The Pickle Tree: True Tales Teaching High School
Teenagers are unpredictable humans ... one moment they are rational and logical, and the next moment those raging hormones are wreaking havoc and making them blurt out the most idiotic statements known to humankind. Even in their more lucid moments, teenage students become emotional and complicated. And the only way to survive such nonsense is with a great sense of humor.
I recently met an ex-student who was traveling through Texas and wanted to reminisce about his days in high school. Rick is now working in Germany and brought his lovely girlfriend with him to reminisce about his years in my class. As the only German teacher at my high school, I don’t get students for one single year, but rather for successive years, sometimes all four years of their schooling. That not only gives me some unique perspectives on students, but allows me to make some connections that last a very long time. Over a nice dinner and drinks, Rick told a story I had long forgotten, but one that he remembered as being quintessentially me!
Rick had gotten into an argument with a friend of his between classes. As the new teacher, I had to switch classrooms each period and was rarely in the classroom during the passing periods. His friend C.J. walked into class eating a large pickle and told Rick that he wished he had a pickle tree so that he could eat pickles all day long. Rick tried to explain that pickles were cucumbers but was quickly interrupted with, "Gross, I hate cucumbers!" As Rick tried once again to explain, much slower this time, that pickles were, in fact, cucumbers, I entered the room. C.J. called me over and asked if I had a pickle tree. Blinking repeatedly at C.J. with a blank stare on my face, Rick proceeded to explain the entire situation to me. By this time the tardy bell rang and I was ready to start class, but C.J. and Rick were not going down without a fight. They had to win this argument. After a good five minute explanation on both their parts, with me struggling to care, I blurted out, "No Rick, C.J.s right." I walked to the front of the room and started my lesson, forgetting about the incident until Rick brought it up over dinner, some seventeen years later.
"Aside from everything else, these are school stories. In a middle-of-the-road English education, the teachers are embattled, the school is a very kind of anarchic place and a very funny place, as well. Where two sets of people, one of which is becoming adults and one of which is trying to avoid going back to becoming children, clash." ~ Mike Newell
Having a dry wit and a sense of humor goes a long way in dealing with teenagers. But some students are just as witty and quick as the teachers, which makes our jobs that much more fun. Only a small percentage of students ever take the higher level of language classes offered at my high school, but one student advanced all the way to level 5. Because he was the only level 5 student, he took the class during a German 2 class. He often worked with the other students, being a mentor and tutoring his peers while practicing his German. I once confronted him about his lackadaisical attitude during his senior year so I yelled at him for not keeping a notebook and being completely disorganized. "Jason, where is your verb sheet. It’s no wonder you can’t conjugate that verb if you don’t have your sheet and don’t practice." He countered with, "I have my verb sheet. In fact, I have ALL my papers." As he never came to class with anything but a pencil, shoes, socks, a shirt and his cargo shorts, I got a little irritated. I shot back, "Please! I’ll bet you don’t have that sheet." He had his legs on top of his desk, whereby he reached down to his large cargo shorts pocket and proceeded to pull out a four inch thick stack of precisely folded papers. The entire stack was folded in four equal sections and after only flipping through three papers, he found his verb sheet. "Told ya," he proudly stated with a wry smile on his lips. I learned a good lesson that day! A few days later, he had to write and present a dialogue over some long-forgotten topic. Having no partner, and being the awesome student he was, he grabbed some puppets and proceeded to act out both parts with these puppets. His voice and tone changed for each character, and he completely sold that dialogue. The rest of the class was completely enthralled, hanging on every word. If you have never seen a 17 year old making up a story in a foreign language using two puppets... well, let’s just say I’ll remember that for a very long time.
Teaching in a rural setting has it’s own set of rules, and a little understanding and tolerance goes a long way, especially when Bubba shows up during dove season with a shotgun in the back of his truck. Big city police generally have some issues with that.... Being in a rural district, the high school I taught at had an open campus, so students could leave school for lunch or if they had an appointment, or if they just lied and snuck out. There was no paperwork or problems; if a child failed a class due to absences, it was his fault and no administrator was going to have a six hour intervention about how to get this child to graduate. As our school is directly downtown on the main street, students would drive off between classes for a quick drink, coming back tardy. Smarter students, however, went first to class and then simply asked to go to the bathroom. Ten minutes later the student would reappear with a Dr. Pepper in one hand and a bag of greasy doughnuts or tacos in the other. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that the students were cheating the system. On one such occasion, a student asked me if he could go to the bathroom and I responded, "Yes John, and I’d like two bacon, egg and cheese tacos with a coffee, please." I don’t think I ever got those tacos.
"To be good is noble, but to teach others how to be good is nobler - and less trouble." ~ Mark Twain
Two other fantastic students include two females who took my German 1 class just for fun. The previous year I taught them history, and as seniors they filled their schedule with an extra credit, so they decided to put up with my shenanigans another year. As seniors in a German 1 class, they added maturity and wisdom to a generally hectic freshman class, which was greatly appreciated. One day, Kristi asked to go to the bathroom. At the time, my room was directly adjacent the bathroom, so I knew she would return quickly. (No leaving for tacos this time; I’d gotten a handle on that)! Suddenly, the class jumped as we heard a large bang emanating from the bathroom. I told her friend, Carly, to run on out and see if everything was alright. About one minute later, the two girls were at my classroom door, with very serious looks on their faces, holding the door to a bathroom stall. I looked at her quizzically and Kristi blurted out, "I was about to sit down, and the door just fell in on me!" Concerned for her safety, I asked, "Are you alright?" She quietly responded, "Yeah," and then very enthusiastically asked, "Hey, can we keep the door?"
High school is plenty of things; some positive, some negative. Teenagers try to run the place, and for the most part, they succeed. But with a little sense of humor, school can be a great place to work, sometimes....