I knew nothing could ever truly prepare me for teaching.
A year ago, I couldn’t really imagine myself at the head of a classroom with twenty or so children and tweens (Tween.. I really do actually hate that word but it won the race to my conscious thought over pre-teen.) and yet here I am. I spent the day before a nervous wreck, anxiously worrying about my lesson plan and presentation. That anxiety followed me all the way into the building and into the classroom. I arrived an hour before my class started to get acquainted with my space, my supplies, and any last preparations. The supplies I had available were impressive, if not intimidating. I’m just a guy who never stopped drawing in school… I had no idea and no desire to use any of the paint or acrylics (though I’m guessing I actually may have to YouTube some painting lessons soon).
Spoiler alert: My first day of teaching had me coming home, throwing off all my clothes, and laying on my bed staring at the sky wondering about life decisions before writing this.
I had decided to go with paper airplanes for the younger classes the night before. I wanted to teach them that even if everyone’s plane was made the same way, it was their designs and details that made it interesting. That ideal went out the window and forgotten the moment my first class entered. Suddenly there were all these hyperactive and excited little kids running around picking their seats (and already some disputing who got to sit where) and wondering what they were going to do. The way my schedule works, I teach ages 1st through 7th grade with each passing hour. The 1st graders (with some Kindergarten) were an excellent warmup, they would’ve overwhelmed me if not for the aides I were given who were more familiar with the kids. One in particular could instill a sense of discipline and respect that I … couldn’t quite yet obtain without being a bigger, blacker dude.
The 2nd graders initially seemed much ruder to each other (and to me) than I expected, but what really startled me was that it turns out they had ALREADY done a course on paper planes the week before I started working. “Glorious. My idea was so brilliant it was already thought up by another teacher. Let me just go sit in a closet with a bag on my head for this next hour, since I now have absolutely no idea what to do and the day’s just getting started!” That ran through my head even as I was saying out loud with a confident smile. “Alright, cool, so how about we make some masks?” I thank the Dungeons and Dragons gods for that one! I thank all my prior DMs and DM mentors, Ed, Mario and Isaac. I thank all my players for throwing me into situations where I have to toss out weeks of storyline at the very beginning of our campaign because they made one absurd decision I never saw coming. You all gave me the experience to think quickly on my feet and pull together something fun even if I had no idea how to make it work and improvised every step of the way.
By the way, I work in an area that would fall under the definition of a “hood.” These kids are young and cutthroat. If they were bored or uninterested or didn’t like what you were saying they’d let you know. Some of them aren’t nearly as naïve as I was at that age. I had little girls rolling their eyes and making annoyed/disgusted faces at me, I had rowdy boys who wouldn’t stay in their seat, I even had one kid who was so mad he had to sit in a damn art class when he could be outside playing that he just sat there and folded his arms and pouted and wouldn’t talk to me. While I was learning everyone’s name and walking around giving out paper, I knelt next to him and asked him what was wrong, but he wouldn’t even look at me. The others giggled and explained to me that he had wanted to play outside, and I tried to really extend my spirit through my words to get him to open up. Finally, right as my patience was wearing thin and I was about to move on to other students, he said “Its secret.” I turned and smiled at him and said “OK, Secret, that’s what I’ll call you.” It made him crack a smile, and he made his mask with a big question mark on the front.
I hadn’t noticed it at first, but even the ones who were cold to me at first had been noticeably warmer to me when they left. By my next classes, as I started working with older kids, I realized it had also never occurred to me that there were some kids that absolutely did not enjoy art and were only in the class because it was in their course regimen. I know I should’ve expected it, but nearly all of the children prior had put in some modicum of effort that I could work with. One just stonewalled me, he didn’t even want to speak to me, much less speak to me about his complete disinterest in drawing. I had to hold that L, knowing that I couldn’t get through to him in the short moments I had in one day. All in all, while the kids were a bit exhausting and uncertainty followed me, I thought I was having a pretty decent first day and making a good-if-not-decent impression; I didn’t realize one thing.
People were already starting to talk negatively about me behind my back.
Now, I may have a handsome face and a silky narrator’s voice, but like anyone else I’ve got my share of physical flaws. There’s a blotch on my neck, my teeth are a dental nightmare, and perhaps most apparent of all: Sometimes I stink. It’s like there’s this chronic bodyfunk-demon that follows me around, and while it doesn’t happen all the time (or nearly as often as before) sometimes I begin to emit a body odor that I’m unfortunately nose-blind to. I don’t really mind, there could be a lot worse things to be afflicted with. But I had assumed that showering the night before and washing up in the morning were enough layers of clean for me to not have to worry about it.
I was wrong.
It was at the end of the day that the news hit me, and of course it hit me in such an amazingly highschool way. During my last class, as all the students were leaving, one of the aides said to me across the room. “Hey, Teacher? She says that you stink!” She said with a grin on her face that so perfectly matched the look of “Oh yeah, I just started some drama!” but I laughed it off and said “she’s probably right! It’s been a long day and I need’a go home, workout, and shower!” Some of the other kids were laughing, and I was honestly not too stung by the attempt at embarrassing me. Afterwards, I was told by one of the aides that my boss wanted to speak to me. As I sat outside her office waiting, I could hear some of the other aides around the corner speaking loud and intentional. “Nigga about to get fired ‘cuz he stink! She about to tell him ‘sorry you can’t work here smelling like that.’” I admit, that stung just a bit, but the purposeful malice behind the comment made it not such a bad burn. Had they been speaking with actual sympathy, I really would’ve felt like some sloppy bastard. (I also must note that such taunting would’ve really bothered me back in highschool. I’m very proud of my growth of mentality since then) At least I knew what this meeting was going to be about.
My day ended on that dour note, with my boss praising my first day as far as my teaching abilities and engaging and interesting the students, but mentioned my odor problem. I promised her it wouldn’t be an issue any further, and our entire conversation was actually pretty pleasant. I even told her how I sometimes felt like I wasn’t connecting with the students how I’d like, and how I felt like I didn’t (and couldn’t) really make much of an impact the way I had hoped. Told me the kids would open up as long as I kept them engaged and interested, and I had to leave trusting in that.
As I walked home and digested all that had happened in my day, I left with the feeling that this wasn’t for me. I like to teach, sure, but I like to teach people who want to learn. I like to teach on my terms, and not on a schedule. Several times I considered leaving, knowing that I could slide into a better-paying office job pretty quickly. But one of my student’s questions kept lingering in my head, “Are you staying and teaching us art? Yeah!? Art is gonna be lit!” (For those who don’t know the slang, “That’s lit!” = “That’s fire!” = “That’s hot!” = “That’s cool!” [because, humans] = “That pleases me!”) Some of those kids want me to stay, maybe even the majority of them do. They had fun, they learned something, and they want to keep learning.
Besides, I came up with an idea…
To inspire, you must admit to and overcome your faults. My next class, I’m going to address this scent-controversy straight forward. I’m going to draw a comic about the entire event, and admit to the kids that yeah, I have my faults and I’m not always perfect, but I improve on and rise above my flaws every day. I’ll joke about how I can’t be leaning over all the kids helping them with their art while stinking all crazy, but I’ll implore them that if it makes you feel good to make other people feel bad or embarrassed, then you’re not a good person. I know that sounds like a harsh thing to tell children, but being too careful with your words about such an important, personality-defining thing is what allows children to grow up into jerks who don’t even know why they’re jerks.
Then I’ll start my class. Man, I do not miss being a kid.