the real me and who simply wanted to see the facade of the valedictorian prom queen.  Words helped me.  Poetry gave expression and meaning to my emotions.

Lyrical Ballads 2

“All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling” -Wordsworth (Photo credit: Thalita Carvalho ϟ)

No one read most of my poetry.  At least, not that I know of.  Maybe my mom slipped the journals off the shelves in my old bedroom after I left for college.  Maybe she flipped through the pages, wondering about the stories behind the words of pain and anger.  Because that’s when I wrote.  All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow powerful feeling, right?  At least, that’s what Wordsworth tells us, and I was a big enough literature nerd to believe him even then.  So when that passionate feeling hit, I wrote.   Continue reading

Please Forgive the Mess

*Note:  This is a follow-up on my last post, On Teen Angst: Why It’s Ok to Not Be OK.

In the last few weeks, I’ve made my first professional foray into public schools.  All I’ve known in the past is private schools.  I went to two different private high schools as a teen and taught and subbed in countless private schools in all my travels.  But now I’m a substitute teacher at the local public high school, which leads to people asking me about the differences.  What’s it like being at the “big, bad public school” when all you’ve known is private school?

Honestly, I’m enjoying it.  Granted, I’m in a small-town community right now, not a big city, so don’t start imagining metal detectors at the door and policemen patrolling the halls.  We don’t have any of that.  But people still ask.  “Do the kids swear in front of you?”  “Are they rude and disrespectful?”  “Do they fight?”

Not all of them, but sometimes, yes.  Now ask me if kids did those things at the private school.  Because again, the answer is still yes.  So while I love private schools and whole-heartedly support the work they do, let’s stop pretending they don’t have their own problems, because they do.   Continue reading

On Teen Angst: Why It’s OK to Not Be OK

I’m just going to say it.  The adolescent years can be really messy.

Artist: Karen (Friedrich) Duke

Being a teenager should be fun and full of opportunity, but all too often those years are overshadowed by struggle, stress, confusion, anger, and heartbreak.  I’m not just talking about high school drama — though that does have a profound impact on a teenager’s emotional well-being.  I’m talking about teenagers who, for one reason or another, carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, who are forced to take on independent responsibility much earlier than their peers, and learn how to be strong out of the necessity of survival.  I’m talking about the teenagers who learn the value of a dollar by putting food on the table for their siblings.  I’m talking about teens who split their time between two parts of the country, trying to be a child to both parents and growing up way too soon in the process, who struggle to figure out healthy adult relationships without good role models at home.  I’m talking about the teens who watch their families deal with disease and death, who live with disability and face their own mortality far too soon, and who watch the world pass them by in a sea of people who don’t understand.

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