The Mad Whack Museum
When you're thirteen, very few things your teacher says are cool. Most things are, in fact, "whack." You might even go so far as to call them "mad whack," which is pretty much as far away from cool as you can get.
Even if, like one of my students, you have read all nine of the new young adult classic Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, you are required to abandon the Beaudelaire orphans and their mishaps at home, wear an oversized jersey to school each day, and regularly declare that the lesson is "mad whack."
These are just the rules of the game. Everybody knows them.
The kids in my classes are sitting out the summer in that strange and inhospitable space between middle and high school. They had just come into their own as eighth graders, but next year, everything will change all over again.
Their struggle to gain a foothold in the complex system of social castes means that a girl who tests through the stratosphere in the first week may suddenly switch her seat from the front row to the back of the classroom, where she will ogle the baddest boy in second period and refuse to do group work.
It means that a kid who declares, "My brother says 'Nerds are sexy!' " at 10am maybe calling me weird for wanting to read by 10:15.
It also means that, when I accompanied the rising 9th grade on a trip to the Brooklyn Museum last week, I was more than ready for the fact that they would declare every aspect of the visit to be "mad whack," even if they liked it. They're just playing by the rules.
Despite their protests that, "That museum is stupid. We go there every year and it's the same thing," most of them managed to show up to catch the train from their school to Eastern Parkway at 8am Friday morning.
And when I stumbled out of the station into the daylight at 9:45, there they all were, slouched around the courtyard and their real teachers, waiting for the guards to open up the doors. A few called my name and waved me over. One notoriously volatile girl (who is also one of my secret favorites) came up and put her arm around me.
From then on, it was one "mad boring" exhibit after another. One young man kept trying to touch the Monet paintings; I had to intercede on his behalf several times to keep the security guards from tossing us all back out onto Eastern Parkway. After we had a long talk about why it's not kosher to reach out and grab anything in a museum, the same kid tried to sit down on an Egyptian sarcophagus that some mad stupid person had forgotten to put glass around. Museums are so whack sometimes.
Still, as always, there were moments of success and flashes of interest. Two particularly shy faces lit up at the sight of the Egyptian jewelry on display, and one young woman went about the place checking off future acquisitions: "I'm going to have one of those in my house, and one of those, and one of those."
And one student, who is consistently angry and dis-engaged, was fascinated by a sculpture of a man wrestling with a minotaur. When I told her that the mythic critter was half-man, half-bull, she declared, "I gotta write that down." And she did. I think it was the only thing she wrote down all day.