Approaching Strangers

On Tuesday, we begin my eleventh year teaching eighth graders. The kids I taught that first year are now in their mid-twenties, with jobs and families of their own. I think back to that first year and wander about some of them.

Samuel (not his real name), who had so much potential but was placed in a class that encouraged him to show his less savory characteristics. I think he could be a good defense attorney — not intimidated by anyone with a strong sense that justice is paramount. His sense of justice and fairness were a little skewed, but that’s fourteen-year-olds for you.

I think of Sarah Beth (also not her real name), who spent the first week or two in a daze because of an ADHD medication mis-dose and became such an energetic, focused leader in the class when all the details got sorted out. I can see her as a project manager, juggling a million different things and using her sweet but forceful personality to get things done.

Then there’s Requan (also not his real name). Last I heard, he was arrested for assaulting his mother. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s in prison now, and that’s tragic. I worked with him one-on-one a lot, trying to help him learn to control his anger and his impulses. He looked me straight in the eye like a man when I spoke to him like that, and there was a dim light in his eye that suggested he really did want to change. I still wonder if I could have done more.

This time eleven years ago, they were all strangers to me. I knew nothing about them, not even their name. Within a few weeks, I could predict their responses to certain things.

This time eleven years ago, the new batch of strangers I’ll soon be meeting were toddlers. Truth be told, so was I in the classroom. I had nine years’ experience as a teacher by then, but it was my first year as the primary teacher in an American classroom. It was all a little much, that first year — all the bureaucracy and paperwork, all the behavior issues I’d dodged, by and large, in Poland. I lacked experience despite my experience, confidence despite my confidence, and above all, resources. It’s a strange to admit it, but I honestly found myself wondering, “What exactly do I teach these kids?” Sure, there were state standards, but like any such documents, they lack specificity.

Now, I have experience, confidence, and I know just what to teach them — and often it’s not in the standards for eighth grade because so many read at below-grade levels. But there’s one thing that never changes: I’m always just a little nervous about this year’s kids.

This Year’s Kids Are Different

Every year, I heard the same thing. Probably every teacher hears it from their colleagues in the grade below them: “This group — whew! Prepare yourselves!” That makes those teachers sound horrible cynical, but in all fairness, we all feel that way at the end of the year. Frazzled and exhausted, we’re ready to get rid of the kids no matter how much we love them. I know this because every year someone says, “This group coming up!” I end up thinking, “Well, they weren’t nearly as problematic as your comment suggested.”

This year, though, I’ve heard something for the first time: “This year’s kids are different. You won’t have nearly the same issues you’ve had in previous years.” The careful part of me wants to be, well, careful — not get my hopes up. Expect the worst and all that. But after meeting them during open house tonight (they’re still strangers: “You know I’ll just forget your name by tomorrow,” I said countless times), I think there might be something to that.

We can always hope.