I’m Still Cool- Whether I Have Purple or Gray Streaks in my Hair!

14 Jun

It was heartbreaking and shocking for me the first time a teenager treated me like a grown-up, like I was the enemy authority figure and couldn’t possibly understand them. I was working in a fabulous after-school program with my amazing mentor/ second mom, teaching about holistic sexuality, among other things. I kind of expected the kids to automatically think I was cool based on the content of the program, as I would have at that age. And I was only 18 at the time, still a teenager myself! Didn’t they get the memo that I’m anti-authoritarian? Didn’t my rebellious, alternative hairstyle (often with colors like purple) clue them in that I was (and am) young and vibrant and cool?!

I’m 30 now, but I still can’t really believe it when kids want to rebel against me. Luckily my daughter’s only two so I have a few more years to practice getting used to this. It was still a bit shocking to get the news a few weeks ago that I appear to be an authority figure to college students now. I mean, it wasn’t that long ago that I finished college! And I still have cool, weird hair! Why don’t these kids get it?!

I have to hand it to them, though, their delivery of the news that I’m someone to rebel against was pretty amusing. I was substitute teaching a university-level English class and things seemed to be going well. They were working in small groups, using the imperative to write rules for a movie theater (which, by the way, doesn’t exist in Puerto. The closest one is 2 hours away.). I was walking around checking on groups, making sure they were on track and didn’t have any questions. I got to this one group, whom I suppose are some of the “cool kids,” all boys except for one girl. Their use of the imperative was on the mark, and they mostly had good rules. Except, “I think you need to change this one right here,” I said, and pointed clearly to the obvious culprit, the one that said “Don’t fuck!”

Now, don’t get me wrong; I myself am a user of the F word. I am my father’s daughter, and my dad is an expert at the F word, the S word, and the every-other-letter-of-the-alphabet word. He taught us that the creative and colorful use of “bad words” is an important skill in life. The F word, in particular, is so fabulously versatile, converting itself effortlessly from verb to adverb to noun to adjective and beyond. It is a curse word that an English teacher can appreciate.

But there’s a time and a place for everything. On top of that, their regular teacher had emphasized that there were strict class rules about being respectful, including not cursing in class, and that she throws students out of class for breaking the rules. So the situation had to be dealt with.
I wasn’t sure if they were trying to impress, or shock, or rebel, or if they just wanted to see what I would do.

Needless to say, I was not impressed. I was definitely not shocked or uncomfortable. “Shit,” I realized later, “I’ve been using this word for the same amount of time these kids have been alive.” Perhaps I am aging! But I am aging with pizzaz and style, if not grace, and really I was amused more than anything. Unfortunately, I had to be the one to enforce the idea that there’s still a time and a place for everything. So there I was, waiting for their reaction to my calling them out.

“Which one?” asked their little leader, casually, as if the problem might just as easily have been the one that said, “Be quiet.”

So I pointed again, smiling slightly. “This one,” I told him, not taking the bait.

“But it’s a good rule- don’t fuck,” he argued, all mock innocence, so pleased with himself for saying it out loud in front of all his friends and the substitute teacher.

I used my mom skills to keep a neutral face. “It is something people shouldn’t do in a movie theater,” I agreed, in English, “but I don’t think it’s something you will find written in the movie theater. Not in those exact words, anyway. It’s not appropriate. You’ll have to think of something better.” And I smiled again encouragingly for good measure.

After class, I approached their group and told them, in rapid-fire Spanish, “Look, it’s great that you know bad words in English! Congratulations. That’s an important thing to know, but its important to know when and where to use them. This class is not where you use them. You all already know that. You know that it’s disrespectful to your classmates and that your teacher would throw you out of class. So don’t do it again. This is your warning. Got it?” My tone of voice was that great mix that only parents and teachers can do, a mix of “I’m all business so you better pay attention” and that sympathetic “it hurts me more than it hurts you.” I started off smiling, then bored holes into them with my eyes as I spoke, then smiled again at the end, especially when they nodded, half open-mouthed, that yes, they got it.

I walked away feeling I had triumphed, getting my message across, although I also felt a little like a traitor, having to establish authority like that. Contrary to what younger people think, it’s not always easy or pleasant to be the one “in charge.” Surely there are folks who get a thrill out of bossing people around, keeping folks in line and the like, but I am not one of them. I’m more of a let’s-establish-ground-rules-based-on-mutual-respect sort of teacher. Thanks to teaching English in other contexts, where often students were older than I, I’ve had the luxury of not being that kind of authority figure, the one who has to, like, invent and enforce consequences for breaking the rules. This is also why I’m an ineffectual mess in large groups of small children. I expect people to just follow the rules because there should be rules that make sense, and if the rules don’t make sense then we can just change them.

Alas, I guess it doesn’t always work like that. I guess I can be forced to act like an authority figure, although I hope I do it the same way I am aging, with pizzaz and style and really cool hair, gray ones and all.

2 Responses to “I’m Still Cool- Whether I Have Purple or Gray Streaks in my Hair!”

  1. blueskywoman June 15, 2014 at 8:29 am #

    This was awesome. You are still cool really.

    I was super strict for my first kid, still kind of for the 2nd, and loosened up a bit on #3 and #4…but I’m still the more strict of the pair of us. Lee is way more relaxed in her parenting, while i’m continually working to overcome my military upbringing. But as I age, I find that I worry less about being bossy…they (the kids) are pretty good about parameters over all. It took me a long time to realize that rules CAN be flexible most times.

    It looks like they were testing you…and in the end it does come down to being respected…you did that, I think. In a gentle but firm way. Good job, Mrs. Teacher. 😀


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