I remember turning sixteen. That birthday suuuuuuucked.
It wasn’t really anyone’s fault. And I’d rather not go into it. It would just bum everyone out and make me seem mildly petty for caring about my birthday at all at that moment in time. Let’s just say there were circumstances beyond anyone’s control that prevented me from really enjoying it and leave it at that.
For a while, like the year and a half or so after my ill-fated birthday, I found myself watching the premiere of My Super Sweet Sixteen and thinking “THAT girl got a killer party. I wish I had at least been able to enjoy my birthday.” Watching those atrocious, spoiled girls on the show became a guilty pleasure of mine over the next few years. First it was late at night, when I just couldn’t sleep. Then it was only when I was sick and feeling so shitty about myself already that a little schadenfraude couldn’t hurt – a privilege normally reserved for Maury and Rikki Lake.
I would watch the show, see all the hoops those parents jumped through for their kids, and think “Man, they don’t even KNOW how good they have it. Listen to those bitches going on and on about how they can’t find the right dress or how if Daddy doesn’t buy them the perfect car in the perfect color, their birthdays will be ruined. They don’t even have a clue.” And I would sigh and eat another handful of cough drops and check to see what time the ‘Help! My Fourteen Year Old Is Trying to Have a Baby!‘ episode of Maury came on. (That link is just to prove that it’s real. I can’t make that stuff up.)
Every now and then we all need a little dose of reality to shake us out of our pity parties. Luckily, I managed to grow the fuck up without that dose (I was in college, there wasn’t a reality until like 4 years later) and get over it. But if I hadn’t, and I was still mourning what might have been, then today would have been a big slap in the face.
As it is, the day just kind of put things into perspective about my life compared to the lives of the students I teach.
Today, one of my students turned sixteen.
For those of you just joining us, I teach middle school. So…do the math. This kid should be at least a sophomore in high school, if not a junior. But he’s not.
And he’s not having a Super Sweet 16 party, either. For two main reasons: A) he’s not a girl; B) in the Hispanic culture, a quinceañera, commonly called a quince (a ‘fifteen’) is far more common a celebration.
Instead, this kiddo of mine came to school, floated around, had a normal day, got maybe a little bit of special treatment, and then he’ll do a family dinner tonight with a family party this weekend. And let me tell you, in my world, that’s a pretty baller birthday. I do love a piñata.
But does it really make up for the fact that somewhere, the education system just didn’t work for this kid and he’s stuck 2-3 grade levels below where he should be? Because this kid? He’s intelligent. He could go places if we could just find a way to encourage him in that direction and make stuff happen.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe in blaming teachers or schools. And this kid shares some responsibility for where he’s at…but our education system in the US and Texas, specifically, is not Hispanic-friendly. We as teachers, as schools, as districts can do our very best to make it so (just like Jean-Luc would), but the great and powerful state has put in so many requirements with so little funding for programs that benefit my specific sub-pop that whatever we do just isn’t enough.
So kids like him fall through the cracks. They turn 16 in middle school. They drop out early. They get stuck in a dead-end job where they can’t make enough money to really provide for their family without resorting to less savory means. And the cycle starts all over again.
This is the type of stuff I worry about in my off-time. But then the kids say things to me like the newly-sixteen student did today.
“Miss, if I invite you to my party this weekend, would you come?”
“I wish I could, baby, but it’s against the rules. I’ve told you this.”
“Yeah, I know it is, but I wish you could. I mean, yeah my friends will be there, but I feel like you should be, too. Not to get crazy or anything, because I probably would have dropped out by now if you weren’t my teacher so…you know…”
And then I cry. In front of him. And because he’s been in school so long, he executes the perfect appropriate side-hug and asks me
“Miss, since you’re not coming to my party, can I have some gum and cards from the prize basket?”
He knows how to work it, that one. Almost as well as the girls on that hideous show work their parents to get a few thousand dollars more worth of monogrammed party favors. Hey, maybe I’ll buy the kid a copy of those My Super Psycho Sweet Sixteen movies MTV has been producing. After all, if anyone deserves to laugh at stupid princesses getting slaughtered, it’s him, right?