The first thing people say after I tell them that I am a high school teacher is “how do you do it?” And what they mean is, “Are you crazy? Don’t teenagers scare you?” I find that almost every adult I encounter has this fear of teenagers. People have an image of monsters who have no respect for authority and who are as likely to pull a gun as an iPod out of their pockets. I think most people forget what it was like to be that age. They forget that they were not really different people then. They were just unsure of their identities and severely lacking in self-confidence.

During my semester of student teaching, my first real teaching experience, I worked at a high school with more than 2,400 students. The building, huge and imposing, overwhelmed me at first. I couldn’t find the teacher’s lounge or the copy room on my own for the first two weeks. Eventually, I found my way around and became comfortable with my students. Except for Emily. Emily tested me from day one. She had a terrible attitude. She thrived on being able to challenge me at every turn, trying to find mistakes in my calculations, asking me how I knew every detail I lectured about. And when she asked questions, it was not with the delightful innocence of youthful intellectual curiosity; it was malevolent. Her eyes glinted with wicked delight if she caught an error. Her sarcastic tone silenced the rest of class as they waited with baited breath for my response. I tried to take it all in stride. She intimidated and irritated me, but my number-one lesson learned as a teacher was to never let them know your buttons have been pushed. I smiled pleasantly as I responded thoughtfully to her every challenge. I admitted graciously any mistakes I made. I was the picture of patience. Then one day, Emily stayed after school to make up a test she missed. As she brought the completed test up to my desk, her face was terribly long and sad. I asked her what was wrong and the flood gates opened. She cried and told me about everything that was wrong. Her family just moved here, she didn’t feel like she fit in yet, she still got lost in the building, she missed her old friends, she was afraid she wouldn’t make the soccer team and she felt like she just failed that test. The poor thing was unhappy about everything and I just sat quietly and listened to her for thirty minutes. When she finished, she said she felt better and went on her way. The next day and every other day Emily smiled at me and treated me with respect. She stopped challenging me and seemed genuinely happier.

Now, whenever I grow weary of the attitude of some of my students, I try to remember what it was like to be a teenager. Every problem and bad circumstance seemed so monumental. I never wish to go back to my teenage years. I remember the uncertainty, the doubts and fears. Because I remember, I do not fear my students; I understand them, at least a little.

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