or the Perceived Reality of Relationship
“Don’t try to fix the students, fix ourselves first.”
Maybe it’s because I’ve entered a third decade of living, or perhaps it’s because I have settled down… But for some reason when Jake’s answer to my question about what’s troubling Sam is, “Oh my God, D, he’s meeting his girlfriend’s parents tonight,” I decide to ignore the fact that I always remind Jake that I am Mr. D, as well as go against my usual calculated practice to “stay out of it,” and instead I decide to offer advice.
While I am annually reminded adolescents’ yearning for honesty, transparency, and connection, talking to students about their relationships has always been a signal to end our conversation. Other middle level teachers have found successful, safe ways to do this, but typically, I shy away from conversations about who’s dating by dismissing the topic as none of my business. The giggly telling of “what happened last Friday at the dance” or the whispered conjecture about “whether or not Jimmy would actually ask Lorrie out for Brad” always seemed inappropriate, distracting, or potentially boundary-crossing to me. In many ways, I felt unprepared to discuss something as complex and abstract with my students – what had I, truly, to offer these young people?
And maybe I didn’t need to add my voice to the collective, but it’s nearly June, we’re the only three in the room, and Jake’s pride in his buddy coupled with Sam’s innocuous and earnest concern – the best way to make a positive impression on your significant other’s parents – make me cave. Plus, my experiences with the drama girl a few months prior had shown me the power of acknowledging the intricate literacies of adolescent relationships.
“How do I -” Sam cuts himself off immediately, “I mean, what do I say? Oh, God, what do I do? What do I actually do?”
Jake smiles as he bounces around Sam. He reminds me of some boxer’s coach in the corner of the ring, or the hype man of a hip hop artist. He elaborates, “Dude! You’re meeting her mom! Her mom, bro!”
They both shoot me the looks of escaped convicts recently discovered by search lights. We are completely lost, their eyes seem to say.
“Ok, fellas,” I begin. I wonder if my voice sounds sage enough. I reflect on all of the times I heard my friends’ parents tell them to act more like me – I led a legacy of parents just loving me. What can I say? I make a good first impression. “First thing to know is that moms are their kids’ biggest fans, right? Think about your moms.”
Sam quickly beams, “Yeah! That’s right…my mom thinks I’m the greatest!”
Jake adds, “I mean, my mom calls me a pain in the ass, but I know she loves me…” Something about the ease with which Jake says the word ass to his teacher tells me that his observation is based on fact.
“Does she, though? Does she?” Sam says sarcastically, playfully hitting Jake on the shoulder. We all laugh.
“Right!” I continue, “When you meet her mom, just talk about how great you think Rachel is – any parent, especially a mom, would love to hear that.”
Jake chimes in, “And comment on her earrings. Chicks spend a lot of time picking out earrings, bro.”
I can see in his eyes that Sam is taking notes more meticulously than any class lecture. “What about her dad?” I ask, thinking about the implications of a father meeting his daughter’s first real boyfriend, “Have you thought about him?”
“Oh, Dads are easy. Yeah, super chill: sports, cars, yardwork…how’s the weather?” We all laugh at Sam’s impression of fatherhood. Suddenly, I see Jake and Sam in their mid-thirties, standing at a bar, downing some brews, chatting about sports, cars, and yardwork. I hope they stay friends, I think.
His offhandedness equally surprises me and makes me envious. “How about the handshake?” I ask, remembering one of my friend’s fathers telling me when I was 20 that he could tell I was a good man because my handshake was firm, and I looked him in the eyes.
I’m met with blank stares and silence. I tell them, adding some detail for dramatic effect, about the importance of a handshake, and then we’re spending the better half of ten minutes practicing where to place your hand, how much pressure to use, and what your eyes should focus on. It wouldn’t be until later that I’d reflect on the purity and tenderness of the moment – there I was showing these young men how to greet someone with confidence and respect. I’m not sure with how many other students I’ve genuinely shaken hands, or of how many I’ve looked into the eyes.
Jake and Sam leave our experience with me as they head home, high-fiving and cracking up their way down the hall. And I pause for a moment sitting at my desk. I try to think of all the times I maybe missed making a real connection with a student because I didn’t want to give into the drama of teenage relationships.
