Let’s talk about seventh graders. I want to do this while it’s fresh on my mind. It’s fresh because I just spent the morning with about fifteen tweenagers as a chaperone on their school outing and was immediately taken back to the days when girls and boys still hung out in two different groups, the colored bands on your braces were a big deal and the most popular kid in class was whoever had gum.
Childhood has its ups and downs, much like the astro-jump my students nearly tore a hole in today.
Ah, I’m getting ahead of myself.
For my American readers, let me explain. The closing weeks of June, after the larger exams are finished and the school year is coming to its anticipated end, many teachers will take their classes on day-trips. During the school year, these activities are educational – the Italian Cultural Center in Prague, the city Zoo, etc. But today we had none of that. Today we went to “The Yellow Spa” – a recreational arena with every sport imaginable. We were there when the gates opened at nine and didn’t leave until noon.
I don’t teach many seventh graders and because they’re on the second floor of the school, I don’t run into many in the hallways either. So, aside from a few familiar trouble-makers, most of my little companions were new to me.
I wanted to know if they knew much English.
They wanted to know if I knew any bad words in Czech.
I wanted to know what their summer plans were.
They wanted to know if I had a boyfriend.
I wanted to know why everyone had on exercise pants.
They just smiled at me.
When Czechs play, they play hard. I am not at all skilled at table tennis, beach volleyball or badminton, but thanks to my Chula Vista upbringing, I can hold my own on a soccer field. We had two ferocious all-girl teams (except for the one boy who I figured joined mostly to show off. This fact was confirmed when he stripped off his shirt after his second goal, did a victory lap around the field and then deserted to join his buddies playing volleyball). The grass was wet and we slipped a lot. Eventually we opted for an easier game: croquet.
We had to pick the field far enough away from the river bank to keep our balls from rolling into the Vltava and, of our two options, one had already been claimed by a brace of ducks and their little babies and a few vicious looking swans and their babies (can I just say that “the Ugly Duckling” finally makes sense to me. Baby swans are the ugliest, most confusing looking animals I have ever seen).
The recreational facility, located on the banks of the Vltava River, was entirely outdoors, save a few coffee huts with awnings that provided little shelter from the wind and cold. Thankfully, it didn’t rain, but once the boys found the water fountain it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. At this age, if there’s a way to get wet, there is no option not to.
Hanka, the class teacher who asked me to help chaperone suggested we sit by one of the coffee stands and warm up with a cappuccino. She has been a kind of fairy godmother to me since I joined school, giving me encouragement and love, opportunities to participate, as well as space to grow into my own here. She’s been teaching probably longer than I’ve been alive, so the chance to sit down with her would be like Walt Disney getting to have lunch with the Grimm Brothers or Jimmy Kimmel sharing a telephone booth with Charlie Chaplin.
First, she talked about differing personalities in class – who gets along with who, how well they study. Then she talked about how involving being a teacher can be – something I relate to entirely. You really do get caught up in your students and their lives, she agreed.
“Klarka might be a doctor because both her parents and grandparent are,” she said, and then added with a smile, “But David wants to be a professional poker player. He keeps cards in his desk and always gets boys to play with him during break.”
Then she sighed softly as we watched several swanlings (this is a word! I checked!) follow their mother across the grassy bank in front of us. She told me that some of her best students were going to Gymnazium next year.
In the Czech Republic, you can move from primary school (where I teach) to high school (Gymnazium) after fifth grade and enter either a four-year, six-year or eight-year high school track. Those who stay at their primary school until ninth grade get a lovely send-away ceremony. Those who leave for Gymnazium earlier simply slip away unnoticed, no pomp or celebration. They just leave.
Some of the seventh grade girls ran across the lawn screaming and giggling, balloons in their hands. (Can we just stop. They found helium balloons. Somewhere they found helium balloons, because of course they did).
“They don’t realize how much they are going to miss each other yet,” Hanka said with a sad smile as we watched them race after the swans.
This is when they all found the astro-jump and my fellow chaperone and I went over to … well, chaperone. When just the girls were on it, things were fine. Hanka left me in charge and wandered off to check on our belongings. Then, without warning, seven boys came charging across the bank, through the ugly swanlings, and jumped/slid/crashed into the astro-jump on top of shrieking girls. I watched in horror as the bouncy-house leaned over till the sides almost touched the grass. On one side of the jump was a speaker blasting music. Everytime they fell into the right side of the jump, it leaned over, nearly knocking against that speaker and pushing me into an early grave as I stood there holding onto balloons and someone’s shoes with one hand and clutching my heart in terror with the other.
For as many times as I asked them to be careful and stay away from the walls, they told me it was all okay and that I should jump in and join them. I have never felt more like a lame adult. Several times, the only things stopping me from taking off my shoes and sliding into the madness was the guy paroling our perimeter, obviously making sure we weren’t killing each other.
So here’s the deal: they all eventually ran off to get sodas and fried cheese and hot dogs in rholiky. And I made this list of my favorite thing about seventh graders.
5. Small things matter.
T-Shirts with stupid cartoons printed onto the fronts, mismatching shoe laces, colored bands on braces, dorky sunglasses. These things comprise the dearest treasures of a seventh grader and I miss when life was that simple.
4. Honesty happens.
Stanislav tells me in broken English that he’s single because, “Girlfriends cost too much money.” After his half-naked victory lap during our soccer game, the girls tell me, “Standa thinks he has abs. . . He doesn’t.”
3. Helium. OMG, I just can’t even…
Because the attention span of a seventh grader is about the length of a toothpick, all those helium balloons became a real drag to hold onto very quickly. It was let them go or find an alternative. Next thing I knew they were asking me to help slice holes into the balloons so they could suck the helium out. They even pressured me into inhaling a round (this sounds like we were doing drugs… honestly, helium is the gateway).
2. There is no such thing as “food you shouldn’t eat.”
Fried cheese, slurpees, someone else’s french fries? Yes please. Leave food-sensitivity and waist-line worrying to the ninth graders. And it literally doesn’t matter that lunch at school is in less than a half hour. EAT ALL THE THINGS.
1. Life just is.
Seventh graders are ugly ducklings. They are.. you probably were.. I definitely was. And although we, as seventh graders, have an acute sense of our awkwardness, we also have no idea. We have no idea how much we really are gangly or short, shy or SUPER LOUD, ridiculous or … well, no, there’s only one option there – we were all ridiculous. Because for some reason, when we’re hanging out with our ugly duckling friends, it doesn’t matter who’s going to become a swan or when. We’re all just waddling across the bank for now and that’s okay.