"Hello! You must be here to sign up for the SAT prep classes. Are you a junior or a senior?"
Uh, no, I'm the 22-year-old teacher of this course, thanks.
As a high school teacher in my early twenties, I've learned that parents and administrators, try as they might to be courteous and professional, will have that split-second moment of shock and unease when they meet me. At parent-teacher conferences, I can almost hear the chorus of my students' parents thinking to themselves, "Pardon me, young lady, but I'm looking for my son's English teacher and I think you're sitting at her desk." After all, I am closer in age to my students than to many colleagues.
Last year was my freshman year of life post-college, and in what seemed like a cruel joke at the time, I was slated to teach freshmen in high school. Since the only creature more awkward than a first-year teacher is a high school freshman, I briefly considered throwing myself off of the school building to save us all some pain and embarrassment.
I grew to love my work and my students, but I was hardly Mr. Holland. Sure, there were days we had meaningful conversations about books, love, and the violence in their Northwest Philadelphia community; but on other days, they attempted to convince me that Twilight is the world's greatest love story and that "that bull Shakespeare" was "corny." On those particularly rough days, I tried to convince myself that they'd learned something, while I learned that yes, one can drink wine in the fetal position, if dedicated to the cause.
Despite the fact that I was a red-hot mess on most days, some of my kids turned to me with personal matters, ranging from quarrels with their significant others to the pursuit of their career dreams to unplanned pregnancies to the death of family members. They shared their lives with me, expecting that, as an adult, I would have answers.
I never did. Usually I just sat with them, listened, asked questions, and occasionally cried. It baffled me that they'd trust me with the content of their lives, that they would sit with me, wide-eyed and silent, implicitly begging me not to dismiss their teenage struggles and to give them the wisdom I'd accrued over the years of my life. That would be great, of course, except that I had no wisdom and I felt like a fraud. In the fall, I accidentally put the wrong soap in my dishwasher and watched the bubbles float across my kitchen floor. What kind of adult does that? What answers could I possibly have for them?
We survived the year somehow, and the promise of tenth grade (Sophistication! Maturity! Probably getting their braces off!) excited my kids. During our time together, they'd grown comfortable with me, probably detecting my first-year bewilderment in the face of their many needs and moods. June and the impending summer allowed them to tell me exactly what they thought of me and my teaching.
"Ms. Boyle, I really like you," one of my favorite students began while we were walking to my classroom one morning. "You give really good advice, but you remind me of a teenager. I think you're still a kid." Shocked by her own candor, she pleaded with me not to take her words the wrong way, to understand that she meant well. She, like many of her classmates, always felt the need to clarify herself. Freshmen are hyper-aware of other people's perceptions of them; most of their sentences are silently punctuated with a "please, accept me, take me seriously, and respect what I have to say."
That student summarized my own special brand of quarter-life crisis: I have the spirit of a child, but the responsibilities of an adult. I am at an age in which I text more than my students and rap Drake lyrics with ease, but I also have to remind my kids to do their homework, eat breakfast, and bring a sweater.
To some colleagues and parents, I seem no more than a little girl trying on her mother's pumps, and for some students, I am the woman they turn to for advice and perspective. Depending on who else is in the room with me, I'm either a child, or a figure of knowledge and (a teeny bit of) authority. Which is it? When will it be one or the other, not both?
I'll turn 24 in September, less than two weeks after I meet my new students. Hopefully, they will have a more grown-up teacher than my previous students had. There was merit in the experience of growing alongside my kids that first year, but I want to be able to help these new kids find answers to life's questions.
In the mean time, I'll be shopping for especially matronly outfits for parent-teacher conferences.