Sunday, February 28, 2010

Kissing Frogs

In her infinite maternal wisdom, my mom has counseled me and my sister that “In order to find a prince, you have to kiss a lot of frogs.” Even though this is contradicted by my mom's own experience – she got married at the ripe old age of 22-going-on-23, and I seriously doubt that she had the time to kiss many frogs before then – I am beginning to see her point. I met and began dating La Moustache six months (to the day, weirdly) after my breakup with l'Artista. When we met, I had been dating a man named Mr. White Pants for four months. Even though I knew that there were plenty of other men out there besides Mr. White Pants and La Moustache, it was hard not to feel like I had two choices before me, and one was very clearly superior to the other.

Mr. White Pants was a Southern gentleman, hailing from a tobacco city in North Carolina, the youngest of six or seven siblings. He was twelve years my senior, and I met him through his college roommate, who had been trying fruitlessly for some time to court me. In retrospect, it wasn't very nice of him to flirt with his friend's crush, but at the time I can't say I minded.

Mr. Pants worked for a bank and made a lot of money. He had gone to graduate school at Columbia, spoke fluent Russian, and lived for several years in Uzbekistan. He was on the board of a small theater company and invited me to the opera. Sometimes I thought that if he were a character on Sex and the City the ladies would think he was a really good catch. In the end, though, I'm not one of the Sex and the City ladies, and after a while I started to realize that despite his intelligence he was lacking in one very important area -- personality. Every time he talked to me about his work I was either bored stiff or horrified, like when he told me about financing open-top mines. He enjoyed tango dancing, but it seemed more like a hobby he had picked up to make himself seem interesting than a genuine passion.

And then there was the matter of the pants. He always dressed up for our dates, and frequently wore his favorite white pants. When I got to know him better, I found out that every time he wore the white pants he had to wear tighty whities to match them, because otherwise people could see his undergarments through the pants. I'm not saying I don't sometimes have to think about wearing underwear that you can't see through my clothes, but a man who matches his underpants and trousers was a turnoff, to say the least. In addition, one day my Wise Woman mentioned to me that when she was walking down the streets of Manhattan one day she passed a man who she wondered might be Mr. White Pants. When she described him to me, he sounded utterly ridiculous.

Just as I was starting to feel ready to move on, along came La Moustache. He was handsome, had an interesting job, he told me great stories about his recent trip to the West Bank to cover the war between Israel and Lebanon, he was funny, we were reading the same book when we met (Heat by Bill Buford, a great book), he loved the New Yorker like me, and I instantly felt more comfortable with him than I ever had with Mr. White Pants. But I wonder if, had I been dating other men, I would have thought more critically about him and kept my options open longer, rather than allowing myself to be convinced to jump headlong into a relationship as I did. Perhaps through the veneer of charm I would have discovered his underlying froggy qualities; or perhaps not, since (to give myself some credit) he was very good at hiding them.

In the interest of learning from my past mistakes, I have been working on meeting frogs. Here are some of my stats so far:

Frogs I've gone on dates with: 4
Frogs I've gone on second dates with: 2
Frogs kissed: 2 ½ (one was an awkward edge-of-the-mouth kiss that I was attempting to dodge)
Frogs kissed because my sister forced me to: 1
Second dates I've gone on because I had a bit too much to drink on the first date and got beer goggles: 1 (mental note: one drink maximum per date)
Very nice frogs I've gone out with: 3
Frogs who really liked me: 2
Frogs I found attractive: 0

Another piece of advice I received recently from my mother after I complained about the lack of attractiveness of my dates: “In the end, it's not really that important.” Again, this is contradicted by her own experience – my dad is very handsome, and even after nearly forty years of marriage Mom will occasionally pause when she sees him across the room and say, “He's really quite good-looking, don't you think?” This is one piece of advice I am ignoring: I want a hot boyfriend, and I think I deserve one.

