Katelyn's arm shot up into the air as though jet-propelled, as I sauntered past the ten gallon fish aquarium located on the side counter of my classroom, just to the left of the sink. I was reading Tom Sawyer aloud to the eighth grade one lazy afternoon, drifting around the classroom putting out fires before they had time to get started, by the simple concept of proximity.
It’s tricky to carry on a conversation-or write a note-when the teacher is standing alongside your table. I had the ability to stockpile a couple of sentences in advance, so that by delivering the lines slowly and with inflection, I could keep my eyes off the book, and on the class, for relatively long periods at times. Long enough, anyway.
Anyone who was contemplating mischief, who looked over at me and made eye contact, while I was “reading,” thought twice before doing anything rash. I nodded to Kate (not her real name, of course).
“Are your fish gay, Mr. O?” she asked in mock seriousness, her eyes blinking several times, as though willing her face to maintain its air of deadly calm.
Nine tines out of ten, I would have responded, “Great question, Kate! See me at 3:20, once we are on your time, and we can chat. Right now, it’s my time,” and I would continue to read.
“Gosh, Katelyn, why ever would you ask that?” knowing full-well exactly why she had asked it. That morning, shortly after arriving and putting the coffee on, I had changed the colorful paper behind the fish tank, from green to pink, for no other reason than to present a different look.
“Well, their home is decorated in pink, now, so I was just wondering if that meant they were coming out of the closet.” She kept her voice evenly modulated, her face as serious as a heart attack, and most importantly, she had the class actually up and at ‘em.
“Got it. Well, Kate, this would seem an appropriate time for me to point out to you that what you are doing here, is stereotyping. You are connecting pink to being gay, and even if you are correct some of the time, it’s dangerous to form conclusions based on faulty logic. If I wear my pink shirt and tie, tomorrow, does that make me gay?” It was exactly the question she seemed to have been waiting for.
“I don’t know, Mr. O… Does it? Hey, I’m a poet, and I know it!” The class weighed in with an appreciative chortle, while I gave Kate the benefit of a brilliant smile. She had played right into my net.
“Am I gay? Rudeness abounds! It’s not considered proper etiquette to ask personal questions like that of anyone, unless you are close friends. Besides, that would come as surprising news to my three sons and Annie, don’t you think?”
She accepted my response with aplomb, her question having been dealt with, and I resumed reading Tom Sawyer. I could have brushed the question aside, I could have even gotten annoyed, but where was I going to get the greatest mileage?
I could go toe-to-toe with eighth graders bent on disrupting my class all day, and not gain as much as I did by pausing for one moment, sharing a smile that did not hurt anyone, and then moving on. I had similar experiences with all five of my anarchists, over the course of that memorable year, and I look back on those moments with special fondness.
The first year I taught, there were five anarchists in my class: four boys and one girl. Kate's class, as I mentioned, featured five girls in this role. If eighth graders questioning authority comes as a surprise to you, then you are probably not an eighth grade teacher, nor have you ever had a 13-year-old kid living in your home. Questioning authority is their job in life and some do it better than others.
Questioning authority: it’s a game either gender can play well, especially at the eighth grade level. That way, when we really need to question authority, as grown-ups, we will already know how to do it.
Are you ready?