One of the great joys of teaching middle schoolers is that they typically think they know everything, but they haven’t seen enough, done enough, or read enough to know much of anything. By the time they reach 7th or 8th grade, most pre-teens and teenagers think they are ready to graduate and live their lives, and school is just a conspiracy by adults to waste their time and hold them back.
They may be able to quote entire episodes of Family Guy or keep a beat with Eminem or Drake, but they have never heard of John Wayne and think that Washington, DC and Washington the state are the same thing.
For me and my sarcastically-bent humor, the challenge was lovingly working through their lack of knowledge when they were hell-bent on throwing their perceived knowledge in my face.
Take, for instance, an 8th grade teenager we’ll call Pam, (cause that’s close to Pain.) Pam was the type of stereotypical blond that makes us natural blondes want to dye our hair red or brown. She had some book smarts, but not a lot of common sense, and enough attitude to make a COPS episode seem like Little House on the Prairie.
She was just. . .ic. Sarcastic, caustic, acidic and any other -ics you could think of for middle school girls who are mean, nasty, and think the world revolves around them and their popularity.
Each day at the start of class, we worked through sentences with grammatical errors. Students worked together to figure out what needed to be corrected in each sentence, and then we went over them together to make sure they had fixed all the errors and understood the rules behind the corrections.
The material I used provided ten sentences that we spread 3-2, 3-2 over Monday through Thursday and then a paragraph to be corrected on Friday for a quiz. The content was usually a true story or event from history or science.
One week, the sentences were about the Great Molasses Flood of Boston. If you haven’t heard about it, Google it. It’s quite interesting. Two millions gallons of molasses moving at 35mph, knocking over buildings and train cars, killing 21 people. (Or if you’re lazy but curious, click here and it will take you to a Wikipedia synopsis with photos.)
When it came time to discuss the sentences’ errors, “Pam” raised her hand and said the year should be changed to 1991. I replied that 1919 was the correct year. She looked at me as though I was as stupid as Jessica Simpson asking about tuna being the chicken of the sea.
Pam: “It can’t be 1919. It is supposed to be 1991.”
Me: “No, it was 1919 when this happened.”
Pam: “There’s no such thing as 1919. It had to be 1991.”
A few students laughed and I paused for a moment trying to figure out where she was coming from.
Me: “No, there was a 1919, and the molasses flood was in 1919.”
Pam (crossing her arms defiantly and twisting her lips into that nasty little smirk middle school girls get when they are about to totally annihilate someone with their words): “Okay then. If you’re so certain there was a 1919, when was it?”
The laughter in the classroom actually died down to look at her in astonishment.
I truly didn’t mean to be sarcastic (well, maybe a little bit). The other students all lost it. Now typically, Pam was the girl saying things about other people that made everyone laugh. And although my intention was not to make her the butt of the joke, she was, and she definitely did not like the feeling. She glared at me and leaned forward in her chair.
Pam: “Do you have any idea how old that would be? 1919? Seriously? Do you realize how old that would be???” She looked at me as though she had just given me all I needed for the dawn of recognizing my error.
Thankfully another student saved me from making the obvious reply… “88 years?”
The class erupted in laughter again, and I realized I needed to change the subject and address this later to keep her from humiliating herself further. (Oh, Lord, it was tempting.)
Me: “Okay, let’s move on.”
We finished the sentences and then switched gears to move into our literature story and the discussion of figurative language and author’s tone and purpose. At least twenty minutes went by with the class engaged in discussion, and the entire time Pam was staring daggers of ice into me. If she had any witchcraft powers, (which I may have suspected before), they had failed her because I would surely be up in flames or writhing on the floor in agony based on the intensity of her gaze.
But she was tenacious in her ignorance, and she refused to drop it. She slowly raised her hand and gave me a knowing, sly smirk. She knew she had me with the question on her mind.
I bit the hook and called on her.
Pam: “Okay then, if you’re so certain there’s a 1919, how did they know what time it was?”
Half the class erupted in laughter, the other half just told her to give it up. I stood at the front of the room and wondered who she will be when she grows up. And if I will ever have to deal with her then.
Me: “They had clocks in 1919.”
Pam (slamming her book shut): “You’re telling me if there was a 1919 they would be able to tell time?”
I kept reminding myself of my professional integrity and what would be appropriate when doing a battle of the minds with an ill-equipped thirteen-year-old.
Me: “Yes. I am telling you that there was a 1919. And an 1819. And a 1719. And a year that was just 19. And I am also telling you that in 1919 they had clocks. And I am telling you that this discussion is closed and, we are talking about author’s purpose.”
She stewed for the remainder of class and was the first to the door when the bell rang. But she didn’t leave the class without turning back to smugly say, “I can’t believe you really think that.” And with a toss of her blonde hair, she spun on her heel and left me to wonder what lucky gent will marry her some day.