The only thing harder than being a 7th grader is teaching them.

Watervliet’s old Junior High School, Watervliet, Michigan

My mind goes back to the early 1970s, to Watervliet’s old Junior high School, otherwise known as the Zoo. My mom went to high school there and kissed her first boy friend– in the gym–all glitzed up for prom night. Then my Uncle Norman got hung out of a window by his classmates as a prank, which nearly gave his teacher having a heart attack.

I tried to remember these things as I wanted to disappear in my 7th grade social studies class, where I was severely bullied. Notes were being passed by the boys snickering in the next row, the teacher turning a blind eye. Or was the teacher actually sleeping?

Who does a kid turn to?

I avoided the stairwell near the gym as I was spit on by boys standing at the top. And as much as I loved art class, the area to wash our paint bowls was just out of earshot of the teacher.

More hurtful remarks.

And of course, the scribbles on the bathroom wall stalls, the original form of social media.

And so the memories go.

These thoughts crossed my mind as I stood in front of my school’s student body to receive a birthday card yesterday. I also received an unexpected gift from a group of the 7th graders.

Booing.

Booing. It’s one word that needs no translation.

This was the day after the principal talked to these same students about their ongoing behavioral problems. And not just in my class.

It’s just that in my class, discipline problems are magnified due to the role of my job. I’m the language police, the undercover agent who spots the child who can’t read or write.

As the ELL teacher (English for the Language Learner) my job is to work on issues other instructors might not see or ignore. I insure a student knows the difference between a cheetah and a llama after reading a short passage without pictures. Or that the kid with perfect pronunciation can comprehend what she just read (often not). Then there’s the problems out of my scope, like a few students whose handwriting is written in a language I call scribbleze. I suspect its some sort of dyslexic thing, something about as common in China as clean air, since pictorial characters are decoded in a different part of the brain. Meaning, sloppy English penmanship from a student with acceptable Chinese handwriting is often blamed on “Western teacher who allow shit work”.

Anyway, my 7th grade classroom doesn’t smell of valve oil or eraser dust of WJHS, it smells of the various food squirreled away in student’s desks (even though food in the classroom has been officially banned) along with teenybopper cologne being spritzed at every break. As I snatch up the sucrose contraband, I focus on how the western staff successfully stopped the 7th graders from a having a coffee maker in class.

As western teachers fight for discipline- believing it’s the foundation of education, Chinese staff have a YinYang 陰陽 philosophy, keeping balance in the classroom, which often means siding with the student when the instructor is ready to blow a gasket.

“Mac LaoShi, student misunderstood you. He not know FUCK no allowed in spelling game. Or, “Mac LaoShi, student misunderstood no standing on desk to throw water bottle not allowed”.

But before being booed by the students born in the Year of Entitlement, I glanced over their essays on, “What I Need to Do Now to Prepare for High School.” I groaned at the one where the only legible line was, “I have beautiful blue eyes” as well as one quickly penned by another student, one I presumably she had memorized and written before on, “What it Means to be Successful”.

But I did take the time to read one from a newer student, one hungering to learn instead of eating banned candy. As I read his legible words, I discovered he wanted to quit school after his first few days, but changed his mind after –gulp– attending my class. I guess I showed a Happy Birthday video on his birthday.–something I forgot about–something that he dearly remembered. This kid is hard working, the kind that will eat American students up for breakfast one day. But his essay concluded, “I don’t know why 7th grade classmates all hate you. I think you good teacher”.

A lump forms in my throat. Memories rush back.

I look around the room for a teacher to tell. Oh, I am the teacher.

So I get yanked from my desk to attend the assembly where I get booed. Another lump, this the size of a grapefruit forms in my throat. I desperately scan the crowd for the boy who wrote the essay. He waves and smiles. I hold back tears by glancing at two birthday students standing next to me: a toothless second grader who’s working hard learning the difference between P and B, and a senior who studies around the clock for her TEFL test…a test that’s over a year away.

I wipe my tears. The lump in my throat melts. The memories fade.

There is more to life than the 7th grade.