This is my third month of substitute teaching, and, while I'm making progress in handling elementary-aged students, I'm dismayed to discover that something ominous happens to a lot of kids around 6th grade. They become surly, insolent, over-sexed, and violent. No amount of cajoling, threats, positive reinforcement, office referrals, or even corporal punishment (with a well-worn, vicious-looking wooden paddle) can reform them. With classes like these, my only goal is to keep them from injuring each other or damaging property; fuck the lesson plan, just maintaining discipline is a full-time job.
So when I run into the teachers who somehow manage to survive daily contact with such students, I pay homage. I repeat my incredulity at their students' apathy and lack of self-control; I praise them for being able to teach anything to an overcrowded room full of semi-literate youths; I commiserate with them over the devaluation of education and the future of our nation.
Lest you think I'm exaggerating, here are some examples of the behavior I'm referring to:
1) At a notoriously dangerous middle school, I wrote 3 office referrals before 9 a.m. for students who refused to do their work, refused to stop talking, and then walked out of class. While I was eating lunch in the teachers' lounge, the vice-principal dragged them back to his office and paddled them each one by one and then made them apologize to me for being so disrespectful. I was a floating sub that day, which means I went from class to class to cover for teachers doing in-service training. That afternoon, I had two of those same boys who I had written up that morning, and they were just as disrespectful as before. One of them divided his time between napping and antagonizing the other students; the other was rapping and beat-boxing the entire period.
2) This is why I don't sub at high schools anymore. There's apparently a new unspoken rule at public high schools in this city allowing kids to listen to their iPods as long as they stay in their seats and at least pretend to do their work. This means that sitting in a desk and not bothering others has gone from being the bare minimum requirement to being the paragon of good behavior. When I first encountered this, I expressed surprise and disapproval to other teachers, but they smiled sadly and said, "You'll understand." Without profane music blasting in their earbuds to mollify them, these students will pick fights with each other, talk explicitly about sex, break out a pack of cards to play spades, pull out a can of oil sheen and a rat tooth comb to play beauty salon, and basically act as though they are not in school under adult supervision. And it's not "senior-itis": this all happened in 10th grade classes.
3) Some students' prevailing attitudes toward teachers goes beyond simple lack of respect to an active hatred. I've heard students criticize their teachers for looking rundown and unfashionable. I've heard students say teaching is as respectable a job as flipping burgers, and, since teachers only make $19,000 a year (according to one student), they're not worthy of respect. I've even heard a high school kid lionized by his peers for slapping a teacher. This is not just a problem with older kids, either. A fifth-grader once got so enraged with me for repeatedly asking him to sit down and practice his multiplication that he went red in the face, started hyperventilating, and told me, "You can't tell me what to do! Get out of my face, you gay teacher!"
4) The word "gay" -- completely divorced from either of its two meanings and instead intended to mean all that is vile, loathsome, and Other in a fellow human being -- has infected youth language like a virus. It's like verbal herpes. Boys call each other gay to emasculate and belittle each other. Girls call boys gay for not being as warlike and hardhearted as them. As a queer-identified, slightly androgynous woman, I find it all highly problematic and disturbing and angry-making because, first of all, it's not bad to be gay. Somehow even by the tender age of 8, today's Bible Belt children have imbibed the idea that same-sex attraction is bad and that, by extension, being accused for any reason of even "acting gay" (whatever that may mean) is an unpardonable offense. The most recent and most egregious incident I've witnessed happened yesterday in a 3rd grade class. An unhappy-looking, overfed boy had apparently had a continuing feud with the "special needs" student in class. ("Special needs" is a catch-all category for kids with learning disabilities, physical disabilities, and severe behavioral problems. I've never been told exactly what's going on with any of the special needs kids I've had to work with, so it's always hard to deal with them, especially when they disturb the other students.) Yesterday, the special boy followed his apparently usual routine of wandering around the room, talking smack to other students, grunting, and hogging the pencil sharpener in order to sharpen all his pencils down to nubs. Fat boy got fed up and drew a disturbing sketch of special boy consumed in flames, chased down by what I assume to be a dragon, while fat boy looks on and says, "Die, gay [special boy]! Die!"
Kids are scary little creatures, and I'm glad that I have the choice to avoid certain classes if I know that I'm not up to the challenge. Teachers deserve respect for the bravery required to face such hellions day in and day out.