“I can’t believe it’s happening,” overhead in the back seat by a friend’s kid.
“What’s happening?” I inquire, honestly believing we are talking about an upcoming test or someone’s behavior or an eagerly anticipated event over the weekend.
“Puberty is happening. Well, it isn’t exactly happening at this minute, but it’s going to. What I mean is that we are going to learn about it in health.” The younger kids start giggling in the car around him because puberty came up recently at bedtime in our household. My daughter wanted to know if it was true, what happened during P-I-B-I-T-Y, because Laura (names have been changed to protect the innocent) says, “Fat kids get skinny and skinny kids get fat” during pibity. First of all, I tell her, the word is puberty not pibity, and that this probably won’t be the last time Laura gives her well meaning misinformation. I make a mental note to make sure to have the “BIG TALK ABOUT SEX” with my children at least a full year before I believe Laura will give it to them.
Back in the back seat of the Subaru, he continues in front of under 11 crowd, “I guess what I’m most afraid of is…(GIANT PAUSE)…. the hair.” And I wonder what geographic hair he means. Underarm? Pubic? Chest? A quiet hush falls over the car. I can picture their brains processing what he means by hair since they all have hair. So, I do what many of us do as parents–redirect– of course. “I’m sure you can ask your dad ANYTHING about this and he will be happy to answer,” and I make another mental note to REMEMBER to tell his dad that this came up in the car so that he can be prepared as possible.
And this innocence I adore. His openness. His wonder. His unknowing anticipation at what the hell is going to happen to his body. And one day, years still down the road, he will sit in my English class having forgotten we ever had this conversation after school in my green Subaru. But I won’t. I will probably recall the memory when I overhear him and his freshmen buddies discussing how expensive the prom is and maybe they should just buy tickets together as friends, but not go together but– you know– to save money. A simple business transaction with no relationship strings attached.
I won’t forget in the same way I won’t forget the crazy junior girls who thought they would be hilarious and recreate the first day of school pictures of my own children which hang on my classroom door. They believed this would make me giggle, and it did– deep belly laugh kinds of giggles. In a world where teenagers are often accused of just being on their phones or just being dramatic or just being defiant or moody or mean, I laugh off and on all day long in my position as English teacher.
Teenagers are like the stems of a daffodil or crocus sensing when to push up through the dirt– even when the dirt is mostly frozen still and covered up with snow. The weight of the earth (and the snow, sadly, here in mid April) is heavy, but up they push, wondering and waiting for the weather, but also for the sunshine to help them do more than just survive– to thrive.
I won’t forget about turning 11-teen, or 13, 16 with a driver’s license, or 18 with the right to vote, those milestones in adolescence in the same way I won’t forget those important moments as a teacher. There are moments when an event happens in a child’s life that you had nothing to do with– yet you get to bear witness to something magical in their transformation first hand. They don’t happen every day, and certainly not even every year, so when they do happen– they are powerful and transformative even for the teacher. Recently, Erin Bell, our indispensable school social worker (now that she is here I can’t imagine how we existed without her) took a group of kids with me to the Magnify Voices Film and Essay Contest awards. The goals of the contest were to raise awareness about mental health and to erase the stigma associated with mental illness. One group of our students was awarded top ten for the film category and another entered her essay winning a Youth Resiliency Award, presented by Valerie Sununu, the first lady of New Hampshire.
How does she decide on her own, “Hey, this essay contest applies to me, and I’m going to enter, and people should hear my story; although it’s a hard one to listen to because of its content, I’m still here to tell it.” She stands up at a microphone in front of 150 students, parents, and folks in the mental health field, and when she finishes reading, I realize that it’s not just Ms. Bell and me with tears in our eyes. She has moved an entire group of people with her spoken, written words courageously placed on the paper, and she loves the clapping of her supportive audience.
And we were there in those very moments when the daffodil stem reaches open air and exhales, “Woohoo, I made it” and looks around for friends growing alongside.