Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Getting Schooled in School by Jody Casella

Whenever someone asks me why I write for teens, I usually smile and answer something sorta like this:

I like teens. I like books for teens. Not so deep down, I pretty much still am a teen. 

All of these answers are true. Ish. But there's a longer reason, and it has to do with a pet pig...

So, once upon a time I was a fresh-faced, wide-eyed, brand spankin' new high school English teacher. At age 23, I was not far past my own high school years, and those years had not been pretty.

I couldn't imagine I'd ever forget. The cruelty of bullies. The smug smirks of the teachers' pets. What it was like to sit alone in the cafeteria, trying to pretend I was cool with it. Being called on in class, heart thudding, scrambling to figure out what the hell the homework assignment had been.

The New Teacher Me vowed to make my classes fun and interesting. But most importantly, safe and comfortable. The one place where my students would feel, if not good, at least okay.

I got schooled within the first few weeks.

The kids weren't what I expected. They were taller, for one thing. Bigger. Louder. They talked when I talked. Sometimes they laughed at me. In several of my classes they outnumbered me thirty-five to one.

It took me a good year just to figure out how to maintain order in my classroom. And by order I mean keeping students from standing on their desks or climbing out the windows. Forget imparting my knowledge on the nuances of language or the symbolism in The Scarlet Letter. Many of these kids could barely read.

They didn't turn in homework. They cheated on tests. They came late to class. They made up excuses to leave. The bathroom! It was always "I have to go to the bathroom" with these people!

Without realizing it, I became the teacher my teen self would've hated. I gave pop quizzes and assigned seats and drilled the kids on grammar. I refused to give out bathroom passes.

Somewhere along the way it became Me against Them. I grew older. They didn't.

And I forgot.

By year five I was a pro. My class was a quiet oasis (for me). Clean. Orderly. If you walked past, you'd see me behind a lectern or jotting down notes on the board while the students busily scribbled in their notebooks.

Now I know what you are thinking. What the heck does this have to do with a pet pig?

Well, one day my students were taking a test and I was grading papers and all was right in my world when I felt a shadow looming over me. I halfway looked up to see a student. Out of her seat!

"Can I go to the bathroom?" she whispered.

I made the universal hand wave for Go Away Don't Bother Me.

The shadow disappeared and I returned to my grading.

After a few minutes, the shadow was back. The same girl. Again! "The bathroom?" she mumbled.

I waved and hissed at her, "Back to your seat."

She drifted away.

It wasn't long, though, before she was at my desk again. I was furious. What the hell was wrong with this girl?? I looked up.

I looked at her.

She was swaying in front of my desk, her face pasty-colored and shining with perspiration. Her eyes watery. Her hands shaking. But it was the sight of her jeans that got me springing out of my chair. The fabric near her upper thigh was soaked with blood.

Her legs buckled at the same moment I grabbed hold of her. I walked with her quickly to the office, the whole time telling her it would be okay as she babbled incoherently. Something something about a cut on her leg. Something something about her pet pig? Biting her leg? Her goofball idea to put a Bandaid on the wound and go to school?

I never learned the entire story.

What I did know was that she had to go to the emergency room. She'd need someone to disinfect her wounds. She'd need stitches.

I walked back to my classroom, shaky myself, and stunned. This was second period and this girl had managed to make it through homeroom and first period and most of my class, bleeding and in pain. I could imagine the story on the news. Girl Bleeds To Death from a Pig Bite Wound at School and No One Notices.

What was wrong with me? How had I forgotten?

Suddenly, I could see my students.

There were girls in my class who were pregnant. Kids who were physically abused. Homeless. Bullied. Or maybe simply consumed with more important things in their lives than the symbolism of the red letter A plastered on Hester Prynne's bosom or the green light at the end of Gatsby's dock.

When I had kids of my own, before I sent them off to school, I stooped down and looked them in the eyes. If you ever have a problem, I told them, tell an adult. If she doesn't hear you, tell someone else. You have to speak up for yourself. You have to make yourself heard.

Because here's the truth: Adults don't always listen to kids.

And most of them have little memory of what it's like to be one.

Teen Me. On one of my happier days. 

















4 comments:

  1. Your piece made me gasp out loud. It's wonderful and powerful. Thank you, Jody!

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  2. Oh, yes. Adults don't always listen to adults, either. Standing up for yourself is an essential lesson to learn early.

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  3. And as usual, Jody, you've got me in tears. You always speak the truth.

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