After working with teenagers for over 15 years, I’d like to think I can usually tell when one of them decides to mess with me. It wasn’t always like that. I’ve been on the butt end of one of their jokes more than once. I remember one time where it got me called into the Principal’s office. I was working at a high school in a remote part of the island; an area with the highest poverty and highest substance abuse rates. I worked in a program for high risk teens that was an adjunct to the high school. The first year was fairly rough, but I weathered the storm and eventually was accepted. I started a creative writing program within my teaching of English there. These students who had seen and experienced more hardship in their brief young lives than most adults will ever have to; they had some very compelling stories to tell. And they could write poetry and narratives that could break your heart.
I started a creative writing “magazine” that we printed quarterly. It was mostly for the program, so the kids could read each other’s stuff. But I also gave copies to all the admin and counselors. One day I got called to the Principal’s office. She was a pit bull of a woman. Straight-up talker. But she had a soft spot for the kids from tough lives and she was very supportive of the program. She had the magazine open to the “dedications” page. (The students had suggested this page. It was mostly teen stuff, in teen shorthand, like, “2DZBFFS4EVAH.”)
The Principal pointed to one of the dedications, and when I say point I mean jabbed her finger at it with each word she spoke to me.
What the hell is this?? Do you want to get us slapped with sexual harassment??
I looked at it. 2DAGRLSMYBOTOEECHI
I tried to decipher it aloud. “To the girls. My bowtochi?” I guess it’s some kind of endearment?
The Principal’s eyes widened. She slapped her hand on the desk. POW! She asked me how long I’d been in Hawaii and I told her 15 years. She shook her head. Then she told me to get one of the girls that I could trust to proofread the dedications page. That if something like that made it in again, no more dedications page.
I couldn’t not ask. So I did. She looked me dead in the eye and enunciated each word.
It says, To da girls. My boto itchy. BOTO IS SAMOAN FOR BALLS, BUT IT CAN ALSO MEAN THE WHOLE PACKAGE.
So anyway. It’s been awhile since something like that happened to me. Plus my own two kids are teens now and my son usually has a couple friends hanging around our house. My kids help me from being blindsided at work by keeping me up on the latest expressions.
Yesterday my students were working independently during the second half of the class. Two of the boys came up to me. These are not jokesters. They are not super cool or popular. They’re regular kids. One of them says to me, “Miss, what’s a sphincter?”
Then they both look at me expectantly. I narrow my eyes at them and try to figure out if they are messing with me. I’m not sure how they got to this. The novel they are reading does NOT have the word sphincter in it.
Go look it up I say.
They are gone for about five minutes and then they are back. They claim to have looked it up and still don’t know. In retrospect, I think that they could not figure out the spelling of the first letters and therefore were not successful.
Didn’t you ever see Wayne’s World? I ask them.
Yeah. That’s what so-and-so and I were just talking about. “A sphincter says what?” Everyone always laughs at that and neither of us ever got it.
What to do. What to do. A cursory glance around the room. All the students are busy in their pair readings with their study guides. No one seems to be fixed, even surreptitiously, on my reaction.
I stick my arm out and point to my forearm.
You know how most of the muscles in your body are long, like the muscles that go from your wrist to your elbow?
The two boys nod.
Well, a sphincter is a round muscle.
They both look at me with complete and I’m pretty sure genuine looks of utter confusion.
That’s as far as I’m going with this. Figure it out. What round muscle would your female teacher be uncomfortable talking about with a couple of male students?
They both had the cartoon light bulb go off over their heads. One of them actually blushed and then they walked away.
But I’m a little worried that they think a vagina is a muscle and still don’t know what a sphincter is.