"You don't have the power to upset me. You don't matter enough to upset me." - Kate Winslet as Hannah Schmitz, The Reader

Apr 25 2016

I find myself whispering this line of dialogue to myself at work, more and more often as the school year progresses.

I teach teenagers. Light a candle for me, please.

Teenagers are miserable people. Their collective superpower is making everyone around them just as miserable. If you're smiling or having a good day, they just can't tolerate that. They can't sleep at night while carrying the knowledge they allowed anyone else to experience joy. They're miserable, so by God, you should be, too.

Or at least that's how it feels when you're in the home stretch of the school year and you're teaching 150 kids a day. Some of the kids are openly hostile because they have home lives that would make any adult frustrated and depressed. However, others are rude simply because you asked them to listen to the directions to the assignment, or put away their phone, or turn in any of the assigned work if they want to pass.

That's right. I expect them to listen when I speak. I know, I know - I'm so demanding.

Here's the funny part: if you tell them nothing they say can upset you, they consider it their life's sole purpose to find the button they can push that will set you off. They need to know where that line is or they can't function. If, on the other hand, you just keep reminding yourself that what they say or do can't upset you, and all of their hard work niggling you merits nothing more than a raised brow, they're usually too lazy to keep poking you with a verbal stick. At some point, they'll give up and move to an easier target.

This strategy has also proven successful with folks with differing political views, men leering on streetcorners, and cashiers passing judgement on my groceries.

Anyone who works with the public on a daily basis will tell you one simple truth: verbal abuse is part of the job. However, they'll also typically agree that the person dishing out the verbal thrashing is a rude jackass.

Conversely, when you tell someone you work with teenagers and remark on how rude or challenging they can be, you're likely to be met with a blank stare that's the body language equivalent of "Duh." It seems to be an expected part of the job now, but I'm not sure the folks who feel that way really understand what teachers mean when we say the students are rude to a shocking degree. Here are a few examples of things students have said to me in front of a whole classroom full of kids:

"Shut up, bitch. You ain't my mama."

"Where you get those ugly clothes from?"

"You need to start wearing make-up." 

"My daddy says you're just a teacher and I don't have to listen to you."

"You look so much better with your hair pulled back."

"Cracker bitch."

That last one really got to me the first time I heard it. I was shocked almost beyond the point of speech and I thought of that comment every time I saw that student for the rest of the year. Now, I couldn't even tell you her name. I've heard that insult so many times that now, I just say, "That's right, I'm the color of a saltine, but there's nothing I can do about that, so let's get back to work, okay?"

Looking back, I've lost hours of sleep and saddled my soul with an untold amount of stress over the last fourteen years, worrying about my students. I'm sure they didn't spend nearly as much time worrying about me or my opinion of them. I read a stat recently that claimed one year of continuous stress ages you by six years. If that's accurate, I'm 154 years old (which explains the constant exhaustion).

Every single one of my students has gotten through the year, grown up, and left school. A fair amount have come back over the years to thank me or tell me how much my class meant to them. A few have come back to apologize: "I'm sorry I was such a jerk. I don't know what my problem was!"

Well, I'd hazard a guess that your problem was that you were thirteen. That's a horrible age. If you're very lucky, you get to keep going, get past thirteen, and find out what stinks about being fourteen.

And as you age, you realize that there really are people who just don't matter, in the grand scheme of things. Sometimes they're a stranger shouting at you in traffic, and sometimes it's someone you see every day. Either way, if you don't value their opinion, it ceases being worthy of your consideration. If someone hates you, it only matters if you value them enough to want them to like you. If someone was rotten to you, it only matters if you can't let go of it, rise above it, and move beyond it. 

I'm getting better at that, and this line from the incomparable Kate Winslet is a simple reminder to not let people upset me when I won't even remember their names in a few years. The irony in me applying this line to my teaching life: in the film, she's saying it to a teenager.


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