“Tell me a joke,” the boy from Nepal is one of the most exquisite creatures in this world. He is so polite, it breaks my heart into a thousand wistful sighs, “I hope my son is so beautifully mannered as this boy!”.
“I can’t think of any jokes!”
“Aw come on, you have to know ONE.” And when I shake my head he tells me he’s just going to make up one. “I was out in the forest hunting, and I had a gun with only three bullets and suddenly four lions jumped out and I only have three bullets. But all four lions die. This is kind of a riddle-joke. How did that happen? I killed three of them with the bullets, and the fourth one just had a heart attack because his friends died.” He looks earnest and happy. I tell him it was a really creative and funny joke.
Middle schoolers can be challenging, they can be really mean (the kind of meanness that can really sting because it rings of truth), and they can be so whiny – “I hate nature!” one girl grumbled as soon as we stepped out of our giant bus onto the bright green expanse of a nature reserve and sculpture park. “I wanna go home now.” And then a few minutes later, the same girl had her sneakers off, pants rolled up and was standing ankle-deep in a stream, giggling over the soft green algae she held in her hand.
It was the best kind of field trip, educational in sneaky ways, science dancing all around us, “What are the best materials to use for artwork that is always going to be outside under the sky?” A statue of a triumphant looking dog holding a stick in its mouth – “why is it titled Success?” Catching frogs in the ponds and touching leaves that feel as soft as the underbelly of a fuzzy kitten, then unearthing a box that was buried by students of some middle school a year ago. Finding your kindred spirits in letters that were scrawled out in preteen handwriting. Tootsie rolls and pencils. A regular old treasure box. And then the kids buried the shoe box with things that belonged to them and their school, digging up the ground, taking turns with the spade and then covering it up, sticking a telltale x signpost above the spot.
It really was a perfect fieldtrip, nobody got into trouble, nobody got lost, people pushed their limits, getting closer to amphibians, walking on forest trails, eating horribly processed cupcakes.
I love watching middle school student dynamics. The kids who need to be the center of attention, the ones who are shy and need to be coaxed out from behind their science fiction books (these are the ones who surprise you later, turning out to be regular comedians, or musical geniuses, or just really amazing to talk to. “Can you do a British accent?” I teased this girl with flowing brown-blond hair and she replied instantly, “Do you want a spot o’tea guvnor?” in an adorable, clipped English accent.). There are the secret crushes, “does Johnny really want me to come sit there?” “Yes, he does!” “No, I don’t!” “Just come back and sit with us!” “But did he say he wants me to?” “No!” “Yes!”
The ones who are sly, terribly polite as they talk to you and then stick their middle finger up as soon as you turn away.
Working here is teaching me a lot about parenting. I’m trying to grasp the balance between excessive authoritarian styles where you do as you’re told no matter what (back home in Pakistan) and the lax, I don’t care what you do because I’m doing what I want to do anyways kind of parenting that one can often see in households here. Somewhere between cooped up in the house forever versus shove you out the minute you’re 18. Or “I don’t want you to watch TV because you might want to get a boyfriend” versus “I’m going to talk about birth control and contraceptives with you because I know you’re going to do what you want and at least I want you to be safe”. I’m sure there are more apt, precise names for these kinds of styles but I think I get my message across.