Relationship is a funny word. It connotes a range of emotions from simply connecting two objects all the way to the privacy of a marriage bed. And teenagers are all about relationships. If their lives are a choppy hormonal ocean, then relationships are maybe the literal vessel they use to navigate such rough swells. I remember one student, Josh: eyes big, mouth agape, when he’d hear about which teachers I was friends with. Or Suzanne desperately needing to know if I’d had a girlfriend.
At my desk, I remember that the walls I had so firmly built up began to lower back in April when I found myself, for the first time, giving into teen drama by listening to Larissa.
I joke that, “ninety percent of the reason I go back on the DC Trip every year is for the Carolina Mustard barbecue sauce smothering the best ribs I’ve ever had,” but really I love seeing my students in a different context. They’re more cautious, more sincere, and they listen far more closely than when we are in the safety of our rural school building. I also get to see them through a lens that doesn’t include test scores, homework assignments, and minused late points. We end our trip with a visit to Smokey Glen Farm – here, the kids run around and play pickup games of soccer, and then we have – I wasn’t kidding – the best barbecue I’ve ever had. After dinner, there’s a DJed dance where the kids always make room for the crazy teachers who feel comfortable dancing like fools with adolescents. There’s an equalizing atmosphere of we belong here. There is heightened excitement, and with that comes the invariable heightened drama that only can be conjured up by a room of two hundred or so homesick and exhausted fourteen-year-olds.
Sometimes, we teachers capitalize on the dramatics of the evening – who will ask whom to dance? Who will break up? Who will cry? To me and most of my trusted colleagues, it ends there. A silly, harmless glance back at our own trying years at that age. Some teachers, though, go so far as to generate a list of names and mark the number of guesses, and I tend to just ignore those practices.
Sitting at my table with some of my fellow teachers, I devour two plates of barbecue, and help supervise all the kids in the pavilion. The next table over features some drama girls: their arms flailing, voices booming; boys have been sitting at the table and leaving and returning, all as the girls moved food around their plates. I notice tension between Larissa and Nick…I knew they had been dating for about five months because word gets around when a couple lasts more than three periods of the day.
Larissa: just the sound of her name dripped with teenage dramatics. She was the girl who refused to present, even on the third day allotted for presentations, even when I said, yes, she could stand with her friends, and yes, she could read from the paper. Even after I told her she could go dead last even though her last name put her third on the list. I remember she ran crying from my room when I quietly muttered, “And next we have Larissa.” Larissa was the girl who screamed, “Leave me the fuck alone!” across the hall, and she was the girl who somehow always suffered someone stealing her things. Her pencil was never misplaced, and it never rolled off her desk, someone always stole it. And, she was always around the same mascara-running, crunchy haired, wearing-my-boyfriend’s-sweatshirt-and-tight-jeans group of girls.
Nick was a “good guy” kind of student. A sports nut, he wasn’t the most academic kid, but he meant well and was usually amenable to “can we try sitting for just five minutes, please?” When I found out they were dating, I thought, Oh, God, what could Nick possibly see in Larissa? She’s so much to handle!
It is so easy to criticize someone when she isn’t your niece or daughter or sister.
I notice more and more people leaving the table of teenagers, and finally Larissa is alone. Hmph. I think to myself. Of course there’s drama where Larissa is. I mean, I wouldn’t want to be around her…I hope she learns a lesson. The teacher next to me follows my evaluative gaze and turns to ask me, “Who’s that?” Her two-word question also implies, should we be following up? And in my haste, or the exhaustion from the five-day trip, or from three quarters of dealing with Larissa’s outbursts, I mention quietly, “Oh no, that’s Larissa – you know, one of those drama girls.” And I actually wave it off – wave her off as though her life experience is a fly to swat away. A nuisance. An inconvenience. The teacher takes my word for it. Not working on my team, she doesn’t know Larissa. Luckily, I was able to stop her before she got too invested.
I scan the room out of necessity for keeping track of behaviors and safety, making eye contact with other teacher-chaperones and other students. The room murmurs with merriment, the boom of the bass line of the song punctuating each smile. A group of giggle girls are performing a dance they all learned in the same class; a bunch of boot boys stand as I imagine their dads standing – holding solo cup in one hand, the other firmly shoved in a front pocket; and a group of cuddly couples are being closely monitored by two-thirds of our staff. What a slice of life I think. My head sways to the music and to the task of browsing the room. Then it occurs to me: Larissa is the only student to be sitting alone at a table. Frowning, I continue to observe. Her shoulders slump over her body, like she’s trying to hide under an afghan on a couch. Then, I see her tears.
