When I was younger, say 7 or 8 years old, I wanted to be an astronaut/pediatric neurosurgeon/inventor/NBA player. Though my life has been successful, it’s safe to say I’ve stopped just short of being the most awesome multi-hyphenate careerist of all time. By the time I hit my teen years, I wanted to be some version of an engineer and a rapper/entertainer and an NBA player, though my basketball dreams died a quick death in high school. So I decided then that I’d be an actor since I enjoyed Drama Club so much. I wanted to be a lot of things at various points in time.
Underneath all those job goals was a desire to be a teacher. I always admired those who committed their lives to educating children. Some of the most influential people in my life were teachers. Even in college, I had some of the world’s best professors who made me want to also kick the truth to the young, especially black, youth.
I even had the opportunity to teach rising college seniors. I’ve been a teaching assistant and a teacher of college-level economics and statistics in summer programs for minority students heading into careers focused on public policy and international affairs. I have always enjoyed the opportunity to teach and dispense information. That’s why anytime I get the opportunity to speak at schools, I jump at the opportunity.
As a non-teacher, I know teaching isn’t an easy vocation. It requires lots of work, patience, self-care and training; and each age group presents its own challenges. And one thing that always manages to be the case is this: you must learn to corral and hold the attention of a collection of (sometimes tiny) people who can find 1,000 reasons to be elsewhere.
It is with this knowledge I declare the following with all the seriousness of a heart attack: Middle school teachers are saints. Lawdhafmercy.
I had the opportunity to speak at a middle school in the Washington, D.C., area in December for a career day, along with other professionals. Each of us was assigned up to five classrooms during which we’d do a 45-minute talk and a Q&A to explain our jobs. My first class was full of 8th graders. They were pretty chill, though obviously couldn’t wait to get out of there. But it was early and they were respectful enough and asked a good number of questions. Plus, a voicemail with Oprah always makes folks listen to you, and you can bet your ass I played it in each class, except the last one, but we’ll get there.
But over the course of the day, the kids got more unruly and chaotic. Students weren’t listening. One student consistently farted, just because, and continued asking me questions about horror movies. I could literally see myself as a 12-year-old sitting there wanting to throw a pencil at the speaker.
The kids clowned one another relentlessly, to the point where I had to be an encourager as opposed to speaking about my job. Don’t get it twisted. Their teachers were on top of them. When the teachers spoke up, the kids chilled ... but only so much.
I was a guest speaker and my vocation is writing. Still, I literally got more questions at one point about how many famous people I might know than anything about my job. Oh, my salary ... they all wanted to know my salary.
And then came my last class of the day, the 6th grade class. (They didn’t hear the voicemail).
Remember the opening scene of Lean On Me, where fair Eastside High goes from being a good school to one in which there are cages in the lunchroom and a teacher gets beaten so badly he had to be carted off in an ambulance? Obviously, that didn’t happen at the middle school, but I heard Guns ‘ N Roses “Welcome to the Jungle” playing in my head. I spoke in one sixth grade class and said to myself, “Never again!”
Listen. I have a child who is only one and half years beyond the sixth grade. Yet that one class still scared the hell out of me. I also understand this was one classroom experience and shouldn’t make it seem as though it is indicative of every sixth grade classroom. Also important to note: they had a substitute the day I was there.
Half of the kids were literally unable to stay in their seats. They were up and down and couldn’t stop to save their lives. I saw a few kids, mostly girls, sitting quietly, almost as if to look invisible to shield themselves from the boys who made everything sexual. One boy made mention of his genitalia every time he spoke. I asked a question and he raised his hand and did his best to explain via sexual innuendo what he wanted to do with his life. Things flew in the air of the classroom. I think Brick killed a guy.
As I sat there attempting to talk about being a writer while a class of 27 children looked at me, while yelling amongst themselves like they would have been excited to see me run over by a truck, I thought to myself, there is no way in hell I would sign up to do this job. The people who do it have a level of patience I could never unlock. And I’m not even trying to find that key. I walked out of that building thinking to myself: Freedom!
If you are a middle school teacher, don’t ever let anybody say you aren’t taking one for the team. You’re a saint.
Tupac and I care even if no one else does.
Slow clap for you because you, middle school teacher, are a saint.