Clearly, I have a ways to go. My sister went on dates with 26 men before she met her prince, the Sensitive Bostonian. And this time, I am determined not to be tricked by any frogs disguised as princes.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Au revoir, les enfants terribles

There were days when I thought the end would never come, but it finally has: my time with the sixth graders is officially over. No, Mr. Burnout will not be in on Monday, but the school doesn't feel that they have enough money to continue to pay me and Mr. Burnout's salary, so the students will be spending some time with the school directors, in other classrooms, etc. Mr. Burnout claims that he will really, definitely, almost 100% certainly be back the following Monday.

We ended on a positive note, which I was glad about. The students even asked if I would consider coming in next week and joining them for a field trip. I thought about it, then said, “You know, for a lot of the time I've been with you, you haven't treated me very respectfully or very kindly. If I decided to use my free time next week to come in and go on a field trip with you, do you think you would treat me respectfully and kindly?” “Maybe,” they answered honestly. So I told them that I didn't think I would choose to spend my time in that way. Then they told me, again very honestly, that they like aspects of my personality, and don't like other aspects – namely, the bossy parts (“like, sometimes when we don't do something you tell us to do you keep saying it and then you YELL at us.” The horror!) They mentioned that they feel exactly the same way about Mr. Burnout.

Anyway, it was a very honest talk, and I sincerely hope that they heard some small part of what I said to them. Here are a few memories of our time together......

…...The morning meeting when Caitlin told us about a dream she had the night before in which we all went out for ice cream together. “Was I there too?” I asked, and was surprised by how secretly pleased I felt when she said yes. She told us exactly what we all ordered, and even though in real life I hate vanilla ice cream, for a brief moment we felt like a community.

…...The times when, when I least expected it, they would suddenly become very engaged in what we were doing. One moment they would appear to not be paying any attention to my read-aloud, the next they would be asking insightful questions and telling me what they would do if they were in the main character's shoes. With the same amazing rapidity, they would disengage and leave the room without telling me where they were going or put on a song and pump up the volume as I put down the book exasperatedly.

......The evening I received an e-mail from Ashley entitled "Fw: U Rock!!!" that contained instructions to "only send to your closest friends, the ones you care about most, to remind them how important they are to you." Who else did she send it to? The other kids in the class, some people I don't know, her dad, and the Spanish teacher.

......The morning when Lizzie came in with two whole pages written about what she wanted her life to be like as an adult, even though I had only assigned them to think about it for homework. Her husband, she decided, was the owner of a Caribbean restaurant called Rice 'n Peas. That night, I got an e-mail from her mom telling me that they had a long talk about what long hours restaurant owners work, and she decided she didn't want that life for herself after all. He magically transformed into a film director.

…...The afternoon when I was sitting next to Caitlin on the couch and she leaned over, touched my shoulder and kindly informed me that my shirt was tucked into my underpants.

…...The many moments when I would catch a fleeting glimpse of their faces when they didn't realize I was looking, and spot the deep uncertainty and self-doubt in their eyes. Then they would sense my gaze and quickly rearrange a mask of tweenage attitude over their features.

When Mr. Burnout told me yesterday that he was planning to request one more week off, a wave of horror swept over me. But today, I felt a teeny-tiny pang of regret when I learned of the alternative arrangements. I feel certain that it's for the best. I have a new job that I am really excited about, coordinating an afterschool tutoring program at an amazing school; I already started it this week, and doing both jobs has been exhausting. However, I have to admit that despite all their flaws, I will miss the little monsters just a little bit.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Earning Our Hot Chocolate

I think by all accounts Rebellion 2010 can be considered a huge success. Mom and I had a great time touring the wilds of northern Maine, visiting with the natives, skiing through the (sometimes) slushy snow, sitting by the fire gulping watery hot chocolate enhanced by splashes of whiskey, and racing into the sweaty sauna after rubbing our skin with icy snow. It was really quite pleasant to be greeted upon arrival in a new camp by a roaring fire in our cozy little cabin, and to be served delicious hot meals every evening and morning. Just how cozy our lodgings were was hammered home to me when I innocently asked a member of Camping Snobs 2010 how their mattresses were, after he mentioned not sleeping well: “We slept on bare slats,” he replied, somewhat crossly. The toughest thing about our sleeping arrangements on Rebellion 2010 was going three days without pillow shams.

