I dropped my giant bags on the table as soon as I walked into my classroom this morning. I had a rolling to-do list and the sense that I was late to something. All of that didn’t matter when one of my star students who never misses a beat came in to say hello. She’s not that student who just comes by for no reason throughout the day or one that asks to eat lunch in my room; but she is one whose eyes I seek out in class when no one feels bold or right enough to answer a discussion question.
She hadn’t said more than hello before I asked her if she’s doing okay. She began to cry through her sweet smile, which totally caught me off guard. Though she claimed my class wasn’t one that was pressuring her, she said she feels incredibly stressed about school. We talked for a little while, and she expressed that she feels she is always doing school work and never has time for ideas she wants to pursue. I sat on a desk across from her and opened up, saying that finding the time can be hard even as an adult if you don’t give yourself permission to seek a balance. I encouraged her to talk to her family because they care about her experience at school. When I asked her about her schedule for next year, she said she has no time next year to do what she wants. Here is a girl who is taking advanced, junior-level classes as a sophomore, theoretically getting ahead, and she hasn’t given herself permission to slow down and enjoy the fruits because she wants to race through the harder stuff to get to the finish line easier.
As an adult, though, I know it’s rarely like that. We create new finish lines before the finale, or we fill in the gap between the end of something and the beginning of another. At least I know millennials do (that word, millennials, never feels like the right fit, and yet…); it’s what we do best despite some considering us the lazy generation. In college, I always got the best grades in the semesters I was overworked; when I took some time off, I didn’t have the pressure that I needed to control my efficiency. But since college, I’ve always been busy. In Anne Helen Peterson’s “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation,” she discusses paralysis people feel doing the most mundane tasks; and she says “Why am I burned out? Because everything and everyone in my life has reinforced it–explicitly and implicitly–since I was young. Life has always been hard, but many millennial are unequipped to deal with the particular ways in which its become hard for us.” Though my student is too old to be the daughter of a millennial, I wonder if this same pressure–minus the faith that our hard work would lead to something–is falling on a generation already exhausted at growing up too fast in a streaming, live, online, competitive world that is pinned up next to a world with a streaming, live, online, “live your life to the fullest” sign.
But in the case of someone who is looking up to the long haul, shouldn’t she seize the opportunity to be here, be now? Or am I, too, caught up in the tech world’s push for consistent energized “relentless work….propaganda?” The truth is, I feel the gap closing in between what I know about life and what she predicts about life. Her generation senses the toil ahead and doesn’t seem as interested in the idea of a long fight for the ivy leagues. And I can’t blame her.
The last two years, I find myself giving pep talks as often as I can in class. I incorporate empathy lessons or discuss the meaning of “happiness;” I’ll throw in female pronouns instead of the dominant masculine pronouns when I make handouts; I try to show that I don’t believe my class is the only class. I find myself apologizing or empathizing with the exhaustion my 6th period students, already spent from the day and trying to rally for their sports or clubs after school, feel as they walk in. It’s common to hear me saying more than ever that there is a big life outside of these 4 walls, that it will be okay, it really will, that what you are feeling is real and relative, and it’s temporary, that I will do what is in my power to help them realign what is important for my own class, a place in their worlds I have some place to make a change. It’s not uncommon for me to start or end my classes asking students to breathe and know it’s okay. I have a sign on my board that says, P.S. I care about you.
In fact, as our school has been tragically caught in its own number of student suicides and its climbing number of students debilitated by anxiety; it has also been working overtime with any resources available to provide a listening ear, getting students to focus on their health over all else, and drying more tears than I remember in all my years as a teacher. Our school and faculty has seen a demonstrative shift even within ourselves. A level of empathy and flexibility one may have once only associated with private schools is now stretched and respected in the climate of competitive public schools. Why? Because so many public school teachers, the ones I have the privilege of working with, are wizards of understanding and capability.
The last two days, though, have been tough. Walking a previous student into the clinic because she was having an anxiety attack, seeing emails about kids who were having a moment and needed to cry and couldn’t make it to class (so don’t mark them tardy), or be aware of this kid who is having a rough day (so maybe don’t call on him today), and running through the bus lanes to find another star student who had been crying because “it’s all just too much” to get her to talk with someone and to ensure she got home safely; it all made me want to go home and tell my kids I swear to God I will love you no matter what. Just be good to yourselves.
So I ended the day knowing something was in the air; whatever pressure has erupted wonky February weather must also be pushing against kids’ sensibilities. I dug into whatever power-pocket I had and offered kids flexibility–the same I offered myself by giving myself permission to go have an ice cream cone with family instead of doing work.
Using the small buttons we have in some good way, maybe that’s the only thing we can do. When I told my morning student that she could change her research topic and rearrange all the requirements so she could focus on her hobby, it felt natural–if there is something we can be flexible on, something that doesn’t carve too much out of the tree, shouldn’t we just do it? When I told another student she is not allowed to work on anything for me and to just tackle the stuff stressing her out, I may be accused of warping a life skill, but I assure anyone who sees kids for at least 8 hours a day is that they–especially now–need flexibility because the ground they are on these days just doesn’t feel so hard. In this fragile time to be a teenager, isn’t it the responsibility of those of us near them to adapt just as much as we support?
At the beginning of the week, a teacher covered my class so I could talk to a former student. The young woman came into my room filled with emotion. She cried and rubbed her palms together, saying she hated herself for not being able to let things go and for obsessing over things that don’t matter. These same words are the struggle of one of my best adult friends. This intelligent student several days later, surprised her friend with the most beautiful, touching gift, one that took her days to saw and glue and develop. These kids who feel the hardest also have this capacity to give the deepest. I have to believe that somewhere in all these earthquakes of emotion and illness–one I won’t call mental because that’s a problematic label in itself–there is change to be made for the better, more calls to reforming the way we live in this world and the expectations we fabricate so that we can be in it.
I’ve been starting each discussion in class reminding students that what we say today, we may change our minds about tomorrow, because isn’t that what high school is for? A place where we can test out our ideas respectfully in a safe place? Where we can make a hypothesis, test it out kindly, and hold our findings close? I sense students–surrounded by the paparazzi and tabloids of phones–need that reminder. I’d rather they test out a rotten idea here than in a world much more real. A student once said to me that school is a social construct, not an educational one: I’d argue it is absolutely both.
I had this idea (but wonder if it was inspired by something I read that I can’t remember) the other day: what if instead of saying “Hey!” or “Hi Sam!” or “What’s up?,” we greeted each person with “Hi, human!” Isn’t that the most important acknowledgement, a consistent reminder in all the literature I’ve ever taught that being human is one of the hardest and most beautiful challenges out there?