Eighth-Grade Career Day Made Me Sweat

I was as nervous as a middle-schooler at her first dance.

I’ll admit it. I arrived pretty unprepared for career day at my son’s middle school. I have taught for so long and spoken at so many conferences and book festivals and the like, I figured I’d wing it. I figured: I’m funny; people like me; I know what my job entails; what do I have to prepare? The participating parents met in a classroom in the beautiful sunny library. I noticed that there was a man in an army uniform, a woman in a nurse’s uniform, a woman wearing a necklace that looked more like a piece of art, and … what’s this? A mom with purple hair, awesome boots, and many, many tattoos.

Anxiety began to creep in, and I couldn’t eat the proffered bagels. I started furtively going through the copy of Painted Bride Quarterly I had brought with me, my only prop, trying frantically to find a poem I could share, one that was not esoteric and/or did not drop the “f” bomb. I came up empty, and it was time to go into the classrooms.

They had paired me with an athletic trainer who went first and happened to have a PowerPoint filled with photos of busted-up bodies, which eighth-graders could only see as awesome: a Pittsburgh Steeler with his foot twisted around. A foot almost snapped off—leg bone protruding, a rugby player getting both of his eyes poked out by an opposing team member’s fingers. The trainer was dressed in shorts, sneakers and polo shirt. She had an actual (gym) bag of tricks, should the PowerPoint fail. I clutched my book of adult poetry and wiped my sweaty palms on my paisley dress (what was I thinking?).

She told them about having worked at a high school in Idaho that had rodeo as a club sport. She told them athletic trainers could work at Disney World, and gulp, the circus.

Then, it was my turn. I took my spot in front of the room in front of the first class. Yeah, their hair was messy and their skin broken out, and they were dressed very, very badly, but gee … I found myself reverting back to middle-school self-consciousness.

How had I forgotten what eighth grade was like? How much had I repressed? I wore glasses and liked to earn extra credit points so I could sit in a beanbag chair in the “Cozy Corner.” I fell off my platform shoes at my first dance, the shoes my mother had warned me about, the shoes sure to make me eighth-grade famous, but not in the way I had hoped.

Even more recently, when I was pregnant with my son, Chris, I had taken my first (and only) term off from teaching at the college level and substituted in the Collingswood system. I had never taught K-12 and wanted to know what that was like. (I don’t know what I was thinking. I had pregnancy brain.)

It was the middle-schoolers who surprised me the most. I was surprised by my own reaction: I wanted to slap some across the face and take others out for pizza. They are so scattered at that age, so unsettled and unsure, and their insecurities manifest into an odd look, a kind of blank belligerence. Some of them are going home and playing with Barbies and action figures. Some aren’t going home at all, but smoking in the back of their older siblings’ cars, and worse. Middle-schoolers have no middle ground—I didn’t know where to aim, who my audience was.

And these were the kids I had to talk to about being an English professor, an editor of a literary magazine, and a writer.

Collingswood Middle School teachers have always impressed me. The weekend after career day, the school was putting on a production of Grease and so lots of students were wearing theater t-shirts with the Grease logo. What was awesome is so were the teachers as they were putting on their own special presentation that coming Saturday night. See Ms. Walsh as Sandy! See Mr. Shafer as Danny! The kids were pumped and had bought their tickets in advance.

Two weeks ago, the teachers had put on their own version of the Hunger Games, with teachers as the tributes and the students cheering them on, and no one fighting to the death, but to earn extra points for their class. These teachers relate to these difficult-aged kids in an awe-inspiring way, and interact far more than state guidelines mandate.

I was reaching for something to say to those middle-schoolers, something that could possibly compel or inspire them, and I remembered I had one of the school’s English teachers when I taught at Rutgers, so I said, “Hey! Mr. Rothwell was my student at Rutgers!” That got a few guffaws and took about three seconds and again, I was stumped.

A student asked, “Do you know the other guy that was in here that works for Drexel? He designs websites. He was awesome!” And that took about 60 seconds because I don’t know the awesome web designer.

I had been terribly afraid I’d curse —I don’t have to censor much at the college level—and now I was considering cursing on purpose because at least I’d get a reaction.

Finally, I decided to just talk to them, to just tell them my story and hope something stuck. I told them I never wanted to be an English teacher. I told them I only wanted to be a writer and could, finally, only now honestly call myself that for the past year. I told them that I fell in love with books in fourth grade. I told them they were lucky they lived in America, because they didn’t really have to grow up until they were about 28. That last bit seemed to have impact.