Larry Efird: The riddle of teaching teachers

Published 12:10 am Sunday, May 15, 2016

Working with teenagers is oftentimes like living in a conundrum. I love working with teenagers, but they can drive me crazy. I love being around their high energy levels and enthusiasm, but every week I invariably get my “Friday afternoon headache,” as I begin to de-program from yet another action-packed week filled with a full load of classes and after school activities.

On a random day, I could possibly hit my stride by the middle of the morning, relishing in all the good “stuff” I’m able to share with my students, only to be challenged by someone who feels she owes it to me to be the class conscience and tell me that she doesn’t really understand what I’m talking about or see the point, exactly.

An example of this was the week I taught my Creative Writing class about how valuable art is to writing. We studied several famous works of art, and I had them write about the pictures in great detail, describing the paintings to someone who had, hypothetically, never seen them before. I even shared stories with them from writers such as Flannery O’Connor, and how she knew people who were writers who signed up for art lessons, “not to become better artists, but to become better writers.”

Thinking I had made a profound contribution to these young writers’ aspirations, a sophomore raised her hand and pointedly asked, “What does art have to do with writing, anyway?” That’s really a great question, and I’m glad she asked it, but it was Thursday, and we had been answering that question for three days before she finally decided to pay attention. It was one of those teacher moments when I felt rather alone and obsolete. The fact that I suddenly realized I was 40 years older than all of them didn’t help anything either.

That same week, a student from another class, who ran into me during my lunch duty, made a point to tell me how much he liked being in my class. Trying to muster up an appropriate compliment, which I did not suspect to be mere flattery, he energetically proclaimed, “Mr. Efird, I wish I could zap you so you would be 15 years younger!”

Thus, the conundrum of teaching teenagers. They wear me out and they wear me down, but they also make me feel younger. Recently, I witnessed our girls’ softball team come from behind to win 2-1 in an extra inning to remain undefeated in conference play. High school sporting events always make me revert to being a teenager internally, because the adrenalin rush of competitive sports never grows old. Two days later, I attended the school musical, “Hairspray,” to be captivated by dozens of students who danced and sang as if they were serving Broadway notice and proclaiming to the world, “Here we come!”

These are the things that make being a high school teacher fun. Having to make a phone call to a parent of an unruly child is not so fun, but realizing that child is in not in sync with all the others who have found their niche in high school simply makes me earn my paycheck. (Those students also keep me humble.) I have found that helping teenagers to find that niche is worth getting out of bed every morning and heading off for another day of unpredictable adventure. It can be somewhat intimidating, but never boring.

Teaching teenagers may be hazardous to a teacher’s health, but it is also hopeful for a teacher’s soul. So what if I can’t sprint up three flights of stairs as fast as I used to, and if I have to be more careful when I’m going down? And maybe I wouldn’t really mind if someone would zap me to be 15 years younger, but the truth is, the teenagers I teach have already zapped me by their passion for life. Teaching high school may not have the same effect as drinking from the fountain of youth, but it has helped me not to give up on the world, because there’s a whole new generation of kids ready to announce, “Here we come!” As a teacher I want to help them arrive, not stand in their way.

Larry Efird teaches at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis.