Sizing Them Up
“Don’t smile till Halloween.” An old saying among teachers.
On the first day of class, you walk in with all the authority you can muster, whether you have any or not. You take a moment to size up the “boots.” Will this be the class that gets it? Or will they be a frigid bunch of stiffies who go strictly by the book and grub mercilessly for grades? Or will they, please God, be a fun group who doesn’t mind the occasional conversational sidetrack into pop culture dish and celebrity gossip? Each class has its distinct personality. You hope for the best.
On day one you look around the room as they straggle in the door and find seats. I play a game to myself as I take the roll, trying to read the students by that blink of first impressions.
You all up front, yeah, pretty sure you’re going to be the blatant suck-ups and chatterboxes, the ones who waggle a hand with a comment or question, oh, about every 13 seconds. Who else sits up front on the first day? Yes, I see you. Yes, I know you know the answers. Let’s give the others a chance now, shall we? It never fails. The suck-ups sit up front. Suck-ups can save you on a slow day.
Farther back, the Ashleys and the Brads occupy an entire row. The clone rangers. Girls, if you’re all going to wear your hair in identical streaked ponytails, if you’re all going to don the same tiny yellow sorority tees and cookie-cutter Seven Jeans, then don’t be upset if I can’t tell you apart. You’re a blur of blond, a little army of thin but fluffy fembots. And, um, about those jeans. It’s lovely that you’re a wee size 2, but when you sit down in your chair like that, you reveal several inches of thong above your back waistband. Hike up the pants, ladies. I’m not a sidewalk inspector. Don’t show me cracks.
You there, Brad 3-of-7. No ski caps in class. No sunglasses either. This isn’t a methadone clinic. Sit up straight and try to stay alert. And you, handsome Brad between the two giggliest Ashleys. That’s a nice pair of Polos you’ve layered one over the other – black over pink, very bold. Your collars are starched so hard and popped so high they could slice an earlobe. But you also have a spotless white sweater tied around your shoulders. And you’re so tawny, you must be a regular customer of the spray-on tannery down the block. No, you’re not fooling me, dahling. Nuh uh. You haven’t told your parents, your Ashley-ettes or your fraternity Brads that you’re a friend of Dorothy, have you? But your outfit has just announced it to me. Behind your Blink 182 and Coldplay CDs, I’ll bet you’re hiding the soundtrack of Rent. You used a sorority girl as your beard to go see the road company of Mamma Mia! at the campus auditorium, didn’t you? Knew it. It doesn’t take Carson Kressley to suss you out of a crowd. Don’t worry, your secret’s safe. But you really should reconsider the Topsiders if you’re going to stay in the closet much past junior year.
OK, moving on. Back rows, you there, freaks, stoners, X-abusers and tweakers. Your row was napping before I’d finished the L’s and M’s on the roll call. Not good. And do you think we don’t see you digging into the pocket of your filthy denim jacket to retrieve chili-cheese Fritos and pop them into your jaws? Honey, from here I can tell your body musk reeks stronger than a 1970s “be in.” A quart of patchouli couldn’t mask the fact that you stayed up all night smoking spliffs with your roommate.
Wait a minute, what’s that? You, yeah, you with the fuchsia chunk in your black hair and the “Buck Fush” sticker on your backpack. You I like already. You’re not afraid. Your short but colorful life story probably includes some hard times, a few semesters at community college, maybe an alcoholic parent or a brother who’s in jail for dealing. You keep a journal and write in it every morning before your shift at the telemarketing job. You regard the Stepford teens all around you with a well-honed sense of irony and black humor. I like ya, kiddo. We’re gonna get along fine. Bless you and the used Honda Civic you drove in with.
Hmm, you with the tummy bulge. Preggers? No wedding ring? You look about six months along, meaning you’re going to pop over the fall break. We’ll work it out. The unwed mother is a regular sight around campus these days. Usually one in a class of mine per semester. They keep going, launch the baby and make it to finals. Don’t know how they do it but the unwed mothers are some of the best students I get.
A late-comer wafts in the door on a cloud of Chloe. She’s so late she’s missed most of the opening act. And you are…? “Um, I was thinking that maybe I’d like to, uh, add this class, OK?” she says, scanning the room with big doe eyes. I don’t think so. Buh-bye. She fades out the way she came in. The class laughs together. Good sign. We’re all on the same side now. Even the stoners blink back to consciousness. That little interruption has made us co-conspirators. You’re all right, I think. I’m going to like this bunch.
Try as I might to resist, I usually do like them. By the end of the term, I will know more than I ever wanted to about them. I will know which ones are funny, which ones lie, which ones have what it takes and which ones excuse themselves four times an hour to sneak to the bathroom for a toot of party powder or a binge of self-induced vomiting. I will even know which ones are responsible for getting me fired from my job.
On these first days of class, I look at all of them looking back at me and just hope I can answer their questions and maybe click the on-switch in their brains once in a while. I always hope this won’t be the class that kills it for me. I hope a lot of things.
All of this goes through my mind. But I keep it to myself.
What I actually say is, “Let’s look the syllabus. Assignment No. 1, dramatic moment essays. Due next Tuesday, no later.”