Friday, May 24, 2013

The Case for 6th Graders

I don't know what shocks people more when I describe my job: that I work with students with emotional disorders, or that I work with 6th graders.

Try as I might to express how great 6th graders are, there are plenty of "qualities" of 11-year-olds working against them.

They're learning how to challenge authority, but they still lack rationality and logic.

They're forced to be more independent, but they can barely keep track of the shoes on their feet.

They're discovering body odor for the first time, but they have yet to discover deodorant.

Yeah, you've got have a wicked sense of humor, endless patience, and a strong stomach to be subjected to this population of people on a daily basis, but it's their awkward and painful journey to being fully functioning human beings which makes them so great.

Allow me to offer a tickling situation from this past week to illustrate what I mean...

Stevie is a 6th grader in the section I supervise for lunch a few times a week, and he has been a thorn in my side all year.  Presumably suffering from undiagnosed and unmedicated ADHD, I spent most of the first part of the year teaching him how to simply stay in his seat during lunch.  About half way through the year I had a mind boggling incident with him where I literally watched him hurl a bunch of crushed up chips into the stairwell, yet he vehemently denied it was him and pegged it on a child with the complete opposite physical features of him (clever, huh?). He's just one of those kids that, upon mention of his name, will ignite a series of grunts, eye rolls, and head shakes from the adults who know him.

But now that May has rolled around, Stevie appears to be picking up on the whole being-a-human-being thing.  It just struck me this week that I didn't even realize he was still in my lunch section; that's how well-behaved he has been. So, in the spirit of "catching kids being good", I decided to acknowledge his improvements to him during lunch.

"Hey, Stevie."

When I approached, Stevie spun around with his typical deer-in-headlights expression, wondering what he was getting into trouble for this time.

"Stevie, I almost forgot you were in my section, you've been doing so well.  The past few weeks have been great! What changed?"

"I am so sorry, Ms. T."

Poor kid. He was so used to getting lectured and reprimanded, he didn't even know praise when he heard it.

"No, no. I'm telling you a good thing. You are doing a good job!"

Stevie responded with a half-hearted, mostly confused smile.  Perhaps he didn't believe me, or perhaps he was so overwhelmed by this compliment that he was crying happy tears on the inside. Either way, I didn't feel like my point was getting across, so I opted for some positive peer pressure. Out of good humor, I asked the 5 other boys at his half of the lunch table to give him a round of applause.

Gladly, they obliged, and for many more seconds than was necessary.  Unsurprisingly, the table next to them--a very loud and boisterous group of girls--caught wind of the clapping and instantly joined in.  Within 5 seconds, about 75 kids in my section were clapping and hooting.  I knew it wasn't going to stop there.  I winced a little as I watched the monster I created sweep across the other two sections in the lunchroom, until roughly 400 kids were on their feet wildly applauding.  The head lunchroom supervisor looked at me with bewilderment as I tried (and failed) to hold back laughter.  The "STOP!" he yelled into the microphone to end the shenanigans was just barely audible.

When I went to explain how this had all come about to the other supervisors, one of them razzed me pretty bad. "Come on, Ms. T! You work with 6th graders every day. You should  know better!" Yes, I did, but I realized it a little too late.  Yet another case against teaching the 6th grade: one wrong move and you could have 400+ kids hanging from the ceiling in 5 seconds flat.

In the moments after the chaos had died down, the hand of a flushed and beaming girl a few tables away from Stevie's shot into the air.

"Miss T! Miss T!"


"What were we clapping for?"

"Oh, it doesn't even matter, does it?"

In the life of an 11-year-old? Any old excuse--or none whatsoever--to be giddy and happy and carefree? Nope, it doesn't matter one bit.

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