Less pleasant were the outhouses, where, when nature called, gigantic piles of frozen feces loomed just a few inches away from our bare bottoms. It was especially unpleasant to visit the outhouse in the middle of the night, so I resolved this problem by dehydrating myself in the latter part of the day. Unfortunately, at our final hut they served cider, my all-time favorite drink, which Mom and I smuggled back to our cabin, heated in mugs atop the woodstove, and enhanced with some Maker's Mark from my Nalgene flask. Needless to say, I regretted it at three o'clock in the morning.

Of course, no trip is perfect, and Mom and I did have some disagreements. One particularly contentious point was the heat of the cabin. With a woodstove, we had three choices: hot, extremely hot, or the same temperature as outside (which actually wasn't so bad – around 20 degrees, thanks to global warming). My preference was for extremely hot; Mom's preference was for the same temperature as outside. On the second night, we tried to resolve this issue by having me sleep next to the stove and Mom on the far side of the cabin. However, she still felt that I added too much wood to the fire, so the next night I put Mom in charge of keeping the fire alight. I woke up several times, and each time it was a bit cooler, but I kept telling myself, “Mom will get up soon and take care of it.” Mom, meanwhile, was lying in bed thinking “Thank God it's finally cooling off in here.” By the time I dragged myself out of bed, the fire was stone cold, and I spent the next hour making a new one (turns out my fire-making skills are subpar at 4 a.m.).

Mom has skied her whole life, and she is an excellent skier. She gets much more practice than I do, since it can be hard to find spots to ski in New York City. Much of the time she was ahead of me, especially since I kept getting distracted by animal prints left behind in the snow (gigantic holes left by moose, evenly spaced pawprints from foxes, hoppity prints from bunnies, and teeny-tiny tracks from partridges). Usually when I got ahead it was because we had trudged up a huge hill, and at the summit Mom had turned around, unable to resist the temptation of the incline, and shot down it with an accompanying cry of “Wheeeee!” At the bottom, of course, she had to turn around and trudge back up again.

However, as I discovered, she does have a couple of weak points. During the four days of skiing and over 30 miles we covered, she never once fell on a hill, even when there was a sharp turn at the bottom or a river that she risked falling into. She did fall, inexplicably, on a couple of perfectly flat spots; the first time it happened I came upon her, lying prone on the snow, where she had been for several minutes as she struggled to get up. You see, once she falls, she is like a beetle who gets turned onto its back: she is incapable of getting back up. Her limbs would flail around helplessly, sometimes getting a grip for a few minutes and straining upward, only to fall back again. I took a few photos and even a video of this fascinating phenomenon.

Thank goodness Mom didn't have the camera to take pictures of me falling!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Rebellion 2010

I'm heading off in two days on an epic adventure. If I survive the snow, cold, and four days with my daredevil mother, I'll tell you all about it when I come back.

Half of my family – my sister and father – are also leaving in two days, to go on their second annual cross-country ski trip in Baxter State Park in northern Maine. There, they will ski 14+ miles each day, traveling from one cabin to the next, transporting their supplies on their backs, wearing the same underwear day after day to avoid carrying extra weight. They will eat their lunches each day standing up, because where can you comfortably sit in February in Baxter State Park in three-plus feet of snow? In the evenings, when they arrive at their cabins, they will hasten to light a fire to warm up, then cook unappetizing camping meals like macaroni and cheese with beans and tofu mixed in, accompanied by bread baked in a plastic bag; for dessert they will consume brownies from a mix, burned on the bottom, raw on top. To train for the trip, they strapped on their skis and filled backpacks with rocks. Sounds like fun, right?

The other (better) half of the family, me and my mom, were not invited. We may not be as athletic or wilderness survival-savvy; we may not know how to work a camping stove or, in my case, own any pants that are not made of cotton, but no one can accuse us of being any less foolhardy. And so, we planned our own trip, which we call “Rebellion 2010.” Coincidentally, we will be traveling on the same days as the other trip – they go by the moniker “Camping Snobs 2010” – and we will also be in northern Maine, just a smidge southeast of Baxter (but no, we won't be carpooling with CS2010). We will travel from one Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) hut to the next, skiing between 9 and 11 miles per day.

