I teach a child–we will call him Aaron–who is too funny for his own good. He cuts up in class, but it’s hard for me to get mad at him because he’s so clever. He doesn’t show outright disrespect, he just talks A LOT. He also happens to have one of the highest grades in the class. He is funny to the point where I promised if he could get an ALOL–Actual Laugh Out Loud–I’d give him a bonus point. I leveled the playing field with the other kids by awarding them two bonus points each if they could correctly identify a David Bowie song on every test.
Last week, I told the sixth graders they could name the skeleton I use to teach them where different bones are in the body. They used the democratic method at an impressive pace to vote on the name “Sheldon Dipper.” Aaron led the charge, of course, because he approved of the class talking way too loudly for any extended period of time. After the vote, Aaron talked far less than usual for almost a week.
His semi-silence didn’t last long, however. A couple of classes later, Aaron yammered incessantly. I asked him to move seats, to which he replied, “I can’t, Miss Lucy, that is not on my Can-Do List.” Setting aside the blatant insolence of this child, I burst out laughing. I made him write his quote down on the white board near Sheldon Dipper and took a picture of it. I would have given him a bonus point then and there, but I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction. These kids are highly quotable, which makes it damn near impossible for me to remain stern.
There is a lesson in this, naturally. On the same day the Can-Do List came into being, I had a 12th grade student reveal some disturbing details to me as I wrote notes on the board. While my back was turned, this student began making fun of his friend who was clearly hungover from a night of high-school drinking. He then tells the class of three students that he can rip “like five shots” before he gets too sick. I tried hard to keep my mouth shut. Now that I am an educator (or at least, on my way to being one), I have to set boundaries with the kids. I am openly sober, but it isn’t my place to Go Tell It on the Mountain with teenagers. This same student once told me that he had a problem with drugs and alcohol, “in the past”– that his way of dealing with childhood trauma has been to soldier through it with stoicism. All I said in return was that if and when you’ve had enough, you’ll know; there is help. I offered my support to him if he needed to talk about anything that was getting to him. And a split-second later, the only girl in this class walked up to me to say in hushed tones that she sometimes felt she couldn’t talk to her mom about her depression. I silently whispered, “Lawd Help Me.”
What I wrote on the board while this emotional shit show erupted was the different types of chemical reactions that exist in nature. As I finished writing about “combustion,” I explained to the group that chemistry is easier when you personify the elements. Like a person who pushes down too many emotional things, combustion occurs. Except when humans explode, the volatility can be much more destructive to life than any chemical meltdown.
I have to walk a tight rope with the older kids. I am old enough to know better than they do about life things, but young enough that they are still getting used to calling me “Miss” Lucy without it being awkward. Turns out, talking openly about my recovery is not on my Can-Do list. That has proven to be harder for me than I anticipated. My instinct is to swoop in to save these teenagers from unnecessary pain. In short, the clarity in my sobriety is a Catch-22: I can spot an addict a mile away, but it isn’t my place to diagnose anyone, no matter what their age or pathology.
The best I can do is be there for them. The only way I can do that is to be sober. And study. The last time I took biology or chemistry was the year these kids were born.
Lawd, help me.