Not that the classroom failed to provide valuable lessons, but it was my extracurricular work that showed me the most about teenagers.
And about myself.
One teacher’s bad apple was another’s blue ribbon.
Not only did I direct plays, I had to get sets built and lights hung in the Commons because we had no theater.
Instincts told me which boys could be my assets: boys who were handy and spirited, however risky. Over six years, they were known as The Fly-By-Night Construction Company. They knew how to measure wood, swing a hammer, and wield a paintbrush. They fearlessly climbed into the rafters to hang lights. (Every now and then a girl helped, too, but those were different times, remember.)
Because modular scheduling provided free time each day, they worked between classes. Sometimes after evening rehearsals, they worked until midnight. A colleague once asked, “Aren’t you afraid to be alone in the building with those boys?” That’s how mislabeled they were. When I said they were often the highlight of my day, she was speechless.
With no basement or warehouse, our platforms were stored at the lagoon, a fenced drainage area that housed goats to control the grass and weeds. Our stuff was stacked in the goats’ shelter. In order to get what we needed, a few of the boys and I created a distraction at the far end of the pen by rattling soda cans filled with rocks. Goats came running. That commotion, accentuated by our jumping and yelling, gave the others enough time to jump the fence, grab the platforms, lift them over the fence, and stack them in the back of the maintenance truck.
This battered pick-up, a standard and not an automatic, had erratic brakes, at best. It was every boy’s ultimate driving adventure on those campus gravel roads.
Because I gave the boys free reign, there were surprises.
At morning announcements, we were once asked if anyone had seen the missing ropes used as boundaries around the football field. Across the room from me, the crew caught my eye and surreptitiously pointed up. There they were–holding our theater lights in place. Because some of them were football players, they saw it as friendly borrowing. When the play was over, the ropes mysteriously reappeared around the field.
Another time when we ended up with a blank space on our set, two boys had an idea. They approached a local greenhouse about loaning us potted shrubs. The owner agreed but insisted they needed regular sunshine. Because that was impossible in the Commons, the boys had been faithfully carrying the plants outdoors after school, watering them, and loading them into the pick-up. I had no idea about this until I spotted them joyriding the plants in the Oklahoma sun. All smiles, they honked and waved as they passed me. These devoted boys had once been accused of stealing from the theater treasury.
Sometimes schools get it wrong.
One afternoon I was desperate to get lumber delivered for scheduled crew work. The pick-up was out of commission. I searched the Commons for help, and a boy stepped forward. Not any boy either. He’d been labeled the meanest boy any faculty member could remember.
I took a chance.
An unrealized gentleman, he raced around opening doors for me, and when we arrived at the lumberyard, he insisted on taking the receipt and overseeing the loading into his mother’s station wagon. On our return, he stopped at a convenience store, emerging with an Icee for each of us. “It’s really hot out here, Ms. Clark. This might help.” He refused my money.
Teenagers make all kinds of mistakes. But a golden heart defies negative labels. He needed someone to look past the tarnish because he was desperate to shine.
By this point I understood how easy high school had been for me the first time through. No one had ever labeled me as a throwaway. This time, however, in my second high school experience, I was deemed a problem child.
I felt the sting of not being appreciated.
I vowed to see the kids. And to hear them.
That’s how I discovered the humiliation girls felt in their uniforms: box-pleated plaid skirt and middy. Boys wore regulated clothes from their own closets; girls wore turn-of-the-century outfits that had to be ordered. In public they received stares, jeers, laughter in get-ups making them look like identical dolls.
It’s a complicated story, but I backed their decision to seek a uniform change. They were supported by boys, as well. Suffice it to say, all kinds of roadblocks were set in motion. They pushed through. A student opposition was instituted. I eavesdropped during play rehearsal while one side debated the other. In a forum with parent representatives, I explained that if we were genuinely supporting equality for male and female students, and if we felt the girl’s uniform was appropriate, we should institute a similar code for boys: plaid knickers and middy.
Resistance began crumbling.
The day I wore a girl’s uniform to school, the tide turned. I looked ridiculous.
For two years, the students battled against a 50-year tradition. One group of senior leaders passed the torch to the next.
Until they won.
More than achieving some semblance of clothing equality, I wanted them to learn their power. I wanted them to know city hall could be defeated.
After I invited my former students to catalog what had mattered about their time at the school, I didn’t know I’d be changed. All over again. By them.
That shouldn’t have surprised me.
They were always my saving grace.
In meaningful, disparate ways, it turns out I was theirs, too.