If someone had asked me why I wanted to teach high school students or to teach English, they would not hear me speak about my excitement over creating grammar trees or analyzing the conflict in the plot of a story or determining whether or not Hamlet is insane. I wanted and still want to teach high school students through literature and writing because I want to make a difference in their lives. Literature and writing was the only avenue that allowed me to get in touch with my emotions in high school and college. High school is a terribly confusing time for most teenagers and many of them, I myself was one of them, couldn’t find solace at home. How much I would have loved to hear from someone willing to talk about the struggles of being a teenager and how they got through it. Someone who truly understood what I was going through and willing to admit some of the things they learned. Someone who could be a good example to me.
Of course, I have long stretches of time in my classes where all I do end up teaching them is how to analyze a character and how to determine whether a word is an adjective or an adverb, but every once in a while, I am blessed with an opportunity to teach my teenagers about life. Sometimes it may be through the theme of a story that everyone is into and I can hear their silence…but a different kind. A silence that screams thought and contemplation instead of boredom or apathy. But even better are those moments before, during, or after school, when I can teach them about something that is affecting them right now.
I had that moment today.
We just finished a unit on Poetry. I love poetry and I loved poetry in high school. But one thing I remember from poetry in high school is that I learned more from the poems that connected to my life than the poems that Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson ever wrote about. Browsing through the curriculum that I was to teach this year, I couldn’t help but notice how quickly we would rush through poetry without ever having students learn how to apply it to their own writing or to have them share poems that make them think or feel something. So I made some adjustments. I required each one of my students to either bring in a poem that they wrote or a poem that someone else wrote, but that they liked. Everyday, someone would read their poem and we would talk about it before jumping into the day’s lesson. I even told them that I wanted this poetry unit to be meaningful to them. And as we studied poetry, I often asked them to think about how they could write poetry using some of the figurative language or techniques that the poets of our curriculum used. I saw many amateur poets excitedly practicing their skills on their college-ruled lined paper that they folded and stuffed into pockets or passed on to friends in the halls.
Today one of my students brought in a poem that she wrote. It was a free-verse confessional poem about the masks she wears and her desperation to be liberated from the lies she lies behind. She started to cry while reading it and the entire class was screaming the silence of complete understanding. We all gave her a big group hug and when I heard students whispering to each other about how they felt the sameway and when I saw tears well up in a few empathetic audience members, I knew I had to set aside my lesson for the moment and use this opportunity to teach them something.
I asked them to raise their hand if they felt the way she did. Every single hand went up. Twenty hands from twenty 14-year-olds of every color and social group and intelligence level. Twenty teenagers who thought that no one understood them, but learned right there that they had more in common then they thought. For half an hour we talked about the masks we wear in high school. About how tough it is when we don’t know who we are. I shared with them how much I had felt the same way when I was a freshman. And then I felt called to take it to a deeper level and bring up how so many teenagers turn to drugs to find comfort in their confusion and how this just fuels the vicious cycle of not being self-actualized. I explained to them that what they are feeling is normal– about the development of their frontal lobe and what areas of our thinking and acting that it influences. Also coincidentally, the very same part of the brain that drugs destroy, slowing its development or preventing it from ever developing at all until they find themselves at the age of 35 and realizing they are at the emotional level of a 14-year-old and wonder if it is too late to ever figure life out. Students asked a lot of questions. Questions about alcohol and marijuana. About where to draw the line. About what to do about “friends” who are abusing drugs. I had one student ask me what she could do to help herself not feel so lost and confused. She finally realized she was normal, but still wanted hope. I gave them both secular and spiritual advice. I told her and the rest of the class to write, to exercise, to stay active, to do more of the things that help them release emotions and energy. I told them to associate themselves with people who love and respect them no matter who they are, be it family or close, true friends. And I told them, that for me, Jesus has made a difference. I made sure to say “for me” so that I couldn’t be accused of telling them they HAD to develop a personal relationship with their creator even though I wanted to so bad. This is definitely one of the downsides of working in public education and I’m not sure if I will have a job tomorrow. But the atmosphere of the class had gotten so personal at that moment, I think it will stay indoors. If not, I have faith that I will be okay.
It was hard to change the subject to our analytical essays afterward, but we all made the transition. I told them that they could come and talk to me anytime they wanted and that I would listen and not judge them and to do my best to share my wisdom. I told them that our class was a family and I watched their heads nod in agreement. It was a powerful moment.
In the end, it really doesn’t matter if these kids walk away from my class knowing the difference between a simile and a metaphor. But if they walk our of my door knowing that they are not alone and there is light at the end of the dark tunnel of adolescence without masks or drugs or suicide, then to me, I have made a difference. I hope they all sleep a little better tonight. And maybe try writing another poem again soon.