Monday, January 17, 2011

It's just High School

With final exams next week and report cards almost due, my high school students are beginning to act very stressed out about their grades. I try to do my best to act like an understanding teacher, but most of this involves a lot of pretending. Deep down, I still don’t see why high school matters so much. Maybe this is because I never attended an expensive private high school that prepares students to (hypothetically) get into Harvard, and my memories of public education don’t really include passionate teachers who were trying to make a difference in my life or parents pressuring me to get into a good college. And even if I did have a bunch of those passionate teachers, I probably wouldn’t have noticed them anyways. It was high school and I was a normal teenager occupied with extra curricular teenager thoughts.

Even when I witness daily how my male students insult each other sarcastically in the hallways during lunch, and how the female students have a best friend one day, and a different best friend another day, or how somebody is made fun of because of their outfit, or their body type, I am now old enough to know that all of this is not a big deal. Its high school, and sometimes I just want to tell these kids that nobody is going to remember if you were the popular student, or the nerdy guy with acne, or the slutty Goth girl, or the girl speaking broken english. Nobody is going to care if you sat by yourself during lunch or if you always had a crowd of people following you and dressing like you because you were so unique. It really doesn’t matter if you made out with three guys in the same night and accidentally took your shirt off at a party because you were too drunk to leave it on, or if you wear the wrong brand of shoes, or if you are gay and have a secret crush on your best buddy, or if your crush makes out with your best friend, or if you think you are a lesbian, or if your parents catch you smoking weed in your room and ground you for a week. It doesn’t matter because its high school and you are just a teenager, and one day you will gain perspective of how dumb and awkward this whole experience was overall. And one day you will also realize how it didn’t even matter.

But all I can tell my students when they complain to me about their peers, or about grades is this: “It’s just high school.” And I think some of them interpret this as: “It’s not as bad as you think.” And although my message does glide along that line, what I am really trying to tell them is: “You don’t know how lucky you are. If you make a mistake now, it’s early enough in life that you can probably fix it. Trust me with this one.”
But this, I keep to myself.

I think that every teacher copes differently with having to interact with teenagers. For example, last year the English teacher at my school published a fiction novel about, well, an English teacher working at a prep school in the Upper East side ( for a review of his novel, check: One of the central themes in the novel is his description of the highs and lows of teenage life. And one has to wonder how many years of being around teenagers did it take him to want to write about them poetically and with symbolic references, because so far, all I can say about them is that they take themselves way too seriously for their own good. Regardless how cruel and confusing these years might seem like, it really is just high school and ten years from now nobody is going to remember what they did or did not do in their junior year, or any of their passionate teachers who tried making a difference in their lives and failed, or the novels they were assigned to read and used Cliff Notes instead. And none of them will remember me either, and most of them will probably forget all the Spanish they learned. And this is why high school should never be taken too seriously: We forget too quickly why it all mattered so much.

( We forget, that is, and then life invites us to teach high school, to revisit those cruel awkward years through different eyes. And it all comes back.)