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Why I Generally Like Teenagers

By Cindy Reitzi

November 2002

I was recently at Borders Bookstore enjoying one of those teacher appreciation events. The clerk asked me what I taught, and I explained that I was (again) a substitute teacher.

“What grade?” she asked.

“High school.”

She shuddered. “I could never teach teenagers.”

I’ve gotten this response before. It’s almost like it’s “bad” enough to be a sub, let alone for adolescents. I don’t take offense; I’ve had to explain myself hundreds of times before, so I usually toss off some joke about liking adventure and leave it at that. But sometimes people seem to want more of an explanation, like, “How can you like teenagers?”

That’s sort of like asking, “How can you like adults?” I do and I don’t. They’re all different. And so are teenagers. I have learned from hard experience over the years not to stereotype adolescents. Because just when you start to have preconceived notions about them, they surprise you. Just when I start to feel irked that they are self-absorbed and obsessed about nothing but hair, clothes, boys/girls, or sports statistics (hmm … do we know any adults like this?), they tell me that they collected cans of food on Halloween for the food pantry in town, volunteered at their churches, mosques or temples, or ran a charity race.

Just when I think some of them spend their lives in front of the TV set (maybe like some adults), they tell me they’re nuts about historical fiction or science fiction or they’ve been reading 500-page books since the 5th grade (and they’re not in TAG).

Just when I wonder if they’re really listening in English class, one of the hardest-working but goofiest kids in class makes a literary breakthrough I never thought of.

“Well, you know, the mad dog in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is like the dog in ‘The Odyssey.’ They both symbolize how their communities are. Like, the dogs are all messed up and in bad shape. And so are Maycomb and Ithaca.”

Where did that leap come from?

The other thing I like about teenagers is that they’re smart alecks. This is precisely why some adults do not like teenagers. Since I have a black belt in one-liners (from subbing and waitressing), this works for me. I enjoy verbal repartee. Judiciously timed and not overused, smart alecky-ness can add flavor to a classroom and even encourage bonding between teacher and student. Of course, sometimes it’s just creativity gone amok, like with a student named Robert.

I was subbing for a friend of mine. I gave the assignment (a reading with questions), and a sophisticated looking student in the front row asked, “Is this all we’re doing all hour?”

“Yes, but you can do other homework if you get done with that.” He nodded.

With focused, calm deliberation, he went about the assignment and finished it in a short amount of time. He was clearly in control of his behavior, and he exhibited none of the stereotypical signs of “nervousness” like physical tics or constant verbal banter to get attention. He was not doing the usual leg gyrations or finger drumming of the terminally restless. There was nothing to indicate that Robert had attention or control difficulties of any sort. So, with the same calm deliberation with which he had dispatched his assignment, he spoke to me with an air of confidentiality and a gleam in his eyes.

“You know, Ms. Reitzi…” From the tone in his voice, my instincts told me he was hatching something. Pause. “I have Turrets Syndrome…” Meaningful pause. “And every once in awhile I get these outbursts…”

Clearly, Robert was winding up for one of the lamest excuses for swearing in class, and being excused for it, that I ever heard. It was not only lame but also inappropriate to impersonate persons with a mental health condition. Nonetheless, it was creative. No one had ever pulled this stunt on me in all my years of substitute teaching. This kid was no amateur in social maneuvering.

“Well, Robert…” Pause. “Should you feel the urge, feel free to excuse yourself,” I countered. He smiled slyly, acknowledging I recognized the joke.

The next time I saw Robert in the halls he addressed me with that same whimsical but cool deliberation, “You know, Ms. Reitzi, I got that Turrets under control.”

“Glad to hear it, Robert.”

Smart aleck.

Posted October 29, 2002

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