Mapping The Land of Growing Up

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Flannery O'Connor has a wonderful short story, "A Temple of the Holy Ghost," in which the protagonist, a child of 12, hears about the half-man, half-woman at the county fair and cannot understand how such a creature can exist if it doesn't have two heads. My seventh graders thought the child woefully immature and spoke about the "old days" when parents didn't talk to children about such things. One of their classmates proceeded to speak so knowledgeably about hermaphrodites and sex-change operations that my head swam.

Orchestrating the discussion that followed was not a simple task. I wanted to answer questions honestly, yet was concerned about raising alarm in children preoccupied with their own emerging sexuality. I thought about the student a few years back who began her first menstrual period in school. "I know all about it," she said, impatiently, when I tried to help her. "I just forgot to find out how you stop it when you have to go to school."

Seventh grade is such a catchall of contrasts. There are girls with bodies as flat as yardsticks and others whose curves cause near collisions on Connecticut Avenue at lunchtime. Boys with baby fat and sweet sopranos play soccer with classmates who already flutter the hearts of "older women." Some primary colors do exist: the blues of children still clearly children, the reds of full-blown adolescence. But every blend of color possible makes up the rest of the 11-, 12-, and 13-year-olds.

Miss O'Connor's story describes that area of childhood that laps over onto the bank of adolescence. I found myself picking my way ever so tentatively in a classroom where children of roughly the same age could be on opposite shores of sexual awareness. Even though all considered themselves well informed, I could see by their puzzled faces how confused they really were.

Because of a combination of factors, both physical and social, children enter adolescence, or assume the attributes of it, earlier and earlier. There are days I wish I could hold back the clock for some of my students. Donning a pair of Calvin's isn't a ticket to the adult world, nor does a sex-education period guarantee safe passage. Even with Judy Blume to hold their hands, life for most young teenagers is as complicated as Rubik's Cube. Even their own native language betrays them sometimes.

Whenever I read "The Raven" to my class, I lose a couple of the boys as soon as I reach the lines about "The dusty bust of Pallas." Lord alone knows what erotic picture that image evokes, but the squirming bodies and flushed faces tell me I have hit a nerve every time. "Get ahold of yourselves," I say, and everyone laughs and two-thirds of the kids spend the rest of the class worrying because they didn't get the joke.

I watch the groups forming at the beginning of the school year, see the boys on one side of the room, jostling one another, unaware mostly of the power they will soon sense, but not soon understand. At the other side cluster the girls, some still in braids, the blood already singing in their veins. In a few weeks, the more socially precocious boys and girls will have paired off; most of the rest will be wishing they could. Only a few stragglers will remain oblivious of the old ritual.

The stragglers interest me, for as inevitable as sunrise I know I will be witness to their awakening. Like sunflowers they grow, almost before my eyes, noses losing their anonymity, bodies elongating, arms and legs seemingly having a life of their own. One day, who knows by what alchemy, they are on the other side, and the relief they feel at having made the leap is almost palpable. They signal us all, sprawling at their desks on the backs of their necks, skinny blue-jeaned legs all over the aisle ways.

I hadn't been through Tom Sawyer for years until I read it with my seventh grade this fall. Comparison is one of the compasses by which we chart our lives, and I couldn't help seeing how differently from me my students reacted to the story. They were sophisticated enough to brand "dainty" Becky and "boisterous" Tom as products of Twain's sexism, but they readily conceded that Tom enjoys more freedom than they do. No sneaking out of the house at midnight or, as one student wrote, playing "hockey" from school, for them. Fear of mothers and the truant officer takes care of those romantic notions. Besides, they say, not without some satisfaction, parental reprisal would be swift and sure.

Young adolescents are painfully aware of their conflicts with parents. Most see these battles as a necessary part of growing up. "Parents say that when you're a teenager, you talk back," one of my students told me, "but that's because now that you're older, you have more of an opinion on things." "When you are little," another added, "parents give you a one-sided story and you believe it. Getting older means learning there is another side and having doubts."

Small wonder these children speak of doubts. In this Alice-in-Wonderland world, some girls have to compete with their mothers for a corner of the looking glass, as both find themselves preening for a date on the same evening. One 13-year-old boy I taught recently sat in my office and wept because his father insisted on how much they had in common now that he was divorced. "He keeps trying to get me to talk about problems I have with girls," the boy said, "but all the time I'm worrying whether he's making it or not."

Even housing becomes a kind of Virginia reel for many children I know. Joint custody can mean four days in one house with mother and her new family and three days in another with father and a different brood. Kids used to say "I haven't got my homework because my dog chewed it up." Now they tell me, "I left it at my dad's." With so many new configurations of personalities to deal with, where is the time for Longfellow's "long long thoughts" of youth?

But thanks to those very parents with whom they have conflicts, my students, for all their insecurities about changing bodies and growing sexual awareness, are more comfortable in their sexuality than my generation ever was. I pieced together the menstrual cycle from whispers and discarded bloody rags. Every boy and girl in my seventh grade class knows more about the "facts of life" than my mother did after having four children.

Yes, the world in which we grew up is different from the one our children inhabit, but some things are eternal. Children teetering on the cusp of maturity will always be drawn by the sense of a secret on the other side. In that crossing, we, as parents and teachers, stand in the relationship of map to the reality of land. Our children must trust our guideposts, while we must pray that we point them in the right direction. For though they travel in unfamiliar lanes, if they follow our signs correctly, they will find their way home again to us, someday.

Vol. 01, Issue 22, Page 24

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