Note: This story was performed as part of a Valley Voices Story Slam competition sponsored by WFCR, New England Public Media, my local NPR station.
To hear this story read by the author please click on this link: https://static.wixstatic.com/mp3/a909b2_587faf1f5d064f7284c49faa425dc527.wav
As a middle school teacher, I have discovered there are certain every day words that you just cannot use in a classroom full of 11 to 13 year olds, starting with the word ‘balls.’
This may seem obvious to some of you. I had to learn.
A few years ago, when I separated from my husband, I found myself in need of a job with health care and a better income than my adjunct/freelance teaching life was providing me with. So when a full time middle school theater teaching job basically fell into my lap, I took it. I already had experience working with this age group through summer theater workshops, so I felt prepared.
But this job was hard. Which, by the way, is another one of those words you can’t use in a middle school classroom. More on that later. And moving from teaching in grad school to teaching middle schoolers was a challenge for my ego.
And I was now on my own. My life was not turning out the way I thought it would. I was feeling anxious. I was feeling resistant to so many changes even if they were of my own making.
But teaching was also a good distraction from my rapidly changing life.
I quickly discovered I had to choose my words carefully in the classroom.
Yes, thanks to the internet, this generation of children are now exposed to more adult content at an earlier age than any previous generation. I have no actual statistics to back up that claim but I have the courage of my convictions and a lot of experience trying to teach children whose minds are fixated on Minecraft, Fortnight, Tik Tok, Call of Duty, and god knows what else. With this exposure comes a more advanced understanding of innuendo and the double-entendre.
Which means middle schoolers are a fascinating combination of innocence and jaded cynicism. One moment they’re showing you their favorite stuffed animal they brought from home, the next they’re snickering when you tell them, in an exercise about using imaginary objects to ‘really chew and swallow your imaginary food.’ Yes, swallow is a word you cannot say in a middle school classroom. Along with Dick, (the name, of course), moist, tongue, lick and the usual suspects, hard, nuts, and balls.
So when I realized I couldn’t say so many of these words, I had to come up with alternatives.
Now, when we do an exercise involving balls, I say ‘round objects’. Instead of saying ‘chew and swallow,’ I coach them to ‘consume via mastication and peristalsis.’ When we work on our diction and I describe the mechanisms of speech, including the lips, the teeth, the tongue…yup, can’t say that one either. I thought about replacing tongue with “the fleshy, muscular organ in the mouth of a mammal used for mastication and peristalsis” but decided against it, as you can imagine.
But middle schoolers are also capable of great sweetness and insight as well. And every day I learn something from them. One day in my sixth grade theater class we were talking about dreams inspired by a play we were reading. One student, Ryan, an energetic, short attention spanned boy with a goofy sense of humor had just told us about his dream in which he was falling through the air. This reminded me of dream that I had shortly after I separated from my husband that was really sticking with me. So I told them the dream. In the dream, I’m watching a Nazi and an American soldier having a fight in midair, suspended from parachutes. They’re swinging wildly back and forth as they fall towards the ground. Suddenly they both slam into a huge boulder and are gone. Next, I realize I’m falling through the air and I think to myself ‘Wow, I’m going to hit the ground hard (uh, wait, I mean with firmness and rigidity) and probably die. If I stay tense and keep bracing for impact, I’m just going to shatter into a million pieces…I need to let myself fall.’ And so I just relaxed, face to the sky, on my back, arms spread and kept falling. And I became very calm and I slowed down and gently landed on the earth. And I was ok. The room was quiet for a moment. Then Ryan looked at me and said “Huh. So, you were your own parachute.” It took me a few moments to gather myself and continue teaching the class.
So although teaching in middle school can be hard, and sometimes makes me feel like I’m going nuts, trying to keep all my balls in the air, if I just remember to swallow my pride and…
Wait, I mean… Although teaching in middle school can be difficult and sometimes makes me feel like I am going a bit crazy trying to keep all my round objects in the air, if I just remember to consume my pride via peristalsis…and if I just let myself fall, I find I am my own parachute.
by Christine Stevens