Since I am an English tutor, most of my students are boys, who traditionally have more difficulty learning languages compared to girls. I have classes that are almost entirely populated by boys, with a lone teenage girl sitting at the back, rolling her eyes about once every five seconds. I know how she feels, but my impatience is tempered by a (slightly more) adult understanding of male teenagers and the challenges they face.
Last week, in my Secondary 2 English class, one of the boys, N, was peppering me with questions that ranged from "Have people ever eaten poop?" to "Why do we have to write a composition?"
Between trying to teach the content and answering the other students' work-related questions, I had to constantly shut him up or steer him back on topic: "We're not talking about poop right now, so can you please turn to the right page in your worksheet?"
Two girls, Z and C, who were sitting behind N, pointed at him, whispered to each other and giggled. I knew he had a crush on C, who is rather pretty - sort of like a shaggy, long-limbed pony. In fact, the entire class knew about N's crush on her. It was the way he picked on her for no reason, and the way he always found a reason to mention her name, even when she wasn't there. Subtlety is only learnt after 21 - if at all.
"Girls," I said, glaring at the pair, who were giggling so hard they were turning red in the face. "Stop laughing."
"We can't help it," protested Z. "He's just so... retarded!" That was the cue for the whole class to burst into sniggers, which set the girls off once again. C laughed so hard she choked, and had to be thumped on the back.
I looked at N, whose face showed evidence of the dawning of a very painful lesson. The poor kid is 1.8m tall, gangly and splotched with acne, and looks old enough to pass for 18 or 19. But in reality he is much closer to childhood than his more sophisticated classmates. He sat silently for once, while I lectured the still-sniggering class on the inappropriate use of the word "retarded".
Privately I thought: "That's not going to be the first time a girl you like ends up laughing at you."
Whoever said kids were resilient was right. By the end of the lesson N was back on form and firing off more questions that had nothing to do with the homework assigned. But I noticed he never once mentioned C's name again.
It was a minor incident, but such things are important to me, if only because - as every teacher knows - they play a key role in the classroom's atmosphere. Moments like these have an impact on the students' stress and tension levels, and I have to keep track of their shifting emotions to correctly assess which kid needs a (metaphorical) shove to work harder and which kid needs a pat on the head, or some space to cool down and regroup. But also, to anyone interested in humanity and the story of us, an English tuition classroom is a great place to observe the male adolescent at his worst, best and in between.
All my life I have been surrounded by the other gender, perhaps more so than other women my age. I know their ways intimately: the loyalty and the bullying, the shut-down silence and the head-in-sand avoidance, the child-sized insecurity and the crowing ego. I know their rare moments of sweetness and vulnerability, and the haphazard way so many of them grow up, lost in a hormonal sea of confusion and mixed signals. No shore in sight for far too long.
My male students can be exasperating beyond words, pushing boundaries and their luck whenever they get an chance. They brag about making their teachers in school cry, or about stealing one of their dad's beers from the fridge. I have a special needs student who, at any available opportunity, reminds the rest of his Sec 1 class that his family are going to move into a "con-do-mi-ni-uuum" soon. But he also writes helpless, anguished compositions about how he hates having friends, because friends always end up siding with the bullies who make fun of you. They only want to be your friend when no one's looking, or when they want to borrow your homework.
I can't help him, and his parents aren't helping him. He needs more than any single person can give. All I can do is try my best to convey a few key messages, over and over, in as many different ways as possible: life is hard, and it will break you down, but all the time you must never stop being kind, being understanding, embracing the differences between yourself and others. I ask them to have faith that everything will be worthwhile, that people will be similarly kind and understanding to them, but I don't blame them if they can't quite believe me. Even as a grown up I have trouble believing it.
Don't get me wrong: the mellow, hippie guidance counsellor isn't always in. My students know that any rudeness or slacking off is immediately confronted by a psychotic bug-eyed creature, this close to tearing them a new one unless an apology is issued or the work completed. Even the most immovable recalcitrant quickly learns that it's better to keep his head down and shut up for two hours than to risk teacher's Exorcist-style transformation. It's not the anger they fear, it's the way I switch from smiling nice to hissing, bugfuck crazy to genuinely nice again in three seconds flat. It's the adult level of self-control they can't comprehend.
I don't have to do it often. Most of the time things are good. We do the worksheets, we learn exam techniques, we discuss CGI-heavy movies and yo mama jokes and gross bits of trivia ("Did you know roaches can live without their heads?"). One of the Secondary 3 boys recently tried to introduce me to this "great new band, Green Day". I was kind to him and did not laugh.
In their last few years of childhood, before they become adults, I want them to know a different way of being, one that doesn't involve feeling tough all the time, or hurting others to feel bigger. To act on their best impulses, and to acknowledge their worst ones, and work through them. I was never a boy, and I am not a man. (Thank goodness!) I'll never know what it feels like to be one of these funny, infuriating, sensitive beings, but I like to think that sometimes - once in a blue boy's moon - I come pretty close.