Volume 25 · Number 3 · Spring 2008
Hard Lessons of High School
Understanding the social scene can be important for teachers, too.
The internships many college students hold often involve filing papers or playing gofer for a busy professional, but to graduate from UC Davis with a minor in education, I was required to intern for 30 hours at a local school. With visions of cute kindergarteners and reminiscences of recess in mind, I approached my internship with enthusiasm.
But I was not placed in a classroom of smiling, grateful-for-my-presence children. To be sure, my position was challenging, interactive and even fun — but it was with high school students. That’s right — teenagers.
I was placed in a remedial math classroom for ninth- and tenth-graders, some of whom were taking the class for the second, third and fourth times. Though every one of the students was capable of passing basic math, many of them let other aspects of their lives — namely the social aspects — get in the way. The most noticeable of the bunch were the so-called popular girls, a cohort of 14-year-olds (I’ll call them Melissa, Caitlin and Amanda — of course, these are not their real names) who were very pretty and also very aware they were pretty. They were the girls many women longed to be during their high school days, and who some were.
Melissa was the Queen Bee, always chatting away, always fashionably dressed, always ready to turn her back on a friend. Caitlin and Melissa were best friends, but because Caitlin was the quietest, she was often relegated to Melissa’s shadow. Amanda, the tallest, longed to be better friends with Melissa. It was clear these were the It Girls of the class; their teeny-tiny shorts, kohl-rimmed eyes and big attitudes gave them away.
Though Melissa, Caitlin and Amanda had been good friends since middle school, they sometimes treated one another poorly. Sitting on a bench outside their classroom one morning, Melissa, her teeth still in braces, brags to Amanda about her after-school plans — “I’m going to be hanging out with, like, so many people today” — though she knows Amanda has not been invited. Amanda’s face crumples, but Melissa seems oblivious to the pain she’s caused her pal. “I haven’t hung out with a lot of people in, like, so long,” Amanda quietly says.
Melissa had planned on spending time with Elizabeth, another girl in the class who was not quite as pretty or outgoing as the Popular Girls. Elizabeth had gone out of her way to get Melissa’s attention and had finally succeeded. But Melissa’s popularity allows her to be fickle without consequences. After crushing Amanda’s self-esteem, she decides that instead of hanging out with Elizabeth, she would prefer to spend time with Amanda after all. So she invites Amanda out — and then cancels her plans with Elizabeth.
The Popular Girls’ lives may have seemed perfect to their peers, but each had her own worries. Melissa and Amanda, whose parents are divorced, don’t get along with their mothers, and each has had her cell phone taken away as a form of discipline. Amanda’s was commandeered after she phoned her mom from school, asking permission to go to a friend’s house after class. “Why do you have to ask me in front of your friends?” Amanda says her mom yelled. “Why do you have to make me look like the ‘bad mom’?”
Melissa was more forthcoming about how she says she speaks with her mom on the phone. “If she says something I don’t like, I just hang up on her.”
Some may be quick to say Melissa’s a catty brat; Caitlin is stuck up and Amanda has low self-esteem. In reality, all three are insecure and are busy figuring out who they are; they just need more time to realize that no one can win the popularity contest because, outside of high school, it doesn’t actually exist. It won’t be long before they learn that the important things in life have little to do with gossip and more to do with grades.
But first they had to pass math. Failing would have meant not being able to take the subsequent math courses required to graduate. The girls didn’t seem to appreciate the value of education and they definitely weren’t cute kindergarteners, but they responded to my gentle pushing, words of encouragement and, most importantly, the respect I afforded them, no matter how immaturely they acted.
They never thanked me for the time I spent with them, but at the end of the term, Melissa and Amanda earned Bs, and with the help of private tutors their parents had hired, Caitlin earned a C and Elizabeth a B, and that was thanks enough.
Talia Kennedy finished her bachelor’s degree in communication with a minor in education in August 2007, just two years after she enrolled at UC Davis as an 18-year-old freshman. She is now pursuing her master’s degree at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.