Every time I enter a high school, the smell hits me first. This essence of old, ratty books, smelly teenagers, caustic cleaning supplies, and frustration is pungent. I’m further assailed by the many different varieties of perfume—all cloying in their own way—and the artificial pheromone of cologne thick on guys. My eyes are assaulted by shorts and skirts that barely cover the butt cheeks and definitely would not have passed the “finger test” from my high school a little over ten years ago, tanks that show almost every inch of the skin, and pants lower on the legs after exposing colorful underwear. My ears hear curses that abound like kudzu in a Georgia forest, and I’m learning new ways to use words such as “dick,” “pussy,” and “asshole”. Girls have prayer in the middle of this chaos, and at the same time, other girls are singing in unison while two guys beat-box and rap. The sound is a cacophony of student hopes, dreams, and possibilities. The accumulation of this sense-strong setting is a teenage collage in the brightest color.
The smell is what always brings up memories, though, as I enter a high school. I once had colorful hair, pushed the limits of the dress code, and cursed like a drunken sailor (an act I still practice in Atlanta rush-hour traffic). The smell conjures the juxtaposing feelings of anxiety and stress with possibilities and hope. I was anxious about my body—were people looking at me or, worse yet, not looking at me?—and stressed over the minute details of my school work and tests—I had to get everything perfect or it seriously bummed me out. I was worried about lunchtime—would people sit at my table, would they make fun of my pristine table manners, and would I even have anything to add to the conversation? I was a painfully introverted student that preferred the company of a good book over that of most people. My talkative spirit had already been slapped down by a miserable crone of a teacher in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and ever since that fifth-grade year, I hadn’t recovered whatever piece of my spirit she had stolen. I was constantly working on finding that cheerful motor-mouth that I once was.
But I also remember that despite how much I wanted to leave the hallowed halls of my small-town high school (900 students in all), I was also filled with the possibilities of what could happen after high school. I could choose any career, go anywhere, be anyone. Most high school teachers were big on telling us that the possibilities were endless, keeping the fact that most of us were already on a lifetime track put in place by our surroundings and our biology. The candy-coated view the teachers and counselors gave to me was the one I held onto and why I tried so hard to excel in everything. I loved living in this world of hope and dreaming of possible futures. And teachers did get some of this right. I was able to dream bigger than I once thought I could, and the path I chose to walk brought me confidence, if not a wonderful career. I could have gone to almost any college, but I chose Georgia Southern University to stay close to a family that was about to rip apart. I’m glad for this choice. And while I know not every student had or has as many opportunities as I did, I know they still had opportunities and choices of their own to make. They still had possibilities for their futures of which they could dream.
Because of this view, I enjoy observing the students around me when I substitute and wondering what they will turn out like in their futures. I don’t see a class of hoodlums and punks despite the way they dress, talk, and act (because, if we’re honest, my generation was doing things that shocked the teachers around us). I observe something more than the low-riding pants, the skirts that barely cover the butt, the language that assaults my ears, and the smell of perfume mixed with angst. I can see a comic book/video game nerd that will find his place among a group of friends that enjoying going to Dragon*Con just as much as he does. I see a girl that will one day work in a Buckhead salon, making money off her talent to not only make people look beautiful but to make them feel beautiful. I see a future preacher who already has a flock of her own. I see a musical artist who can spin rhymes like Rumpelstiltskin spun gold and future singers bound for recording agencies. I see future mothers and fathers, students that will make great parents and teachers. I see electricians, plumbers, and mechanics who do the work because it pays well but also because they enjoy figuring out and fixing problems. I see teachers—elementary, middle, and high—and professors, students who are willing to put up with quite a lot for that rare glimpse of a child’s understanding (and, of course, the great holidays). All this I can imagine in just one classroom, and it makes the future look bright and those scary memories of my own disappear, making me appreciate the possibility now turned to reality in which I live.