A photo from CS '09: Dad takes a tumble

And there, the similarities end. Mom and I have not been training with rock-filled backpacks, because we will not be transporting our own gear; the AMC is kindly taking care of that for us. We will change our underwear at LEAST twice during the four days we will be away. We are not choosing which headlamps, skis and long underwear to bring, because we own one (or one pair) of each, unlike the participants of CS2010, who each own enough gear to outfit a small army of skiers. We are not spending our weekend weighing oatmeal and calculating how many calories we will need for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, because our minions will be cooking these meals for us. And the most important item to pack? Our bikinis, for the end-of-trip sauna. I'm hoping it will be reminiscent of Spa Castle. Who knows, maybe they'll throw in a pedicure, too.

As long as we don't die, I think Rebellion 2010 will be a lot of fun. Much more fun, of course, than Camping Snobs 2010. Unfortunately, neither my mom nor I knows how to work a compass, which we will need to do to find our way from one hut to the next. And, while my mom has been skiing quite a bit lately, the last time I went was two years ago; I went about two miles before I headed for home, with the strong conviction that I had worked enough to deserve a hot chocolate with a little special something mixed in. But I'm sure we'll figure it out, and I am definitely going to be earning enough hot chocolates to get me through the rest of winter, and maybe through 2011 as well.


Today, of course, is Valentine's Day, the traditional archnemesis of the newly single. As much as I hate to admit it, it has caused me to think a bit wistfully of La Moustache once or twice this week. Not that I'm sad that we broke up, just sad that I turned out to be so woefully wrong about his character (or lack thereof).

Three years ago today we celebrated our first Valentine's Day together. Moustache had had a visit from a French friend not long before who brought him a gift of a Raclette grill, and on V-day 2007 he started a tradition of having a Valentine's Raclette dinner. For those of you who have not had the pleasure of enjoying a Raclette dinner, the grill is an electrical appliance with what looks like four miniature frying pans that heat up when it is plugged in. To make the dinner, one places slices of Raclette cheese – a delicious cheese that uncannily smells exactly like the dirtiest, sweatiest feet you could possibly imagine – on these mini frying pans, where they melt. Then, one empties the melty contents of the pans onto boiled potatoes, broccoli and charcuterie, and finally one gobbles them up.

That first year, I was still in graduate school, and when I got out at 9 pm he was waiting for me outside the school, his arms overflowing with gifts and flowers. We headed to his studio apartment on 10th Avenue, where we consumed our dinner and gazed into each others' eyes, and despite how tired I was it was all very romantic.

On V-day 2008, we continued this tradition, and again had a very scrumptious dinner. It was my first year as a full-time teacher, and midway through dinner, abetted by the champagne we were drinking, I was hit by a wave of exhaustion. We headed to bed early, and as I lay curled up in bed beside him, I began to feel very strange. It wasn't exactly nausea or coldy-feeling; I had never felt quite like this before, and was unsure how to describe it. Nonetheless, I reported this strange feeling to La Moustache, and then asked, “Do you think I'm getting sick?” “Oh, no,” he responded, “You'll be fine. Just go to sleep.” Reassured, I put my arms around him and snuggled up against his back. Approximately ten seconds later was when the wave hit, completely out of the blue, like a tsunami. Before I had any time to react or turn aside, vomit was pouring out of my mouth, onto the bed, onto Moustache's pajamas. And this was not just any vomit, it was Raclette vomit, with the sweaty feet smell amplified and mixed with champagne.

And so ended our Raclette tradition. V-day 2009 found us in Mexico City, where we helped set the record for most couples kissing simultaneously (39,897 people, which begs the question – did someone double up??). At the time, I would never in a thousand years have guessed what the following year would bring.

This year, V-Day 2010, my date is my little Green Bean, who started off the day on a romantic note by regurgitating his breakfast for me. In the end, he has turned out to be a much better consort than La Moustache. In fact, here he comes now, flying across the room to land on my head with the same happy, excited look he gives me every single day. I'm sure he won't be my only companion for long, but in the meantime I am quite content with my little sidekick.

Plus, I got the single best Valentine's Day gift I have ever received this year from my *very* generous mother, a fuzzy, gorgeous Valentine's sweater. Thanks Mom!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

On Menstruation

A momentous event occurred yesterday in my classroom: one of my students became a woman. That's right, she got her first period!! (Those aren't sarcastic exclamation points, by the way – I was almost as excited as she was. Of course, she pretended she didn't care, but I saw right through her act.)

As soon as she disclosed this information, my students made one of the thousands of lightning-quick changes they undergo each day, and began treating me kindly and with respect rather than the utter contempt they bestow on me at other times, like for instance when I baked them chocolate chip cookies yesterday. Then they told me they'd like to ask me a few questions.

I accepted, but with the stipulation that we needed to check with Max, the lone boy, and make sure that it was a conversation that wouldn't make him uncomfortable. He said he was fine with it, but when the questions about tampons and PMS started pouring out, I realized that the co-ed talk was just not going to work out. We postponed the discussion and arranged for Max to spend some time with the fifth-grade class later in the day.

When it was just us girls, and after I was done going over the basics of the ovaries and the egg and all that, I opened the conversation up to questions and was immediately barraged: “What does a penis look like?” “Have you ever seen one?” “Are you a lesbian?” “What does it feel like to have sex?” "Does it always feel good to have sex?" "Why do girls bleed the first time they have sex?" This from girls who have spent entire days ignoring me! All of a sudden they couldn't tear their eyes away from me. I tried to answer honestly -- for instance, I told them that no, sex does not always feel good -- and get rid of some of the confusion that is so inherent to being a young adolescent, but also told them that discussing my own sexuality is absolutely not an option.

All of this brought back a lot of memories. When I look back on my school years from age 10 to 15, it seems like it was one sex ed class after another. (I just met up with a childhood friend who told me that she managed to get through public school in my town without EVER getting a sex ed class, so I'm not sure how I hit the sex ed jackpot.) I got it every year in school beginning in fifth grade; in high school, my biology teacher dressed up as a giant condom and organized races in which we practiced putting prophylactics on wooden penises (which in retrospect seems very weird – is this really a good activity to perform hurriedly?). My parents signed me up for an extracurricular sex ed class at the Unitarian Universalist church that a few of my friends were taking, called “About Your Sexuality.” Apparently, the Unitarians believe that there is no such thing as too much information, so they showed us films of everything you could imagine – lesbian sex, gay male sex, heterosexual sex, as well as both men and women masturbating. My two teachers were a couple, and the woman brought in her diaphragm to hand around. Of course, it got ripped up. Can you imagine letting pimply 12-year-old boys handle your diaphragm?!?

If nothing else, one strong message I got from this course is that sex ed should be taught in a gender segregated setting. And also there IS such a thing as TMI.

Despite the extremely comprehensive sex ed classes, I was plagued with confusion about my body and sexuality during those years. My mom bought a book for my older sister when she was going through this, called “The 'What's Happening to My Body?' Book for Girls,” and it was subsequently passed on to me. This book saved my life. I must have read it at least one hundred times. My friend Ms. B and I spent hours poring over it, comparing our (miniscule) breasts to charts that explained the phases breasts go through as they grow and arguing about which phase we were in (I think I'm still in phase 2, unfortunately). I'll never forget the first time we flipped to the boy section in the back and saw a drawing of an erect penis: “Is this a JOKE?” we shrieked. “There is NO WAY this really happens.” The book included a description of how, in 1950s gym classes, girls were instructed to do exercises to encourage breast growth, while chanting “We must! We must! We must increase our bust!” This was supposed to shock us, but instead my reaction was to begin practicing these same exercises daily, minus the chant. (Didn't work.)

