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Thinking Pink

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awardFor most of my life, I have been trying to figure out how to do something. Prepare three simultaneous dishes for one meal without any of them becoming cold before they’re brought to the table. Plant enough flowers in a container to spill over lavishly, but not so many that they become root-bound and leggy. I’m always collecting tips, making mental notes so that the next time, I won’t have to struggle through it.

This especially applies at work, wherever that may currently be, where I am always asking: What’s the system? How does it work? In what way can it be improved, streamlined, trimmed to maximum efficiency? Will I be able to use this later in life, or in the words of my high school juniors, “Will this be on the test?”

At the ripe old age of twenty-five, I have held a wide variety of jobs: receptionist, piano teacher, personal tutor, babysitter (“childcare provider” on my resume), intern architect, clothing salesperson, antiques store manager, high school teacher, and (dearest to my heart) freelance writer.

The last of these is most troubling in its elusiveness of a “system,” a way to get the job done with as little trouble as possible. Besides it, teaching high school has been the hardest, but after a year I have gotten the hang of that, I think. You start out with compassion, sensitivity. You learn, gradually, painfully, that students do not return these feelings. Some do; some scribble down your every word and then hang back after class to ask you more about the scintillating topic of discussion in your lecture that day. But others, most cut class, plagiarize, neglect homework, mouth off, text message each other from tiny phones hidden in a purse that sits innocently on a lap or even the floor. I’ve watched this: they can carry on a conversation with only a surreptitious glance every so often to read the response —they can type their half of the dialogue without even looking, with one thumb, eyes resting diligently on their class notes. Teachers aren’t as oblivious as every student has believed at least once. They just don’t want to deal with the behavior, so they ignore it and hope maturity will come about on its own.

Students will cheat —they will copy each other’s papers without a care in the world, and then break down in tears in your office and tell you they just have too much work, they can’t handle it, and while you expected to feel smug at this moment, you just want to cry with them, because you know what that’s like, too, and life does suck sometimes, and being right isn’t always fun.

But teaching is very easy to get the hang of. It’s writing that can’t be pinned down, won’t be planned, resists and defies any system of classification. You can try to squeeze it out, but it drags its feet, unwilling to be convinced. You are stuck —stuck without a clue, until inspiration rears its beautiful head, and then all your trouble is forgotten.

What inspires it? This morning, it’s pink —deep pink cocktail napkins, left over from a party at my house. It’s ninety degrees and humid, but at this small Catholic school there is no air conditioning, and we are sweating together, melting out of our summer clothes. I brought in frozen lemonade popsicles, hoping it might cool us down a few degrees, and since we aren’t really supposed to have food in the classroom, I brought napkins to catch drips and look pretty on the desk next to the dreaded exam. There were four colors of leftover napkins at my house this morning, but without hesitation I chose pink: these girls personify pink, they are pink, and I’ve just now realized it.

Pink, because they wear it: hair ribbons, purses, fingernails (their only chance at daily self-expression in a school with a strict uniform) are dyed and lacquered in every shade from pale blush to bright fuchsia. But today, the last day of school, they are dressed down because of the heat, and many also have pink shirts, pink camisoles, pink flip-flops, even a pink flowered bikini top peeking out from behind a low-cut shirt. They are drunk with the anticipation of beaches and boys, lucrative snowball-stand jobs, late nights without homework.

But the outward trimmings also reflect their innermost thoughts, which are pink as well: sweet thoughts of marriage (ninety percent tell me, even in this liberated age, that their main objective at college is to find a husband) and babies and changing the world. A tall, leggy brunette announces her desire to be a plastic surgeon, not to provide breast implants to the image-conscious nouveau riches, but to help babies born with deformities to look normal. A girl who was just diagnosed learning-disabled, who has probably turned in less than half of the year’s homework assignments and is lucky to scrape by with a D, is bent on becoming a film producer. Naturally, she already has tons of ideas for revolutionizing the art. There are lots of future nurses and even more future moms. And they are beautiful —with only 8 years between us, it’s hard not to be jealous of them at times, with their slim lines and bodies tanned from the tanning beds, hair coiffed perfectly each morning, lovely even when thrown into a disheveled knot at the top of the head.

They wear sunglasses indoors – they exude a cool that is only ruptured for a moment when I tell them to remove the fashion accessories during prayer, please. They roll their eyes mercilessly, tauntingly, daring me to let it slide. I know this conundrum well, and the only way to wriggle free is to call it out, reprimand them for disrespect when they expect you to swallow it. You can’t lose your cool, either; they are a tricky bunch. But overall they remain pink, happy, joking about cutting and anorexia and internet stalkers and other decidedly unfunny subjects that affect their age group, joking because their world of ribbons and mall dates is light-years away from that kind of pain and self-loathing.

Teaching them, teaching anyone, is infinitely simple and infinitely complex. The act of instruction —a lecture, a handout, an activity— requires the internalization of limitless variables: whose grandmother has just died, whose sister is away at college, whose friends have turned on her this morning, leaving red circles around her eyes and a watery determination to her jaw line. There are so many little rules: don’t hand back any assignment before the last minute of class, unless you are willing to go over every hair of a point with every frustrated and proud and disappointed girl who sees red pen marks as a personal insult. Don’t assign homework on a dance weekend: no one will remember to do it. Don’t mention your preference in film or music unless you want to elicit muffled laughter (uncool) or shocked stares (cool, but way out of their box.)

So many rules, so many things to remember. I want to treat them like adults, but they continually act like children. I think regulating bathroom usage is demeaning and a waste of everyone’s time, so I just let them go – and I hear at the end of the year that I’ve been branded the teacher who won’t notice if two or three girls escape the classroom separately to meet and hold hushed, urgent conversations in the handicapped stall. I write that down. “Bathroom sign-out sheet next year.” Will that be on the test?

And through all of this mess – faculty meetings that drag on and on through points completely irrelevant to me, copy machines that malfunction only when I have a test to run off, decisions about whether or not to report instances of Pop-Tarts and chocolate milk and extra illicit earrings in the classroom —I’m supposed to get through to them, to teach them to be honest Christian citizens as well as scholarly pupils, to show them why memorizing solely for the exam is a bad thing, to teach them how to distinguish between isosceles and equilateral, to tell a dangling participle from a misplaced modifier, to turn a list of unknown vocabulary words into a list of “no’s” and “possiblies.” And more importantly, to teach them to believe in themselves, to show them they can do it —they can face the test without freaking out, they can answer the questions they know and make educated guesses about the ones they don’t, they are smart and beautiful, and their pink flip-flops sparkle in the morning sun, and summer is going to be awesome.

Photo: Cherry Blossoms - Washington, D.C., April, 2005

Copyright © 2009 Emily Jorjorian Lowe. All rights reserved.

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