Freshman Mentality

“Ahh, high school”, or maybe “Ugh, high school”- I daresay there are mixed feelings when people reminisce about their teen years. Some of us were big fish in little ponds. Emerging from the hurricane of hormones, the indignities of puberty finally behind us. Those were our glory days. Playing on a school team, the thrill of putting on a uniform, strutting around in our young healthy bodies, finally in the shoes (sometimes literally) of those before us that we had watched on the sidelines and idolized. For others of us high school is a memory best left alone. Reminiscing is more like a stone dropped in a pond, stirring up muddy emotions that had finally settled over the passing years. I happen to be the former. I often dreamt about stepping back up to the plate on the softball field or being back in the middle of a pep-rally, pom-poms in hand. These dreams were especially frequent during my pregnancies when the idea of swinging a bat, let alone getting off the ground for a toe-touch, was laughable.


My eldest child is starting her freshman year in a few weeks. Watching her find her place, listening to her vocalize her insecurities, and helping to plan her academic schedule for the future that she envisions brings back a flood of memories.


Really, in many ways I never left high school, now being a high school teacher, but being on the other side of the desk is definitely a different experience. This year I’ll even have my daughter in class. Hopefully the experience will be more positive and less traumatic than the year my mother, as a 7th grade history teacher, had me in class. My mother was a great teacher, but with high standards. The trauma stemmed from my peers clashing with her grading policies and venting their frustrations within my hearing. It was a struggle, wanting to commiserate and rebel with my peers against the injustice of adult figures and “unfair” consequences, but also feeling every unkind word about my mother as an arrow in my heart. I would still repeat the experience, however, given the choice. I enjoyed seeing my mother in a different capacity than I saw her at home, and learning to deal with a difficult social situation strengthened my character. Hopefully my daughter, her peers, and I can have a pleasant working relationship this year, ending with fond memories and a solid understanding of geometric concepts.


During a shopping trip to the grocery store several years ago, back when my daughter was still little and we had recently moved to our current hometown, a fellow classmate of hers waved at her and said, “Hi, Penny!” In response, my daughter quickly smiled and waved. This earned her a strange look from me, because her name is not Penny. She explained, that when they had lined up for class pictures at the beginning of the year, my daughter who was, and still is, very petite for her age was told, “Pennies on the front row.” As in, short kids in the front, nickels in the middle (middle height), quarters in the back (tall kids). From that day, several of the students began calling her Penny. She didn’t seem upset about this particularly, but it made me a little sad that she had earned a nickname based on being a new student, smaller than the other kids, where no one knew her name. The idea of “pennies” comes to mind now when I see freshmen and first-year teachers. Both are new to the school community, the ninth grade students not always smaller than the upperclassmen, but usually. Both must face an unfamiliar situation, move past being nameless, and strive to make their mark.


The teacher down the hall from me is a brand-new teacher, a newly minted graduate, shiny and eager. While chatting, she proudly listed her bargain deals from local thrift stores to decorate her room, which of course looks fabulous. She’s finally seeing her dream realized, her very own classroom that she’s spent the past 4 years (maybe more) decorating in her daydreams. Our first day of in-service she arrived, professional and neat in a blazer and slacks, blue eyes sparkling when she took her seat, easily 30 minutes before our superintendent took the microphone. In marked contrast, the veteran teachers dragged in minutes before the deadline, many sporting weary smiles and wearing their summer wardrobe in a futile refusal to concede that summer is over. Not that returning to a freshly cleaned classroom, updating faded bulletin boards, and anticipating a new group of students doesn’t fill the majority of returning teachers with a tingle and an internal smile. That’s one thing about education that keeps one young, each year there’s a new group of fresh-faced students. The first day of school is still exciting, on par in excitement to the last day (but let’s stay focused on the joy of a new year and forget for a moment the marathon we’re lining up for). Veteran teachers still carefully choose a special outfit for that first day and eagerly make plans to greet and welcome their new students. Although their starry-eyed optimism may have become a bit tarnished over time, the original idealistic teacher, be it many years before, still glints through.


Let’s remember and strive for the freshman mentality. The students who are embarking on high school for the first, and only time in their lives, and the freshman teachers beginning their career. Watching the newbies reminds me of the trepidation of the first day of school, but also the underlying joy and excitement. They are a reminder to strive for high ideals and the hope of what can be accomplished, like the promise of a shiny new penny.


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