I teach humanities at a classical Christian school in Mississippi.
Though there are black students there, I am the only black teacher, and my class is full of bright, exuberant, and precocious white kids.
I teach them for three hours twice a week using a combination of print and online resources, primary and secondary sources, and entertaining YouTube videos. My powerpoints are epic, we read aloud together, and we have Socratic seminars and dialogues about everything from the NFL protests to gun laws and the Las Vegas shooter.
We are studying a lot of the historical moments that have that shaped the very battlegrounds we are fighting on today, particularly about prejudice and the American experience (currently camped out in the Ellis Island, the Civil War, and Reconstruction).
In a lot of ways, teaching the ninth graders reminds me of trying to have a conversation with a fellow believer about the racial climate of our country.
Today, I said, “Guys. This classroom is out of control, and we’re only thirty minutes into class.”
Inevitably, a student quipped, “Thirty-one minutes.”
I am often having my lesson plans corrected, my lectures scrutinized, and my opinions met with a chorus of “well actually…”
We’re supposed to grow out of that impulse to nitpick and into the habit of patiently listening and then critiquing well-formed thoughts. Part of what I’m teaching my students is to put their opponents’ arguments in the most compassionate terms possible… not to rip their opponent to shreds over a single ambiguous phrase.
A lot of us haven’t outgrown it.
They Gang Up
Tribalism is the backbone of a ninth-grade student.
I’ll hearken back to my own ninth grade experience (albeit at a homeschool co-op): cliques reigned.
Think Mean Girls, but with overalls and retainers.
You are nobody unless you have a tribe of sycophants backing your every observation. You do whatever you have to do to keep that tribe happy, even if it means snubbing the girl who you’d secretly love to be friends with, and ragging on her Sailor Moon backpack when you think it’s cool.
Put in adult terms: snubbing the author you secretly agree with about the issue and ragging on her logic because she used terminology that triggers your tribe.
They Want All The Answers
I tell them we have a quiz and they interrogate me.
Like the rest of us, they want easy answers. Input: exact right information. Output: the perfect score.
Aren’t we the same?
Give me the buzzwords to look for, so that I can immediately shut down when I see them. Give me the categories so that I can quickly shove people into boxes when they get complicated.
We’ve talked about labels before, and they’re our handy-dandy go-to when people start saying things we don’t like. From “check your privilege” to “check your cultural Marxism,” we’ve ceased defining terms and just turned them into axes to grind.
But I’ve got to admit: I have more patience with the ninth graders. Partly because I just love my job and adore these kids. But those aren’t the only reasons it’s become increasingly difficult to talk about hot-button issues outside of my classroom. The ninth graders have some things going for them that adults don’t.
Check Your Hubris
Here’s the thing about ninth graders: their hubris can’t go unchecked.
Every day of their lives, people knock them on the head for that pride. Their parents are still discipling them, their teachers are grading them, and their peers are continually mocking them.
The result is a fantastic ability to have a conversation with all of the bluster and confidence of a well-assured adult while still maintaining the learning posture of someone who relies on me for their grade.
Adults? A lot of us are full of ourselves, but also fooled by the notion that we’ve outgrown our pride and bias. (We. Some of you guys. But also me.)
Seriously. That’s why we’re all together: to learn. Not to win debates or smack members of their tribe on the butt for schooling the enemy.
In history class, we are learning about how this country was founded. We are learning about the formation of so many of the ideologies that have shaped us, and how we’re doing it, not to win arguments or out-talk political pundits, but for the formation of our minds and souls, to God’s glory.
There is something beautifully pure about a high school civics lesson.
Unlike a conversation with many adults, where historical facts become biased weapons of mass destruction and not tools learning and growing.
In ninth grade, kids haven’t lost that edge of intellectual honesty.
It’s fading, but it’s still there.
They are sitting in my class with every little agenda besides passing the next test, so they’ve got nothing to lose by calling it as they see it. Instead of calling it how their political affiliation requires them to see it.
They’ve got no problem simultaneously saying, “Imperialism brought a lot of advantages to the western world!” and “Westerners could be just as barbaric as the ‘savages’ they claimed to want to help.”
My classroom is a safe space (trigger phrase) from liberal snowflakes. And conservatives snowflakes.
Yes. Conservative snowflakes are a thing.
These kids don’t give two flips about who they offend. They’re not ugly, but they are honest.
I am learning a lot from these ninth graders. And burrowing further into the ease of refereeing their lively conversations, and further away from the high-schoolish antics of the adults in this dialogue.
But I’m still here. Because like everyone this article is frustrated with, I’ve always got a lot to learn about loving and challenging and learning from my brothers and sisters in Christ well.