Yesterday I found myself confronted by half a dozen arrogant young men spewing resentment and repressed anger. They thought they had something to prove, though I’m not sure what. They were rude and aggressive and sometimes threatening. And the language they used toward and about each other was enough to make a wharfie blush.
I wasn’t roaming George St in the middle of the night, nor was I at a rugby league match where you might expect to see such behaviours. Nope, I was in a classroom in a local high school. Out front, actually, as a newly appointed ‘Writer in Residence.’
The young men were 16-year-old year ten students chosen to take part in a pilot program aimed at enhancing Social Media Literacy. I’d been told these particular boys struggled with basic literacy and might benefit from working in a context within which they were motivated to write.
They sauntered into the classroom with grunts and groans typical of the age group. They towered over me as I tried to navigate my way through the testosterone oozing unchecked from their pores. Like pack animals, they stuck together sniffing out the slightest vulnerability in their potential prey.
They found it in one of their own, turning on a gentler quieter boy, knifing him with intimidating stares, assaulting him with hurtful offensive comments. I couldn’t watch, it was awful. I intervened, drawing the focus away from the boy. That was the point at which they turned their aggression toward me.
I remained calm, repeatedly requesting that the behaviours stop. I started sounding like a broken record. I wondered whether I would be able to get them to write anything at all, let alone anything of quality. I decided to change course dramatically and told them they would be writing a blog about school.
“F***ing waste of time…”
“Place to hang with mates…”
“You got no f***ing clue…”
“Rather be sleeping…”
It took much cajoling and encouraging to get them to put these thoughts into words, writing in the first person. Clinging to their bravado they managed to scrawl a few words here and there in between the rough-housing and belligerence.
It needed so much energy, but not wanting to show any sign of weakness, I persisted. I had to focus on my breathing so as not to dissolve into a pathetic blubbering mess. It took everything I had to hold it together and present an even-tempered fearless facade.
I’m not a teacher. I’m a writer with teaching qualifications who has spent the best part of the past six years sitting at a desk behind a computer, working alone. And for the last two years, working from home. Just me and the cat. And the cat never challenges me―unless he’s hungry, and that’s easily fixed.
I left that classroom exhausted. I had to go sit in the car for half an hour to allow myself the time and space to calm down. I decided enough was enough; that this gig was far too stressful. I would tell the Principal who had engaged me that I had had enough; that it wasn’t worth the stress; that I was far too sensitive a person to be dealing with unpredictable angry young men; that it took too much away from my own writing. I decided I would see the day out and not return.
Then I read the pieces the boys had written, and everything changed. I melted. Though they struggled with the technical aspects of writing, they wrote about their experience of school as an institution with insight and a sensitivity I had not afforded them. The writing was honest and raw and real. It conveyed fear and doubt and a level of vulnerability that would have horrified them if they’d been aware of it.
Unbeknown to them, their writing told of confused and frightened boys cowering in the bodies of angry belligerent rebellious young men, battling the hormones coursing through their veins trying to make sense of the world around them.
Except for the quiet boy―he wrote of hate and anger and vengeance.
I’m going back next week.