Mr. P., you make us feel big and little at the same time.
-SamThat's what one of my students said after I, laying on the sarcasm a little heavily, expressed surprise that the class still didn't know that heaving a book across the room wasn't standard classroom procedure.
Sam is a sixth-grade poet and doesn't know it—or anyway, won't admit it; he claims to dislike reading and writing, but accidentally gives the lie to this claim in every single English class.
I'm such a cynic that, every time he startles me with some clear-eyed and profound statement, I wonder for a second if I'm being played, whether he is using adopting the naivete as a pose, and will snicker the moment I give him a surprised, appreciative smile.
Nope, that's not Sam. That's more Kaelijn's style—she's the one who accuses Lewis Carroll's Alice of being a whiny pushover, criticizes my fashion sense—No, I don't wear skinnies (blech), even on the weekend, and never will, and I can't believe I'm discussing this with you—, and has already learned the deadly habit of flippancy at the age of 11.
Her cynicism isn't real, though. She's eleven; how could it be? It slips the moment she stops watching herself, and I feel a kind of vengeful gratitude every time I see her accidentally take pleasure in one of Carroll's stupid, stupid puns. She learned somewhere that world-weariness is cool, but imbibed the diction of disillusion without, bless her, any of the content.
When I was eight, an old lady stopped me outside of church to tell me: "My goodness, you have beautiful eyes. Do you know what beautiful eyes you have?" I have no idea what I responded, but I'm sure it was inaudible, since I was wishing I was underground or dead or both at the time. If I had thought of it, I would have said, "No, but do you know what horrifying breath you have?"
Just as well I didn't. I don't hold it against her, and I'm not claiming that the experience traumatized me. But I do remember vowing 5 minutes later that when I was old I would never, ever, ever talk to a kid my age in a way that would make them feel that mortifyingly small, would never become one of those people who, in Leif Enger's words, "believes that all kids have blunted senses."
I've done other things, certainly. I've yelled at my students, ignored them, shamed them for minor infractions, made unreasonable requests of them while refusing them their reasonable ones.
But, so far as I can tell, I don't treat them like children; if you see what I mean. Talking to a child as if he were a child is just as boneheaded as telling a girl that she throws like a girl. So I try to remember, even when I am yelling at them for not doing something that I never told them to do in the first place, that they are big and little at the same time.