“Mrs. Slawson, did you hear about Justin Bieber?”
This was the chatter of students entering my classroom a few days ago. I answered that though I had caught less than five minutes of morning news while I grabbed my coffee that morning, I had, in fact, heard that Justin Bieiber was arrested for drag racing in Miami Beach and was allegedly under the influence of substances at the time he did it.
“He did something very inappropriate in jail,” one girl said. This news, I would later learn, turned out to be an internet hoax, but not being surprised or especially caring what Justin Bieber did or did not do in his jail cell, I didn’t bother to check it out at the time. Frankly, I was interested in getting on with class.
I let the girls have their moment, then begin to give the class instructions and settle them into their work. One young lady just couldn’t seem to let it go. “Why would he do that? He had the perfect life,” she said. She couldn’t seem to get her attention focused on classwork and couldn’t stop talking about it to those around her. I called her down and she very honestly replied, “I just can’t stop thinking about it.”
“Why don’t you go sit in the hall and read?” I said. We are currently reading The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck and I was giving students some time to read in class. Sometimes less proximity to friends is a good thing when trying to engage ninth graders in the solitary act of reading. She didn’t seem to want to go in the hall, which is unusual since most students jump at that chance which I rarely offer.
“Would you like to come sit up here behind my desk?” I asked. I honestly thought this would seem threatening and get her attention. Maybe now she would get on with her work at her own desk. To my surprise, she got her things and came and sat on the floor behind my desk. Soon she was quiet, as were the rest of the students, and we all got to work. After several productive minutes, I heard a sniffling noise. I turned my chair around and behind me on the floor, she was crying.
I didn’t say it; but I was thinking, ‘What on earth? She cannot be crying over Justin Bieber.” Instinctively I crawled out of my chair and onto the floor beside her. I reached an arm around her shoulder and as soon as I did she buried her head in my shoulder and sobbed. After a minute or two of wondering what on earth to say, I said, “Are you crying about Justin Bieber?” She nodded.
I had no idea what to do next; I couldn’t believe this was happening. I finally whispered something about it being hard to grow up, that I wished it weren’t so but that people disappoint us, sometimes even people we really know, not just those we admire from a distance. I found some Kleenex in my desk drawer; she dried her eyes, and we just sat there in the floor for a few minutes.
The memory of those moments stays with me. As an adult, it’s so easy to dismiss teenagers’ feelings when my years of living have jaded me beyond shock or disappointment about what anyone in public life might do. It’s also easy to just tell kids how they are supposed to feel, confusing their feelings with their ability to judge or react to a situation. I can remember, though it’s been a long time since I was a teenager, being told how I should feel and being completely frustrated because that didn’t seem to be something I could control. Feelings were feelings, just there. Emotions appeared, whether invited or not.
Knowing right from wrong, being able to evaluate a situation as good or bad or healthy or unhealthy, and being able to make good choices based on more than just emotions are things we should teach our children, but in doing so we must not forget to acknowledge and honor their feelings as just that, feelings.
And next time, I think I’ll stop immediately and fact check the latest Bieber story. Maybe that will spare some heartbreak and we can get on with The Good Earth.
(special thanks to my student for letting me share this story)