A girl “dislocated” her jaw on a cheeseburger, but everything else on the field trip was fine. The kids toured campus and listened to a college lecture. No one cried.
I got here because after a few months of exploring Central America and contemplating my future in education, I scored a two-month job teaching Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” to 11- and 12-year-olds in Renton, Wash. We had a few weeks until we started the play about a woman who finds happiness by being obedient to the man who deprives her of food and sleep – why a curriculum writer would find this “comedy” suitable for sixth graders, I didn’t know – so we had time for things like building college dreams and getting to know each other.
“Are you chewing gum?” a girl with a purple butterfly clip in her hair asked me on the first day.
“Why?” I asked.
“We can chew gum?”
“Ummm…” I swallowed.
“Can I go to my locker and get a book?” a boy in a DEPT OF PURE GENIUS shirt asked on the second day.
“Run quick,” I said.
“We’re allowed to run?”
All accidental revolutions considered, I started paying attention to the basic rules of the middle school handbook and to the quirky characteristics of my sixth graders who, like lots of other sixth graders, love folding notebook paper into footballs, fortune-tellers, ninja stars, and inflatable sweet rice dumplings.
“Today’s your birthday?” I heard a girl say to her friend outside my door one passing period. “That’s SO COOL.”
The most buzzed about moment in this choose-your-own-adventure chapter book of early education was the afternoon I came back from lunch and found some typically tardy fourth period sparklers waiting. A pair of plastic tongs, they said, had disappeared from the salad bar and students had to stay inside until the tongs were put back or until lunch supervisors caught the culprit. I chuckled at the idea of Rocco and Ahmed finishing their Pringles and chocolate pudding cups in the cafetorium instead of playing basketball. “Why are you smiling?” Rocco asked. The Curious Case of the Missing Cafeteria Cutlery was serious business.
Slightly less exciting were the days my students and I spent preparing for standardized tests. In one of the scripted lessons, students brainstormed examples of American “civilization.” Their lists included pepper spray, 3-D printers, education for women and children, aluminum foil, the IRS, hand sanitizer, mass production, advanced missile guidance systems, online dating, flushable toilets, organized sports, anime, lab-grown beef, flossy sticks, and Mr. Smith.
“Me?” I asked.
“You read a lot!” Kristin said.
“True,” I said. “I won more personal pan pizzas in my sixth grade reading contest than anyone else.”
On the fifth day of testing, the internet crashed and a kid in white mesh Adidas voiced everyone’s concerns. “Do we have to go to third period? Do we get to finish our granola bars?” I said no… and yes… and the class cheered BEST DAY EVER and spent ninety minutes messing up my marker and crayon bins.
When the time came to start the play, I cut the “before reading” questions recommended by the textbook (Q: “Why do you think ‘taming’ a shrew would be a comedy?” Answer provided by the book: “In order to create a comedy, or ‘happily ever after’ story, a nagging, scolding woman must become gentle and loving…”) and said the play would help us think critically about the attitudes men and women have toward marriage. I told students we’d read some scenes and watch movie clips of other scenes, and everyone would do some acting along the way. “Performing the play,” I said, “will be like baking soda and vinegar in a volcano. We know how things will turn out, but that doesn’t make it any less fun.”
Truth be told, I had no idea how things would turn out.
I still don’t.
These last few days might prove disastrous. Audience members might mock actors’ performances. Actors might forget lines or mysteriously fall ill. Yesterday I caught a group making swords for a scene with no fighting. A good number of them have my back. “Everybody listen!” Duncan yelled over the rest of the class in fifth period rehearsals yesterday when an acting company got carried away with construction paper torches and mugs of root beer. “Mr. Smith is the authority, and he’s higher than all of us!”
I didn’t say that. Some of these sixth graders are wondering what’s going to happen at the year-end dance where they’ll mostly stand around in gendered circles in a softly lit gym. I suppressed my smile and waited for all of us to focus.