There is something about teaching 9th grade English that I find magical and rewarding. Unlike sophomores who teeter between tinges of optimism, cynicism and weariness, and juniors who wearily and anxiously anticipate, “this will be over soon”, or seniors who know “this will be over soon,” freshmen are an abundance of emotion- enthusiasm, dread, and indifference, or a mixture of each- for the newness and strangeness of high school. They have left their ordinary worlds of middle school and have embarked on a journey that will most often leave them feeling like they have been swallowed up by the unknown. They will experience tests and trials, but victories will be short lived. Perhaps they do not see the big picture yet, in the ninth grade, but in time they will learn that they will repeat this cycle over and over again. It is the monomyth, the hero’s journey, the archetypal pattern that every story follows.
This fall, I have the good fortune of teaching five ninth grade classes. Such a schedule is timely- Not only am I at long last finishing my MFA thesis this semester, I also am turning 40. As I say goodbye to my thirties this week, I realize how important it is to keep that inner ninth grader inside of me.
My first week of high school I was twelve years old, 5’1, and 150 lbs. We had the torture of something called freshman swimming that first six weeks of school. I was the only girl in my class whose mother refused to buy her a Speedo swimsuit, and instead wore a pink flowered suit with a ruffle on the butt. My teacher, Coach Walthour, a former Olympian, who won the bronze metal for the 400 butterfly, was an intimidating, barking old man, near retirement. To complicate matters, the beautifully sculpted captains of the boys water polo team decided they would practice during the time we had freshman swimming. Needless to say, I suited up every day, but sat trembling on the bleachers with my towel wrapped around me. At the end of the torturous six weeks, my teacher said, “HENARES THE ONLY REASON I’M GIVING YOU A D- INSTEAD OF AN F IS BECAUSE I DON’T WANT TO SEE YOUR SORRY ASS IN MY CLASS AGAIN.”
My grades my first quarter in high school were abysmal. I did not try at much- I seldom did homework, I refused to take notes. I stayed in the girl’s locker room of the gym during lunch.
It wasn’t just being a high school freshman, it was something else, something that affected all of us. Within our first month of freshman year, Daniel died. Daniel was supposed to be captain of the freshman football team, everyone loved him. To this day, I still have the Hello Kitty pencil box Daniel gave me for my birthday in sixth grade. Our high school was a very small school- only 650 students. (To put it in perspective, the entire freshman class of the school I teach at has more students.) Daniel had been riding a motorcycle without a helmet after football practice our first week of school. He crashed and was on life support for three weeks. My English teacher made the announcement to us that he had passed away. We didn’t have classes for the entire day. Mean old Coach Walthour didn’t make us suit up or swim. None of us knew how to process what had happened. We were reading The Human Comedy by William Saroyan in freshman English. In his introductory essay, “Why I Write,” Saroyan said he wrote to cheat death. While Daniel was on life support, I made a vow to myself that if he died, someday I would write. Someday I would cheat death.
My first six weeks of high school were abysmal. My grades were terrible. But by the end of the fall semester, I improved my grades, became more social, lost a little weight, and even earned an ‘A-’ in Phys Ed.
Twenty-seven years later, upon turning forty and saying goodbye to the mistakes and triumphs of my thirties, I realize I have always been the same girl I was in the ninth grade, filled with enthusiasm, dread, and indifference for the world. In many ways I am still that girl tightly wrapped in a towel, terrified and trembling on the bleachers, or the girl in the back of the class with her nose buried in a book. I have never stopped being the girl that vowed to one day write, and cheat death. The girl who has had to shrug off the poor grades of those first six weeks of school, pick up the broken pieces of herself and re-emerge triumphant, again and again and again.
By: Nicole Henares
Nicole Henares is a high school English teacher who sometimes can be found masquerading as a poet.