Too (un)cool for school

In fifth grade, I ran for class president.

It was my first experience managing anything like a public relations campaign, and I threw my heart and soul into it. I made posters. I passed out fliers. I put fun little surprises into every one of my classmates’ mailboxes. I spent hours agonizing over my speech.

I came in dead last.

About a year later, I joined a “mock trial” club at a summer camp for nerds gifted and talented middle school students (really though, we all lovingly referred to it as “nerd camp”). Somewhere in my 12-year-old brain, I got the idea that I wanted to be a lawyer, which involved “auditioning” by giving a speech in front of the rest of the kids in the club. I don’t remember what I talked about in my speech, but I’ll never forget how confident I felt delivering it to a group of kids my own age who I’d never met. They must have seen some kind of potential in me, because I was chosen as the prosecuting attorney by an almost unanimous vote (and I went on to win the whole damn case, too).

It was the first and only time throughout my school years that kids my own age ever voted for me for anything. If I’m being 100% honest, middle school was not my finest hour – neither was high school – and it took me a while to realize that that’s the case for the vast majority of people.

Who really wants to hit their peak between the ages of 12-18, anyway?

I’ve heard a lot about how hard it is to teach that age group, and in retrospect I can see why. Middle and high school are awkward. Everyone’s trapped in the unflattering cocoon of puberty, grades are more likely to determine your future with each passing year, and nothing is more important than being “cool.”

When I applied to be an auxiliar last year, there was a spot on the application where you could choose if you wanted to work at a preschool (infantil), elementary school (primaria), middle/high school (secundaria), or an official language academy (mostly adult students coming to class in the evenings after work). I’d thought I wanted to work with younger kids, but at the last minute I selected secundaria as I was filling out the application. For a while afterwards, I thought I was crazy. Did I really want to pass up the chance to work with sweet little kids in favor of tweens and teens in the midst of their most awkward, angsty years?

In the end, I’m glad I did. I was placed in a secondary school, which in Spain consists of seventh grade all the way up to seniors in high school. It’s been about six months since that first morning when I walked up the front steps into the school with my boss, met by confused stares from the estudiantes I now know and love, and in those six months I’ve realized that adolescents are not the devil.

I took a risk recently when my 3º ESO (same age as high school freshmen) kids were learning about comparatives and superlatives in English class and the main teacher asked if I could come up with an activity we could do. Immediately I thought of the senior superlative tradition in American high schools, so that’s what I did.

I was a little hesitant, unsure if it would turn into a popularity contest, and I was surprised at myself for even coming up with the activity. I’m the kid who wasn’t voted for any senior superlatives (to be fair, most people weren’t – there were only about 20 categories and 400 students in the class). I was never voted for anything by my peers, except for that one moment of glory as a lawyer in mock trial class at nerd camp. I wasn’t the type of kid that people voted for – I had friends and wasn’t necessarily disliked, but I was shy and quiet and genuinely enjoyed silent reading time. I was just kind of…there.

However, after explaining the tradition and passing out the voting sheets, I was pleasantly surprised. The students in this group are 14 years old and they were genuinely making it all about their classmates’ best qualities. As I was walking around the room while they filled out the sheets, I overheard things like, “Student X is really smart, so I’m voting for her for Best Grades,” and “Student Y always has such good ideas, so I think he should be Most Creative.” I couldn’t stop smiling as I went through the votes and tallied up the winners (a fortunate split of exactly 11 boys and 11 girls meant that everyone could win something), and our “awards ceremony” this past week was easily one of my favorite moments of the school year so far.

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There’s a scene on Jane the Virgin where Jane is getting ready to start her student teaching position and mentions that she really wants to teach middle school. She says she was bullied by the “popular” crowd in high school and wants to work with kids before they reach that age so she can teach them that being cool isn’t a means to an end – it’s more important to be kind. I found myself nodding in agreement in the middle of my Netflix binge, because if this experience has taught me nothing else, I’ve learned that these kids are at a crucial age where they’re learning how to treat each other. The class superlatives weren’t a popularity contest for my younger students, because it’s never been about popularity for them. While American high school seniors are probably more likely to vote for their friends in every category, my 14-year-old students haven’t yet reached the level of cliquiness made (in)famous in the likes of Mean Girls, and now that they’ve really thought about their classmates’ best qualities, maybe they never will. In the end, doing the superlative activity with a younger group turned out better than I ever could have imagined.

Kids aren’t perfect – they’re still learning and growing, and these years are perhaps the most formative. They’re still young, but mature enough to start understanding the world and start thinking critically. And I’ve grown to absolutely love working with them, even after awkwardly fumbling my way through my own teen years. As the months go on, they teach me just as much as I teach them.

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