At this point, I feel the desire to again criticize the perceived lack of dealing with it this generation has and think, c’mon kid – cut the crap! Who are you trying to impress? But, her head is down, not looking to see who notices her. And then I remember my principal, who at the time was speaking about a different topic, telling me, “Perception is reality, Dominic,” and I think to myself: Larissa is a human. Humans rely on connection with other humans. Or at least I do. She is visibly crying, and she is all alone. Whether she’s “making a scene,” or not, her perception is that someone has made her very sad and that there is no one for her to talk to. This action, far more than any other obvious or bawdy thing she’s done all year is the loudest cry for help I’ve seen.
Up until this point, I had never talked to a student about anything so personal; when girls cry, I send their trusted friends to talk it out, or have them call the guidance counselor. I am completely out of my element, but I feel like someone needs to check in with her. I excuse myself from my table and approach Larissa.
She notices me, and as I take the next few steps, reality sets in, and I realize I have no idea what to do next. So, still three feet away, I awkwardly ask something I figure empowers her with choice: “Do you want me to check in, or do you maybe want to be left alone?” The flashing lights from the dance floor highlight the tears on her face, and I think, please say you want to be left alone, please ask me to leave you alone. However, Larissa sniffles and says that it would be nice if someone listened to her. And I think, she just wants someone to listen. What’s so dramatic about that? And something sort of clicks inside me. I don’t know if something lets go, or rather if something snaps into place, but here I am, listening.
Larissa explains what happened, and she illustrates for me her perception of the reality of relationships. Her relationship with Nick as well as her relationship with her best friends. “They all ditched me,” she sobs, “I mean, I yelled at them, and we’ll be fine, but it was right after Nick called me a bitch!”
She begins to lose more control and sobs. I notice some people eyeing us from around the room. I now feel awkward physically; my instinct is to hug a crying person, but that doesn’t seem prudent. And I decide to forgo any teacher language about swear words – the word is thrown around a lot, and Larissa’s problem isn’t as much the word choice as it is who chose to use it. So I offer advice I know I’ve heard passed from woman to woman – I ignore the fact that I am not a woman: “Boys are dumb.”
Larissa looks up at me; she wipes away some tears. She half smiles, and looks at me quizzically. I imagine she’s thinking, But, aren’t YOU a boy? so I answer her unasked question. “I know. I speak from the experience of being one – boys are just super, super dumb.” She begins to smile a bit more. I then decide that with this small feeling of accomplishment I will, in fact, respond to word choice, and hopefully provide more thoughtful feedback than simplistic, gender-conformed pandering.
“But as dumb as boys are, that word, Larissa, that word Nick used to describe you -” She cuts me off.
“I know, I know, Mr. D. It’s a swear.”
“No, Larissa…I mean, yes, it’s a swear, but that’s not my objection; not really. My concern is that the word is something that demeans women everywhere. It’s a word that no one should ever call you or anyone else. I want to apologize for Nick right now, as a dumb, dumb boy,” I smile, and I find my innermost Atticus Finch or Jimmy Stewart and add, “You are not that word. You are Larissa.”
She gives me a look that suggests confusion but mostly appreciation, and I ask, “All better now?”
Larissa pauses and says, “Maybe not all better, but better enough,” and she gets up, walking to find her friends…probably to tell them how weird I am.
I take the moment in before getting up to check in with other students, and I think deeply about her message to me. We write teenagers off as inexperienced, immature, and vapid, but maybe Larissa was speaking more universally than she intended when she spoke about the human experience when we find ourselves mid-struggle.
It’s almost June; the boys, Jake and Sam, have just left still giggling about moms and dads and girlfriends, and I think about relationships. Friendship, fatherhood, mutual respect, and the new love that burns fiercely in a young heart. I mourn the loss of missed human connection. I wonder how many students facing tough issues I could have supported in my awkward, tip-toeing way. I still respect boundaries, and I can appreciate a slippery slope when I see one, but there has to be a middle ground. How many young minds and hearts exited my classroom feeling like I didn’t care? I vow to continue doing what Larissa maybe doesn’t even realize she taught me: break down some walls and listen. And maybe it’s because I’m thirty, or perhaps it’s because there’s a cobalt chromium reminder wrapped around my left hand’s ring finger, but I think to myself, maybe not all better, but better enough.