8th grade paranoia

I remember 8th grade. It was 40 years ago, so 1979. I hated my math class, which is probably the only time in my life I ever said that about a subject I still cherish. I adored civics, which I believe is now called government or political science and definitely not approached in junior high. My science teacher was … well I don’t remember who that was. And homework, yeah, I think we had some.

What I remember most about 8th grade, however, wasn’t the subjects I was taught. It was me. What it was like to be 13. It’s like … nothing. Teenage angst was still a few years away. You had some responsibility that you needed to wield during babysitting gigs mostly. Physical appearance was important but you could only fight it so much (face it, middle school years aren’t pretty for most folks). I think I read a lot, at least when I wasn’t playing some sport or participating in another extracurricular activity. Eighth grade was full of staying occupied.

What I don’t remember was malice or anything that went beyond the surface level. If I seemed happy, I was. If I didn’t, I wasn’t. If I was confused, I was genuinely confused. If I was tired, I just needed sleep.

All of this comes back to mind whenever I encounter an 8th grade teacher who’s, hmm, how do I say this … MEAN.

We work with kids — kids with their own lives and their own self-centered existences.  They’re pretty surface. The distracting ones are simply distracting, not because they’re trying to get back at you or ruin your career. They simply have no abilty to focus. The ones who don’t have their homework either genuinely forgot it or genuinely didn’t do it (even if they lie about it, it’s just to save their own skin, not make you look stupid in yours). There’s nothing to see here that you don’t really see when you look head-on at a 13 year old. They wear their heart, brain, and everything else on their sleeve. That’s what they’re capable of.

Yet I still, at least a few times each week, hear about the 8th graders who are trying to pull a fast one on me. And all I can do is wonder, really? I remember exactly two of my 8t grade teachers, one because she was so terrible that they disbanded 8th grade algebra that year, the other because she was amazing and cared about us as people. Honestly I don’t think I ever gave enough of a damn about a teacher to actually connive against him or her.

Still, encounter teachers in the profession frequently trying to convince me that their students are doing just that. They’re out to get me.

Maybe times have changed and 13 year olds are full of retribution but I don’t really believe that. I think it’s more likely that a 13 year old occasionally gets lucky and the stars align to cover something up and the world positions itself squarely on his/her/their side. Maybe…

Or maybe it’s that a teacher like me — someone who’s new and wants to fast-track my learning by consuming the experiences of others — catches wind of the criticism simply because I asked a question or made a comment. Yeah, I get it, that kid doesn’t turn in his homework or sits in class and plays video games all day and I should be on him like stink on shit to ensure he can’t find the time. But if I do that, I’m pretty sure I’ll lose track of all of the other students, so I ask if other teachers have found a good way to handle junior in the classroom. That’s when I hear how it’s junior’s goal to thwart any progress I might make. “Watch that one,” they tell me.

I’m not buying it, at least not at this age.

K, in all fairness, there are plenty of veteran teachers who will take my question and give me a real answer and help me figure out ways to work with  a student who isn’t engaged and directly or indirectly takes the rest of the class down with him or her. Those are the teachers I love talking to. I can learn so much from them, like how to accept the fact that I’m not perfect, how to try new techniques and strategies to improve engagement, clues to watch for that might make my task more effective and easier.

The others? The ones who are convinced they’re the subject of some 13 year old’s evil plan? I can probably do without them. While I’m sure they bring amazing insight into their own classes, I can’t possibly imagine spending my days believing my audience is out to get me. Even a 13 year old has PLENTY of better things to do. I say this because I DO remember life 40 years ago. And I also remember never thinking twice about the person at the front of the room and how I could make his or her life miserable.


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