"You look like the type who'd dig Lil Wayne."
The voice? Self-assured.
The smile? Confident.
The goal? Dominance.
The speaker? A young man I'd never met.
The intended audience?
Oh! that would be. . .
Swagga so bright I don't even need light.
(*Pimp cup and grill optional)
That's me - a grown-up pleaser kid, former teacher's pet and a late 20th century selection from the palest of the pale suburban moms collection (note the non-existent eyebrows and distinct lack of melanin).
Now, I'm married to a man named Wayne (his middle name, which appears to be the most popular middle name for serial killers, by the way), so the concept of "Lil Wayne" would just be a distraction and a fit of giggles I could not afford at that moment. I'm telling you - double entendre is a gift that never gets old. Trust me on this one.
Anyway, where was I? Oh, yeah.
Why was this kid pouring charm and humor on me like a water hose on his baby sister?
Simple. It was the location: a high school classroom. I was "the sub" - and it was my turn to be tested. It wasn't the first time, nor would it be the last. (By the way, listening to Lil Wayne should be mandatory for all educators. Know the voices in the students heads that can be louder than yours if you're not careful.)
What was I doing in a room full of estrogen and testosterone run amok? Had I lost my mind?
Actually, no - at least not yet. I had worked in offices before my husband and I had our first and only child in 2002, and I decided I didn't want to return to work full-time after all we had endured to bring the little tax deduction and sleep deprival unit into the world.
I loved being a mom (still do) and was happy to take care of our daughter while my husband commuted 75 miles every night to work a 10-hour shift - and sleep during the day. I enjoyed watching Blue's Clues and The Backyardigans as much as any stay-at-home parent can - and even more, since I sang along - but there's a point where Mommy had to re-establish contact with the outside world, or she might build a shrine in her medicine cabinet to her pharmacist:
So, with my emotional well-being and mad money earning potential in mind, I decided "subbing" was a great way to get to know people in my husband's small hometown, and learn about the schools my daughter would attend from Grades K-12.
What's the worst that could happen?
I'll tell you: high school freshmen. They haven't returned to a fully human state yet, so it's a bit like seating 20 gorillas in a library when one of them smells like a banana and another is in heat.
. . .which brings me back to that high school campus. The same student who smiled and cajoled, pleaded and placated to listen to his iPod during class? He was the one, when I subbed for a science teacher whose health crises in class proved more educational than her lectures, who told me he was grounded if his grades fell below 95. He was at school with his jaw wired due to an injury, consuming nutrients through a straw. He's also the one who earned a $25,000 scholarship his senior year - the only one -
- but he wasn't the only one who listened to Lil Wayne.
Because of students like him, I accepted a full-time job at that high school - coincidentally, during his senior year. I sat at the front desk, answering the phone, greeting the public, helping anyone who asked. . .and learning a little bit about what it means to be a student in a small town in the 21st century (with a little translation help from Urban Dictionary, so I could figure out what they were talking about.)
Rainbow Party, Skittles Party, Train Party. . .all terms I learned in 2009 from students in rural Texas, where even muddin' has clothing-optional potential.
Because of students like him, I learned to try and keep my eyes from crinkling shut when I laughed out loud, from widening in shock, welling up with tears or rolling skyward in exasperation when they talked about what this teacher said, or what another student did, or how they separated their fighting little brothers in the front yard at 6 am after prom. (Answer: chase them with a bat.)
Silence! I kill you!
I never quite pulled off a poker face - but they knew it - and seemed to know that what I wanted, more than anything, was for them to be okay.
Most importantly, I learned I could NEVER shut my eyes to avoid seeing their reality. . .because they wanted someone to see it, to listen to them talk about it, and to honestly care what happened to them.
Seeing the relief that they "blew a zero" at a party busted by cops. . .seeing their bloodshot eyes when they came to school "blowed" - just another day on the job - 187 in all.
In this small town, predominantly Caucasian, Catholic and Czech, with involved parents and lifelong friends who graduate, go to college and come back to raise their families, time did not stand still and problems didn't stop at the city limits sign. It just seemed many over the age of 30 were supplied with blinders once kids reached 13.
There are always students facing realities no one should - and this school I love was not immune (hunger, poverty, prescription addiction, alcoholic parents, attempted rape, teen pregnancy, custody battles, molestation, abortion) and in our town, teens drinking, driving and dying (every few years - for decades). The town holds their collective breath on school holidays and three day weekends. Kids see their parents on Thursday morning, go home with a friend after school and conduct alcohol poisoning contests with beer pong, Jell-O shots and swamp water until they come back home wiped out and hung over Sunday night. They can be 15 years old - with loving parents who naively trust adults who supply the location and the liquor.
Budgets are tight in schools, and teachers are overwhelmed, overworked and underappreciated - and occasionally micromanaged by administrators. Some should have left the field long ago, when they ran out of patience for students who are basically raising themselves - through experiences I just listed. If a friend confesses to another that she's a victim of sexual abuse or a dyslexic student took care of a vomiting sibling all night, the importance of calculus or a research paper falls down the list, if not completely off.
So, what did the students teach me? What do I think you should remember when you hear about public schools, underperforming students and budget cuts?
- A student's radar still works. They know when an adult doesn't give a damn. They sense it when they're 18 months old and they can see through the fake smiles and psuedo-concern when they're 18 years old. They're just tired of pretending it doesn't matter or hurt once they reach puberty. Don't even try.
- Young people always trust the wrong person at least once - usually of the opposite sex - who will hurt them deeply, and they will die a little inside, blame themselves - and likely do the same thing over again if an adult doesn't listen and support them.
- Teens take it to heart when someone they respect gives up on them - and it motivates them to give up, too.
- Adults and second chances are NOT a combination teens put together willingly. EVER.
- Teens are educating themselves through every means available to them - including sexual experimentation with peers (hookups with random people they meet at parties/friends with benefits/longterm relationships). They feel like adults because of their actions, but aren't yet wired to adequately handle the psychological price of all they see, hear and do.
Most importantly - now, more than new uniforms, dual credit classes or technology grants for the classroom materials - they need adults who care enough to see what's really happening, to listen to them, to support and reassure them in difficult times and to let them know they can still become the kind of person they want to be - and how they can accomplish it. If their parents aren't listening, they're hoping to find someone who will.
If you're a parent, LOOK. LISTEN. SAY SOMETHING. Ask the questions, challenge the answers, negotiate the solutions when there's conflict. Don't assume anything - good or bad. YOU have the responsibility to teach your child how to live in their generation, not ours.
Don't baby them or sugarcoat the truth. Acknowledge their maturity and experience, but let them know there's more to come - better and worse - and they need to be able to be in control of their lives, not the other way around.
Oh, and what about Lil Wayne? Can he teach us a lesson or two - aside from how to go to jail for weapons possession? Well, yes. He can. The reason his music connects with young people is because he listens to them, and gives them a message they want to hear:
No stress visibly
Neither does it enter me
I think positively
You can't harm me mentally
You'll never get rid of me
I am the epitome
Of "this is what you did to me"
Nothing is what you did for me
Nothing is what you give to me
I take whatever I'm visioning
Now break all the limiting
Now shake all the gimmicking
And I'm no quitter cause I'm a go I'm a go I'm a go getta and I'm no quitter cause I'm a go I'm a go I'm a go getta
Yeah I I'm gon get it I I'm gon get it yeah I'm gon get it yeah
Cause I'm a go I'm a go I'm a go getta