My plan is to get my hands on a new edition of this book to bring in for the girls to look over. I think it will answer a lot of their questions better than I can, and I'm sure they will be as fascinated as I was by the drawings. In the meantime, they have had an interesting reaction to this news in addition to their sudden interest in sex education: they've begun bringing dolls in to school and pretending they are mothers, changing diapers, feeding the dolls, and putting them down for naps. My take on it is that it is a bit of a regression to their childhood, which is now nearly behind them, as well as an acknowledgment that they are now able to bear children, even if it will be years before this actually comes to pass. Knock on wood.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Curse of the Prurient Children

It started when I was student teaching in the 5th grade during a field trip to Gettysburg, PA. The bus ride was 4 hours each way, and my class started playing Truth or Dare while their teacher and I sat innocently up front, reading our books and chatting. When we arrived in Gettysburg, a couple of kids told me that a particularly charismatic child who many of the girls had crushes on (I would have had a crush on him too if I had been in the 5th grade) had pulled down his pants and shown them his boxer shorts. I think he may have also put a few choice items down his pants, though the details are fuzzy now in my memory. I do remember being utterly shocked, which I would not now be. I didn't have the heart to tell their teacher the whole story, though I did report that the kids had been playing Truth or Dare.

When I taught 2nd grade at a private school the following year, the hanky-panky was of the lesbian variety. Girls would sneak off and kiss during roof time, our version of recess. They wrote romantic notes to each other, and told each other that they hoped to one day get married (if that were to one day be possible in New York State, which I sincerely hope comes to pass, even if I wasn't wild about the idea of my 2nd graders marrying each other).

Last year, teaching 1st grade at the School from Hell, I had a little boy in my class who, two weeks into the school year, wrote a note with a girl that read, “We want to have sex in the bed.” Again I was shocked, as much by the content as by the quality of the writing, which was far more impressive than anything else the two had ever written. I met with his mom to discuss the issue, and spoke many, many times to the guidance counselor and principal, who offered me many promises and no follow-through. The issue escalated, and he continued to behave in sexual ways and use sexual language with girls in the class. Eventually, this was how I lost my job and became, in essence, blacklisted by the New York City school department. (None of this is in writing; I should be able to teach in schools in the city, but when they try to hire me a Mysterious Evil Lawyer calls and forbids them to. The last time this happened the principal who wanted to hire me ended up in tears.) Essentially, the school wanted to push the problem under the rug, I refused to let that happen by reporting incidents over and over again until they were addressed, and in return for my concern I have been exiled.

Last weekend, my 6th graders had a fundraiser at their school to raise money for a trip they will take in the spring to the very land from which I have been exiled. They weren't interested in watching the movie they were showing, so they snuck off and, once again, began playing Truth or Dare, and Caitlin kissed Max. It was a peck, but it was on the lips, and I don't think Max had much say in the matter. He would never say so, but Caitlin essentially forced herself on him. I was glad that it occurred when the children were under their parents' supervision and not mine, but was still unhappy to be dealing with this issue again. I don't think any of the girls are seriously romantically interested in Max, but they certainly revel in having a male in their midst. When they sit on the couch, two girls sandwich him, and I constantly have to admonish them to keep their hands off him. He's basically their boy toy. We finally resolved this issue when Max and I had a serious talk about it, and decided that he would no longer join the girls on the couch. Now, he sits off to the side in a chair, pulled back a few feet as though he's afraid that if he gets any closer he'll get sucked onto the couch beside them and be manhandled again.

I am left wondering why this keeps happening to me. I'm certain that Godzilla, my principal at the School from Hell, would say that I am somehow encouraging this behavior, but I'm fairly sure that this is not the case. One thing I noticed when I began telling people of my saga of last year is that many, many teachers had experienced similar situations (not the lack of support and the blame, but the sexual behavior). In fact, a principal who I met up with several times to discuss my situation told me, “It happens more than you think. It really happens ALL THE TIME. The best thing you can do is report it right away and tell the parents immediately.” (This did not happen in my case. The parents were informed three weeks after the fact, even though I reported the incident in question within 20 minutes.)

