Teachers, Remember What It’s Like to Be 17

It’s Labor Day, and I’m on my back porch catching up on school work. Cup of coffee in hand, cats at my feet, I open Google Classroom and the first student assignment I read is Kailie’s analysis.

I do not actually know if the 1985 hit song “Sussudio” by English musician Phil Collins is a “good” or “bad” song. I am forever blinded by the light of emotional attachment, with this track being one my dad played for me from a very young age. Which is odd in itself– my father, who cringes at the sound of Wham! and spent his 1980s buried in Van Halen cassettes, is a fervent appreciator of “Sussudio.”

In one raw, unfiltered moment of memory, my senior year comes rushing back to me. My life-long friend Leslie and I are in her living room, MTV on full blast, and we are Molly Ringwald-jump-dancing and scream-singing, “I feel so good if I just say the word, su-su-sussudio.”

Leslie and I thought ourselves some edgy sorts because we loved Duran Duran, The Clash, and Flock of Seagulls. So ardent was our identification with these reckless, poppy 80s Brits, that if Sting had been our English teacher, we would have been wet-bus-stop-waiting every day.

But there’s something more than just the memory of a song. I remember the joy and sorrow that marked so much of high school. I remember being free and being scared. Wanting to grow up and wanting to stay small.

Leslie and I had lost one parent each- my father to leukemia in ’82 and her mother to breast cancer in ’83. As Cold War babies, we knew the world was an uncertain place. We were sick of high school with all its petty rules, but scared to death about what came next.

Even though every adult in our life was telling us to think about the future, we wisely knew The Moment was to be savored. So there we were, just for the moment, delirious, sweaty, out of breath, and that song – we never had any idea about who or what Sussido was – told us if we’d just say the word, we would feel so good. Such fizzy pink pop. Such mindlessness. It didn’t matter. It felt good to be young and alive.

I tell every first-year teacher this: Teaching high school is a non-stop memory of your own adolescent pain.  Which is why, principals, when you’re hiring new teachers, instead of asking what John Maxwell quote best exemplifies their classroom management style, ask this question: do you remember what it’s like to be 17?

Do you remember how everyone told you to just be yourself, but you didn’t have any idea who or what that was? How every inspirational speaker they drug us into the gym to listen to told us to be unique and different when all we wanted to do was to blend in enough to not get singled out for anything?

Do you remember what it was like not to understand polynomials but everyone else seemed to be getting it, so why raise your hand?  Do you remember avoiding the loud girls in the hall because they might single you out, to make fun of your hair, your shoes, your teeth?

Do you remember what it was like to have every adult telling you the decisions you made in the next two years would determine the rest of your life? That if you didn’t make the right decision, you’d be screwed. If you didn’t go to college, you couldn’t get a good job. If you didn’t get a good job, you wouldn’t have a family. If you didn’t have a family, you’d end up hustling aluminum cans at the scrap yard.

Do you remember what it was like to no longer be a child, but not yet an adult? How one moment you wanted to crawl back into your bedroom and play with action figures and the next moment you were taking the ACT and filling out college applications? Leaving your parents? Leaving your childhood?

I’m reminded again that teaching is dependent on our ability to remember the answers to these questions. So, thank you, Kailie, for taking me back and helping me remember what it’s like to be standing on the edge of the rest of your life, thinking every decision is life or death. I wish I could go back and tell my 17-year-old self that everything’s going to be okay, but I can do the next best thing: I can extend that grace to my students. I can make my classroom a safe place to feel free and to feel scared. I can make writing an exercise of self-discovery and solace. I can act with wisdom when my students act like five-year-olds one minute and thirty-year-olds the next.

That we recognize ourselves in our students is invaluable. When they remind us of who we once were and who we are now, we can reach out again, through joy and pain, and help each other along the path. We must allow them to see us, not as authorities on life, but fellow travelers on this journey. Treat them with the same kindnesses with which we wish some wise teacher would have treated us. Strive every day to remember what it’s like to sit in that cramped school desk.

 

 

3 Comments

  1. It must be some kind of paradox that the older I get, the more I realize this. They are kids stuck in adult bodies trying to figure things out. Sometimes they are wise beyond their years and at other times they are idiots. But no matter what, they need our love and guidance as we prepare them for the world, not just college.

  2. You’ve said exactly how everyone feels. I teach freshman and sophomores in college. They all experience the same thing. It’s nice to be able to put into words what they’re feeling and to remember myself what it was like. You’re standing on the edge of tomorrow. At 40 sometimes I still feel like every decision I make affects the rest of my life. I always told myself back then I didn’t want to forget what it was like. I didn’t want 40 year old me to lose track of my 18 year old self. All of the problems are big at the time. Thanks for the reminder and putting everything into perspective.

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