Dear former students who have sworn at your teachers,
I hope this letter finds you happy, healthy, and gainfully employed in a job you like! I’ve been thinking about you lately, and thought I might compose a note. This summer I participated in an outdoor evening boot camp two days a week which included two former students from one hundred years ago. As we sweated it out together on an obstacle course, I asked them if they knew what they had in common with each other.
“That we both had you for English?”
This was true. “Anything else?”
Both traveled in different circles and maybe weren’t even in high school at the same time. I can’t remember.
“You each called me a bitch.”
Crickets. Literal crickets as it was dusk, July, and we were outside. Poor “kids” were stuck with me on our obstacle course, embarrassed of course now in their mid to late 20’s with real jobs and families.
“We didn’t mean it,” said the young man sheepishly, probably wishing he could be anywhere but where he was in that moment being reminded of the boy he was by his former English teacher. Seeing one’s teacher in the grocery store is weird enough but having to count her push ups or sit ups is downright unbearable.
Of course, he didn’t mean it, now all these years later. He was angry– couldn’t tell you over what. He reacted. He called me a bitch– wasn’t the first time and certainly won’t be the last, sadly. But teaching in my school is, in many ways, fairly idealistic. Our school is so small that most kids have us for multiple years in a row. Establishing rapport and building relationships with kids comes pretty naturally here. We have very few discipline issues for the most part, but enough to remind me why I never want to be an administrator. Teachers are able to teach and most kids can learn in a safe, supportive learning environment. I still love my career as an English teacher.
Being sworn at doesn’t happen regularly, so when a young person recently said, “This is bullshit” to a sensible request about remaining in the classroom and followed up a few minutes later loudly with “Fuck you!” I was more than surprised. Kids don’t speak to me like that. Not because they don’t think it, but because my classroom is a good space; I’ve worked hard over the years to build one kids feel comfortable in. As a teacher, I know I’m consistent, reasonable, kind, and structured. But whenever the personal swearing does happen, I take it very individually, emotionally, and thoughtfully. Sometimes I still cry because here’s the thing: no matter how I try to keep my distance and rationally understand that your “fuck you” had little to do with me; it still hurt my feelings. And I’m glad I haven’t been so desensitized that mean words don’t sting. After I go for a run or vent to a friend or my husband, I try to use soft eyes; I turn to wonder. I think about what part did I bring to the table. How could I have handled the situation differently? This is my profession after all. I think about how mad it makes me that a teenager could speak so disrespectfully to an adult, with whom they have had a fairly good teacher student interactive history. I put myself in their situation, try to imagine a home life, a girlfriend/boyfriend unhealthy situation. But the reality is that this “fuck off, fuck you, this is bullshit” litany of colorful language– even if I thought it, felt it, or said it secretly in my own head, would not have actually been said out loud.
But, former students, when a student gets angry, like the up-in-your-face kind of angry, the kind where you think this might be the moment you get decked kind of angry, we see the hurt and fear and sadness in your eyes, which brought you to this “fuck you-this is bullshit- you are a bitch” kind of moment. But just because we see it, understand it, and maybe, a long time ago, felt it ourselves that way toward a teacher, doesn’t make it excusable.
Teachers try to model manners at school from the earliest ages, because it’s a school after all– not a prison or a mental health ward or video game graphic riddled with bullet holes. We are a school. We hope parents and coaches and employers are also modeling those same manners for you. We greet each student each day at the door as if the “Fuck you” and suspension from three weeks ago didn’t happen. But it did happen, and I wished it hadn’t. I wish for those students, those who’ve walked the halls of high school already, or those who are just gearing up, that you have learned the coping skills necessary in life when something doesn’t go your way. Screaming “Fuck you” at the wall of your bedroom is okay. Screaming “Leave me alone, bitch” at the wind in an open field? Also, socially acceptable if it helps you to release negative energy and feel better. But swearing at any person who has done you no bodily or emotional harm is not okay. Go for a walk. Call a friend. Develop a filter. Be polite. Apologize when you’ve had time to cool off. These are life skills.
Of course, you already know this. You are now perhaps even old enough to be dealing with your own teenager swearing at you. You do your best to be a good listener, to be compassionate and understanding. As a high school student, you were a young adult and despite the life you lived outside of school, these were also the years where you got to make a choice about what happened to you– about how you will treat other people- and those choices now will make all the difference in the years ahead with the people who want to be around you. There are very few employers who will keep you on a job after you have sworn at them. But I’ve never been your boss. You had to be here. It’s required by law, and I was your teacher, just one of many over the years.
You did not have to like me, but you did need to be respectful. We still do. You will always be welcome in my classroom, no matter how old you get.
Your high school English teacher