Musings, Teaching

Out of the Mouths of Babes

Repeat after me: “We do not have hurricanes. We do not have hurricanes. We do not have hurricanes.”

I saw that little quip online this morning and I thought it was funny. Blizzard conditions are currently raging outside. It is the middle of April. There has to be a positive, even if it’s acknowledging that hey, at least in the Great Plains we don’t get hurricanes, too. I’ve mentioned before that I love winter, and I do, but that’s when it stays inside the confines of winter. We are almost a month into spring with only a few warm teasing days, and I think I speak for everyone when I say a little break would be nice. The kids are getting antsy at school. The farmers are getting antsy for spring’s work. Even the tractors look antsy. Outside my window, our big red is sitting in the snow, ready for seeding. But he’s not going anywhere. Just like me.

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Until winter decides she is ready to release us, we wait. And keep repeating, “We do not have hurricanes.”

Meanwhile, I thought I would occupy my time indoors by reading through some of my most recent freshmen essays, and I thought I might share with you some of the wisdom out of the mouths of babes. In this essay, I asked my students to address a problem in our school or community and propose a possible solution, using both their own wisdom and outside sources. While they are not exactly “babes,” freshmen in high school are fairly new to exploring and writing their ideas clearly and logically. It can be a real struggle, let me tell you. Why shouldn’t they be able to demand that school is canceled forever for all students? Why shouldn’t they be able to ask for a Six Flags amusement park in their small town in western North Dakota?

We spent some time in class discussing feasible topics. Once we eliminated the topics that were a little too unrealistic, many of my students really embraced the project with alacrity. Whether they care to admit it, they are concerned about their community. In reading through the essays, I discovered that young teenagers can be remarkably perceptive in understanding the real issues surrounding them. They addressed everything from the dangers of our roads to the need for more emergency personnel in the oil field, and less serious topics such as adding more restaurants or community activities in our small boomtown to improve the overall quality of life. Some of their arguments:

  • “[Our community] should hire a full-time fire department because our local firemen are overworked. Our fire department is run on a volunteer basis, which means in addition to all the hours these men are on call, they also have to maintain full-time jobs.”
  • “If major highways like 85 and 23 were four lanes, there would be less congestion, which would make people feel less likely to pass.”
  • “I want our high school to start a recycling program.”
  • “If we built a new Civic Center, it would be a great place for kids to hang out… Right now, our town has few places for us kids to get together, so more kids are getting into trouble.” 
  • “Having a bowling alley in Watford City could involve all ages in the community. Having leagues would allow kids and adults to compete and have fun at the same time.”
  • “Fixing and repaving the roads will be very beneficial… Drivers will have less of a chance of hitting an obstruction, such as a pothole, and going into the ditch or other lane.”
  • “Having more restaurants with different types of food would make it easier on our travelers and truckers.”

They had some decent ideas, actually. The state of North Dakota is scrambling to keep up with the massive demand of an increased population: housing shortage, services shortage, and higher rate of crimes and traffic accidents, among other things, and it’s obviously not an easy job. However, the fact that my students were able to identify some of the serious and the less serious problems in their community and propose meaningful solutions made my chest puff up a little with, well, pride. 

But lest you go around amazed at my teaching skills and ability to coax well-written essays out of previously clueless students, something like the English teacher in the film Freedom Writers, let me share that it’s not quite like that. Not all of my students are so, well, eloquent. Here are some from the other side, some that help keep me humble as a writing instructor, so my head — and my ideals — don’t get too big.

Sigh.

  • “It would benefit our community by having the speed limit set to 65 instead of 45 close to town and will help the people on the bus so we can GET HOME FASTER.” 
  • “When the roads are in bad condition, a lot of people complain about it but don’t do anything. When people get blamed, a lot of fighting starts to happen. So better roads would reduce the number of fist fights.”
  • “I think it’s horrible the smokers got our open lunch hour taken away. We are all teenagers and we like our freedoms. If we can make a deal with the school board, we will!!!”
  • “If you wear something that isn’t dress code you get in trouble. Kids don’t like to get in trouble. It makes them sad and agitated. In conclusion, dress code makes children unhappy. It brings unhappiness to the world and needs to be stopped.”

And my personal favorite: This student had found a hair in his food at lunch one day, so he based his entire essay around this apparently traumatizing event:

  • “If a lot of hair is in your food it could make you constipated. If you get constipated, you will have to go to the doctor for medicine and the bill can be more than some people can afford. [Also] I puke after I find hair in my food, so you know that hair can’t be good for you. If the food tasted better, we would probably eat more and the school wouldn’t have to buy as many garbage bags. With the money that we saved from the garbage bags, we could buy even more hair nets.” 

Dramatic? I would say so. Although I had a hard time appreciating the logic of the arguments in this essay, I admit finding that unknown hair is never fun. (In this particular case, I suspect some of the student’s friends as the hair culprits.)

I do enjoy my students and their various colorful ideas, even the not-so-eloquent ones. In my classroom, we’ve had many discussions over issues like these, inside our small community and across the state and even the country. Students keep our jobs as teachers interesting, and as long as we stop to hear what they have to say, we may be surprised, even pleasantly surprised. Try it sometime. Listen to a kid. Heck, listen to another adult. In our crazy piece of land called the oil patch, it’s worth hearing some of the stories that people have to tell, some of the places that people are coming from.

This April storm outside my window, however, is not much of a pleasant surprise.

We do not have hurricanes…

1 thought on “Out of the Mouths of Babes”

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