I think I may have had a bit more exposure to this kind of problem than other teachers, but I also think that it is a simple fact of life that children are curious about sex. And, they have way more exposure to it than they should; a shockingly high percentage of children are sexually abused, and others see a lot that they shouldn't see. Pretending this is not the case is extremely unhelpful, and even dangerous to the health and well-being of children.

Speaking of exposure to sex, here's one of my students' favorite videos, Lil Miss Swaggar by Cymphonique, featuring kids who are about their age and even look a lot like my students. Just look at the way they move – they look like they're 30, not 13. Why would anyone think that is a good thing?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Smooth(er) Sailing

Early last week I thought it would never happen, but a miracle has in fact occurred: things are going MUCH better in the 6th grade. It's been two days now, so it's not just a fluke. Every instruction is no longer a battle, and the constant disrespectful comments have given way to occasional disrespectful comments. It's hardly perfect – the lone boy is still being tortured on a regular basis, and today on the playground the kids accused me of “watching them like a hawk” (this because I wouldn't let them out of my sight so they could pretend to kiss each other). Still, it is different enough that it feels like another classroom, and one that is much more pleasant to be in.

Which is nice, because it means I can let up on the whup ass and actually enjoy the positive aspects of 6th grade. And there are many, even apart from the appreciative feeling I get every day that I am not eleven years old. This morning during morning meeting, a spontaneous conversation arose about race, skin color and ancestry. The kids talked very eloquently about why they look the way they do. Example: Caitlin said, “I'm really dark-skinned because I'm from Haiti. Haiti was the first place to have a slave rebellion, so there weren't a lot of Europeans there after that.” Other kids talked about how black people can have all different kinds of ancestry, like Indian, European and Native American. 6th graders are also (slightly) less self-centered than younger kids, and toward the end of the discussion they said, “How about you, Heathen? Where is your family from?” Such politesse!

Monday is the teacher's day to be the DJ, and so with great trepidation I hooked up my ipod during snack. Last week, I played some MC Solaar (you can't go wrong with French rap, right?), to no comment. Later, I put on the White Stripes. “Is this, like, rock music or something?” asked Caitlin. “It's a band called the White Stripes,” I replied, feeling hopelessly old. “I'm going to PRETEND like I know what the hell you're talking about,” she answered.

Today the kids groaned when I reminded them that it was my day, and begged me not to play the same music as last week. So I ran a few ideas by them, and hit the jackpot with Justin Timberlake. Yes, they got tired of it quickly and made me turn it off, but still, I had at least one album out of the 6,000 songs on my ipod that they didn't hate. Score!

On Friday, I gave them a choice of four of my favorite young adult chapter books to read: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Bridge to Terabithia, Julie of the Wolves, and Tuck Everlasting. I have found that voting works well with 6th graders – it gives them some of the independence they're so desperate for – so I asked them to vote. The unanimous response: “I don't have a preference because I don't want to read any of them.” So I picked Bridge to Terabithia, and finished my pre-reading today during lunch with tears streaming down my face. Luckily none of them noticed. I'll be amazed if they manage to get through this book without getting hooked.

Two other victories occurred in the past couple of days. The class is riveted by a read-aloud I chose about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, despite their refusal to learn about their assigned 6th grade social studies theme of labor (this has been a huge source of tension, since Mr. Burnout promised they didn't have to study it anymore and I reversed this decision; we eventually reached a compromise that involved doing a few labor-related activities, including the read-aloud). Frankly, I'm riveted too, and I highly recommend it: Uprising by Margaret Peterson Haddix.

Second, I brought in some supplemental math materials because I was bored to tears by the math packet Mr. Burnout left, and they liked it so much that – get ready – two kids chose to work on it during recess. One of the two is a child who particularly struggles with math, and has the reputation of being the root of the problems in this dysfunctional group (I'm still trying to decide for myself if that is the case). I was so impressed that I wanted to tell their parents how proud I was of them, but I wasn't sure if that works for 6th graders like it does for the wee ones, so I asked. “Sure, that would be okay,” they replied nonchalantly.

Awww. They pretend otherwise, but they're really still babies at heart.