We’ve had so many technological advances over the past few decades; when I was your age I was waiting for AOL to boot so I could find my pals in a chat room… now with a couple of clicks, you can take an unflattering photo of me from across the room and snapchat it to twenty of your nearest and dearest. And yet, you chose to shove a tiny wad of paper in your mouth and then lob it unceremoniously at the back of my head while I struggled to get the projector to work to teach you the middle school math I wasn’t sure I remembered. That’s just gross, dude.
But what I’ve learned because I’m so much older and less gross than you, is that you can’t be held accountable for the insane choices you make in the dark ages known as middle school. Middle school is much what I would envision prison to be like, and not just because mine had bars on the windows. Middle school is a collection of individuals at their absolute worst, trapped together in a smelly, pubescent purgatory where the cruelest are on top, and humanity takes a backseat in order to survive. You have to be hard, shelve your morals and your guilt, betray the things that you love just to make it beyond lunch. It is for these reasons that, whenever someone tells me they enjoyed middle school, I inherently distrust them.
When I was in seventh grade I had a wonderful science teacher who shall remain nameless to protect her and also because I can’t remember it. She was so pretty and so nice and extremely well-liked by everyone, a feat extremely difficult to pull off when you’re teaching a demographic categorized by Extreme Resentment of Every Known Thing in The World. But that’s the trick in middle school, that no one is safe; you can be well-liked and still be a target. And one day, a bunch of the cool kids, much in the same as yourself, decided to play a trick on her: at designated intervals of time, our class would collectively drop various objects on the floor. To pull it off, however, they needed to enlist everyone, including members of the lower social castes (including myself,) and we all leapt at the chance to prove our worth.
Fifteen minutes into class, we dropped our pencils. She laughingly scolded us. Thirty minutes passed, we dropped something else I can’t recall at the moment. She was annoyed, but what can she do? At the forty-five minute mark, we took those old, crappy, heavy as fuck textbooks and dropped them all at the same time, scaring the shit out of our sweet science teacher. And then, to my fascination mixed with abject horror, she cried.
I remember being stunned; the shock of such a raw display of emotion temporarily snapping me out of the mob mentality. It made me feel unmoored and unsafe, the idea that, not only was a figure of authority vulnerable, but that I had the ability to wound her. It clearly affected everyone; it sucked the air out of the room. The truth that teachers are just fragile people like the rest of us was a palpable, heavy thing, now sitting amongst us like a big, fat crazy guy, drinking a slurpee and laughing at all of us for getting what we thought we wanted.
At lunch our class ate together, cool kids and less-fortunate alike, in a rare display of solidarity after the fallout. I remember recounting the events to a friend like a war hero, not allowing my discomfort to sully the fact that I had been included in a cool kids’ scheme. I remember throwing in a curse word, feeling unwieldy and clumsy coming out of my mouth … and then she started fucking crying! And then one of the popular girls, a Latina girl with wide-leg jeans and lip-liner who looked about thirty, turned and snapped at me, You don’t say “fucking” when you made someone cry; what’s wrong with you?
As a reluctant grownup and educator myself now, I’m not sure I can justify my sweet science teacher’s emotional outburst. I’ve taught through the death of my father and dissolution of my engagement. I’ve been yelled at by a principal for missing a lunch duty I didn’t know I had, and when I went back to grab my sunglasses she slammed the door and told me I could stand in the shade if it was too bright. I have sat behind a desk at a transitional school for female ex-cons with a pair of scissors in my hand because I was told a girl I wrote up has a violent past and might try to hurt me. I’ve had a spitball lobbed at my head, and believe me, you weren’t the first, hasn’t anyone ever told you to think outside the box? I have run to my car after school, as fast as my sensible shoes could carry me, and burst out crying as I dialed my mother. I have cried in bathrooms, underneath my desk, into closets, but I have never cried in front of my students. You don’t need to understand that responsibility yet, not in that way. It is my job to help you to do what is right, not to saddle you with the emotional burden when you don’t. I have chosen to forgive myself for that day, as I forgive you, because you’re just a fucking kid, and God help us if we must be held responsible for every shitty thing we did when we were children.
A few years later, that really sweet and pretty science teacher had a baby girl. She named her Mikayla. I guess she forgave me, too.