Children, en masse, are like the sea. They are capricious and dangerous, and awing and inspiring, and also maybe filled with crustaceans. Their emotions are torrential and stormy, and a bad mood creeping over their waters can spell marine tragedy for whatever wayfaring, Ishmael-esque figure decides to brave the waves. And they are controlled by the season, by the moon and the sun, by the passing of time, and the slow burn of spring into summer, the great chill of fall into winter. The tides shift and become impassable, and then suddenly the waters calm.
When I was in Teacher’s College, one of my practica was in a 5/6 split class, happening in the month surrounding March Break. The teacher I worked with warned me early: in the time approaching March Break, we would see a change, like a subtle shift in the winds. It would be like the approach of a subway train, or the changing of the seasons: you would feel it in the air before you saw it or heard it.
Over time, my students just stopped being there.
Sure, their bodies were there, in that society and their parents ensured to dump their corporeal forms in my care. But all of the lights were off: they were vacant, empty. Here a pile of children-shaped shells sloped haphazardly about the classroom furniture; there a bunch of blank, emotionless husks drooling out the window. They were capable of basic motor skills, in the way a particularly adept and studious rhinoceros might be. But they couldn’t do anything more.
Because they were already on vacation, in their hearts and souls and minds. They had already been living for the break for a while, working hard and concentrating because they had been promised due reward, like the Protestant Work Ethic in classroom diorama form. The societal contract had been made with them: cram it from January until early March, and then you can have freedom.
But kids aren’t great with delayed reward, and thus there is a certain blast radius around the holidays. Whole weeks end up as collateral damage where the kids are as good as gone, and the major focus of your job becomes maintaining vital signs and babysitting. One day you are a teacher, and the next you are head nurse of a pediatric coma ward. Maintain their body functions from 9 to 3, and you’ve done your due diligence.
In the week before Christmas, they are dreaming of the many presents they will get. They think of skating, and a turkey dinner, and big horrific piles of gaudy toys and PS3 games and clothes and glitter and pens and glitter pens and markers and shaking electronic contraptions that enthrall this or that new generation of children. Before March Break, they are sleep-walkers, existing only in their dream-state consciousness, imagining a solid week of playing outside in the slowly defrosting landscape, the vestiges of winter slowly beginning to shatter and melt. For weeks before summer, they are already older and farther away: another school year, another grade. Another group of people and another teacher. And before that, so much vacation they can barely conceive of what they’ll do with it.
And for those about to graduate, to move onto another school, they are already dreaming of the people they’ll be.
High schoolers think of being adults, of being college students, of the freedom and the power and the self-determination. Eating and drinking and sleeping and humping at will, without their stupid parents or society to tell them what to do. Middle schoolers think of high school, of how cool they will be, how aloof, how with it, how tapped in to the very nature of the universe. How much more they’ll know than their parents, who are stupid and, like, don’t know anything.
Elementary kids on the cusp of graduation imagine being middle schoolers. In other words, they are aspiring to be awful.
They hope to be more hormonal than they currently are. They think about how they’ll date, even though they find the other gender to be gross and malignant. About the music they’ll listen to, the shows they’ll watch. About the additional hours they’ll be awake, and the cool things they’ll do with all that time. The cool that they will be. About the gangliness they will develop. About how sour and dispassionate they can be about everything. They dream about how unhappy their lives will make them.
Since Chuseok, a brief vacation in mid-September, large portions of my grade sixes are falling victim to this intense and devastating futurism. It spreads like viral infection, as some decide they are too cool, and thus so must everyone else. They have advanced in months and years, and are already in middle school. They are grumpy and unhappy with everything. I am stupid to them, but then, so is every other adult. No one understands them, and no one ever will. They cannot be understood, because such is their uniqueness, their special quality. But also they are racked with insecurities and sadnesses and wants. They are hunger machines. They are drunk with ennui. They are twelve.
In class, I am faced with 30-odd pairs of glassy eyes. Palsying, dour expressions of utter and incomprehensible boredom, tempered only by hate. To say that getting them to participate is like pulling teeth is too weak a metaphor, and makes me yearn for pulling teeth. Making them do anything other than doze or complain is like pulling out every single tooth in your head, then also the jaws, followed by every single bone in your body.
Fighting against this change is ultimately like swimming against the tides while out in the open seas. You can fight and struggle and push, but you’re a speck in an ocean. My students are teeming with hormones. They are already graduated, already through the break, and in middle school in their minds. And thus, I’m a memory. I’m a factoid, something they’ve already left behind. I’m a ghost, as all of this school is.
That I’m still here and still gabbing away at them in English is a matter of some cognitive dissonance.
And thus, the remainder of the semester with them is a matter of running out the clock. Sure, I teach them in the strictest sense. I do everything I can to make them learn English short of physically rending their skulls and inserting the language manually. But they are already gone. Soon they will do their final exams, and then we will have our private, unspoken agreement. That I will stop being a hard-ass and let them off, because they’re not really my students anymore, anyway.
So this is the season. The leaves change, and the winds become sharper, and people start to put on coats. And I have approximately 200 students who, with every fiber of effort they can muster, are groaning, whining zombies. This is teaching. This is their growing up.