I’ve been journaling every day since I was 14. Yes, as in it’s still happening. It started off as writing in composition notebooks my freshman year of high school and, when I went to college and got my own computer, I switched to typing the entries instead. (If I ever die unexpectedly, someone please take my laptop out back and smash it with a hammer. No one needs to read that stuff. Ever.) When I go on vacation, I take a notebook and journal by hand. I’ve been doing it so long that I can’t imagine it not being part of my daily routine and, consequently, I have over a decade of my life chronicled in ridiculously boring detail.
I mostly use it as a way to de-stress, remember things, and work through my thoughts by organizing them on paper (or computer screen, now) but occasionally I go back and re-read entries, and it can be equal parts fascinating/amusing/cringe-inducing. A while ago, my parents asked me to clean out my childhood bedroom and I found my high school diaries nestled in my closet. I brought them back to North Carolina and now, as I’m cleaning out my own apartment to move, I took a break to sit down and flip through them for the first time since, well, probably since I wrote them. The results were mostly of the cringe-inducing sort.
However, since I’m now on the other side of the fence and spend my days working with high school students, it’s thrown a whole new perspective on the things I wrote when I was their age. I’m lucky to work in a supportive environment with mostly polite, well-behaved students, but I still have days when I become extremely frustrated because… teenagers are teenagers. (Seems obvious, right?) I have to remind myself that they’re going through mood swings and dealing with weird hormones and feeling emotions that they probably have no idea how to deal with, and that they have entire lives outside of classes that are occupying their thoughts.
And since starting this job, sometimes I have thought back to when I was their age. I was a pretty good student but lacked motivation on and off, and slept a lot in class (something that would drive me INSANE now if my students did that). I spent more time freewriting/doodling in notebooks than paying attention or taking notes. I had a smart mouth and even smarter pen, and a lot of my homework assignments (which I also found when going through the stuff in my childhood bedroom) smacked of barely-concealed snark.
But re-reading my high school diaries has reminded me of the little things I’ve forgotten. I wrote about school occasionally (I came across a happy entry about how my freshman English teacher pulled me aside to talk about/compliment my writing), but I mostly wrote about cute boys and various insecurities. Seriously. That’s what my teenaged brain was thinking about. That’s the kind of thing I tend to forget about my students. That they’re all dealing with a LOT of insecurity and uncertainty, and social worlds where nothing stays the same as everyone matures and changes at a rapid-fire pace and attractions blossom and wither along with it. And, of course, that their English homework isn’t always of paramount importance in their list of daily concerns.
Something else I also have to remind myself of on a fairly regular basis is that there are certain things they are incapable of truly understanding, simply because they don’t have the experience and perspective to, and that it’s not their fault. You can talk until you’re blue in the face about how their grades and attitude are going to affect their future, but it’s probably not going to sink in. You can teach children to say please and thank you, but if you try to tell them how grateful they should be to their parents, they’re going to shrug it off; to them, raising them is just what their parents do, and they can’t conceptualize the sheer amount of time, money, energy, and love that goes into it. (Or that their parents used to have a much different life before they came along.) I came across one diary entry, written right after my 16th birthday and with a shiny new driver’s license in my wallet, where I was really angry at my parents for putting restrictions on where/when/with whom I could drive. Now I can see that of COURSE it would have been irresponsible of them to hand over the keys and tell me to go wild, but in August of 2001, I thought they were being stupid and mean. I see this over and over with my students. Complaining about “stupid” rules (particularly when they get caught breaking them), not realizing that they have to earn certain privileges by proving that they’re mature enough to handle them, not being able to see the big picture. It’s a side effect of only having lived sixteen years; there’s no remedy, and forcing one on them isn’t going to work.
But probably my favorite entry from my high school diaries has to be from April 15th, 2002, in which I wrote a poem detailing very, very explicitly what I thought of algebra, and the fact that I had to do math homework on a beautiful spring day. I can’t print the entire thing because it contains language that I can’t condone for minors (ahem), but I included a rhyming couplet about the sun taunting me through the open window “so close but as unreachable as Narnia” and a graphic description about how I’d “rather have my spleen ripped out with a rusty fishing hook” than do the homework.
Now THAT’S poetry. Metaphor! Sensory detail! Quick, someone call Billy Collins and tell him there’s a new kid in town!
And if you’ll excuse me, I have some apology letters to write to my former teachers.