I'm a high school teacher. Say what you will about teenagers, I love my job because I love the kids. This time of year always reminds me of something that happened a few years back. At the time, the incident made my day; four years later it still inspires me.
It happened on the Friday before Christmas break, a pep rally day. Rachel the librarian and I had been assigned supervising duty in the cafeteria. This is where campus security herds all the kids who wander campus aimlessly because they aren't keen on heading to the gym to shout along with the cheerleaders or applaud as the football players were introduced. These are the disenfranchised, the misfit kids who don't conform to the popular peer groups, so they find and adhere to other potential loners like themselves. Rachel and I surveyed the group of a hundred kids scattered at tables around us, and we smiled.
"This is where I would have been in high school," Rachel told me quietly.
"Me, too, girlfriend," I replied, and gave her a high-five across the table.
We went on to discuss kids and books and how one encourages the MP3/Gameboy/portable DVD generation to shut off the beeping and simply become lost in a novel. Around us, students were engaged in all these activities; some watched movies while others played video games or sat with arms folded, heads bowed, ear buds plugged snugly in their ears.
A few tables away, a group of students were playing some role-playing game. They were "Goth" kids, dressed in black, their long, scraggly hair dyed black, their tattooed arms adorned with black leather bracelets. Some days before, one of my students had described how he and his Goth friends had been asked to leave a shopping mall.
"The security guard said we were scaring the customers," he told me. "Are you kidding me? What are they afraid of? Do I look scary to you?"
Well – I didn't give him an honest answer to that last question. Instead, I encouraged him to use the Atticus Finch approach from "To Kill a Mockingbird" – to do what he would wish others to do for him, try to see himself through their eyes.
I thought of him now as I watched these dark, sullen adolescents with their pierced lips and eyebrows quietly playing a game that involved dungeons and dragons. To someone unfamiliar with their innocence, they would indeed conjure up visions of demons.
The muted conversation in the cafeteria was interrupted when a couple of clean-cut young men hurried in to announce that they were about to start loading some trucks with all the food collected from the canned food drive.
"Hey, is there anyone here who wants to help us?" they asked. For several seconds, the room was silent. Rachel and I exchanged glances. Then one of the Goth kids stood up.
"I'll help," he said quietly. He didn't look to see if his friends followed. But they did. All six boys, strong and tall, walked outside to help.
Rachel and I watched through the window as they made trip after trip from the storage area to the truck, hefting the heavy boxes filled with cans, teasing each other along the way about how much they could carry.
If I had been as savvy as my students that day, I would have whipped out my cellphone and recorded this particular extracurricular activity on video, to be posted later on MySpace or YouTube. I wish I had. This is the image of our young people I would love to present to the world – kids who, despite their outward appearance, are not always inert beneath the stereotypes of being lazy and unmotivated that we heap upon them. Sometimes, when they're given the opportunity, they can be shining stars of kindness and selflessness. Those are the days I live for as a teacher, and they make the best memories – especially at Christmastime.