Monday, February 18, 2013

In Case You Forget What a Pomegranate Looks Like

The last month and a half has been particularly busy for me at work.  On more than one occasion I found myself blankly staring at someone who'd just asked me a question and then explaining, "I'm sorry.  My brain has fallen out of my ears.  Could you say that again?"  My seniors were finishing their calculus graduation requirements and panels, I took on increased administrative roles for the second half of the school year, and the term ended, which means grading projects and writing narrative reports to the kids.  Anyway, my brain was falling out of my ears a lot.
As any wise person knows, eating delicious food is one of the best ways to cope with overwhelming amounts of work.  One of my recurring foods of choice this winter has been loads of pomegranate seeds.  They are like edible candy rubies, and I'm obsessed with them.  While it can be fun to pluck out and consume one seed at a time, this is only an option for those with really nothing better to do with three hours of their life, as my best friend and I did during high school performances as we waited backstage for our next scene.  As evidenced by the brain falling out of ears, I don't have that sort of luxury in my schedule lately.  Instead, I follow Alton Brown's magical method to retrieve all the seeds post-haste: score the pomegranate, submerge in a bowl of water for 10 minutes, then rip the fruit open in the water and simply sweep the seeds away from the membrane.  The seeds will sink to the bottom while the membrane floats to the top.  VoilĂ !  You have a bowl of pomegranate seeds piled high, ready to munch on to your heart's content.
So there I was a few weeks ago after work one day, in the produce section of the grocery store.  Having consumed several pomegranates in the previous weeks, I thought to myself Ooh, I want a pomegranate!  And then I did the blank stare at all of the fruit.  And I thought I can't remember what a pomegranate looks like...maybe sort of like an orange?  If I see one I'll probably recognize it.  At which point I began to slowly spin around, like a person lost in a crowd, looking for something that might remind me that it was a pomegranate.  Yup, that's how far gone my brain was.  And it was not until the next morning when I'd had a decent night's sleep that I actually managed to remember what one looks like.

But amidst having so much to do that my brain periodically stopped working, I was, as always struck by the joy that it is to work with young people.  Teenagers, specifically.  They're just kind of wonderful.  A few highlights:

1) A couple weeks ago one of my seniors turned in his project to me, and as he turned to go he asked if he could do anything for me.  This took me off guard; I thanked him and told him I'd let him know if anything came up.  The next day I gave up my classroom to a teacher who really needed one and planned to move into an office.  But, the office was full of shelves and files that needed to be moved in order for a desk that I didn't yet have to fit.  I panicked a little, feeling a bit lost and displaced.  On this particular Friday after school I was stuck for hours doing some admin work, only to be informed by someone walking by that, unbeknownst to me, my office was being set up by this same student and my friend whose office I was moving into.  They worked for hours clearing out all the old junk, finding me a desk and computer, and setting the whole thing up.  I was incredibly touched.

2) Last week another teacher and I were in the hall talking to a group of kids between classes.  After chatting a bit we reminded them it was time for their next class.  They all drifted off except for one 11th grader who stubbornly refused.  He's new to the school and not yet convinced that this whole academic thing is for him.  This other teacher and I were unsuccessfully trying to convince him to be on his way when one of his classmates showed up and gently took him by the arm, saying, "Come on.  It's time to go."  He resisted, saying that he didn't want to go, to which she casually replied, "I know, none of us want to go, but here we go anyway."  And without another word, he went off to class with her.  He's on the margins, at risk of not engaging as a full time student; she saw this and simply drew him into the fold.  Beautiful.

3) A few days ago, one of the boys I'm close with showed up in my office during first period asking if I had any candy.  I teased him for not saying hello or asking how I was and only wanting candy.  To which he said, "It's because I'm angry!"  And then he launched into a long story about how his friend at a neighboring school had been jumped by a bunch of seniors at that school, and now this friend wanted him to come over to the school that afternoon and beat these kids up.  Now, this young man is definitely a fighter.  He lives in a tough neighborhood and fights people frequently, but this was not a neighborhood issue.  And, for the past year and a half, he and I have been working on providing him with non-violent responses he can fall back on when he's upset or in a tight spot.  I reminded him of this and told him that's why he'd shown up in my office: he didn't want to fight, but didn't know how to tell his friend that.  Then we talked about how you could still be a good and loyal friend even if you didn't fight to defend your friend's honor.  This, however, goes against everything he has lived for 15 years.  He decided to step out into the hall and call his friend: "Yo man, I'm down wit you, I'm just not down wit you like dat.  Naw, I can't fight."  Um, yeah, I literally did a happy dance.

Teens in our society are cast as lazy, disrespectful, dishonest almost-people.  And unfortunately, many schools and teachers also seem to see their students as a sort of enemy to be battled, or at least to put up with, each day.  This is really too bad, because teenagers are just young people trying to figure it all out.  And who of us isn't?  I surely am.  The older I get, the more I am convinced that adults don't really have anything figured out, we're just better at faking it.

These kids are vulnerable by definition: they are in flux and constant chaos and will reach out to most anyone or anything that will provide them with a bit of attention and direction.  We need to be there for them because far too many pointless and destructive forces will happily guide them if we don't.  And more importantly, we're totally missing out if we write them off.  When they know they are loved, even teenage children are warm and giving, and most always quirky and unexpectedly hilarious despite themselves.

Okay.  I'm off my soapbox.  There it is over there and I'm not on it any more.

After the pomegranate incident, my friend JD gave me this, explaining, "In case you forget what a pomegranate looks like again."  Thank goodness for the children, and for good friends.