Another brick in the wall

| March 24, 2015 | 0 Comments

A common error new teachers make is that they anthropomorphise teenagers.

They make the faulty assumption that teenagers are human. Forgive them. In their ignorant ‘love-the-world’ state, it is excusable. One should remember that animal lovers are prone to the same mistake about the rat-sized animals on their laps loosely classified as ‘dogs’.

Like seemingly intelligent animals such as dolphins or chimpanzees, teenagers are assumed to be capable of human qualities such as common sense. As you are no doubt thinking, this is a dangerous assumption.

Scientists are consistently making physiological discoveries about teenage brains: namely, that teenagers use a totally different part of the brain to adults when they think. (Of course, veteran teachers like myself take issue with this statement. From bitter experience, they feel it would be far more accurate to adjust the qualifier to ‘if they think’.)

The problem is a ‘cut-out’ mechanism in teenage brains. This is similar to the ‘fight-or-flight’ survival instinct inherited from our oldest ancestors. In response to danger, the frontal lobe is bypassed altogether for faster reaction to either fight or haul ass as fast as you can. However, in teens, the ‘cutout’ neural pathway kicks in, not because of possible unexpected peril, but rather because of the presence of other teenagers. It’s called the ‘peer-pressure bypass’ and invariably results in the adult response, “Let me get this straight. You did WHAT?!”

As a novice teacher and coach on tour with a team of boys, I gave them a stern talk before arriving at the hotel. The overriding theme was, “I trust you to behave sensibly.” (Yeah, right.) At the same time, “good, clean fun” was quite in order (Yeah, right. By whose definition?) And I said, in my best teacher’s voice, “We must look out for each other, and give a helping hand wherever it is needed.”

At this point, the team clown said, “We agree, sir. And let’s give sir a hand.” Instead of applause, he proffered a very realistic-looking rubber hand. We all laughed (I was careful to join in like a jolly good sport.) Well, this looked harmless. So I agreed they could have fun with the hand. And they did.

It seemed to be reasonably well received at the hotel: everyone they came across, staff or guest, was met with the proffered disembodied appendage and variations on, “Can I give you a helping hand?” or “Here’s a handout” or “a hand up”. Much hilarity ensued. Pretty girls were serenaded with a few (surprisingly tuneful) lines from the Beatles’ I wanna hold your hand and then proposed to: “Will you take my hand in marriage?” Boys will be boys. So I left them to it, gave them a curfew time, and went to bed.

That was my second mistake.

Never, ever underestimate the stupidity of teenagers in large groups. The hotel manager banged on my door in the early hours. Apparently, the teen peer-pressure bypass had kicked in. The ‘hand’ had found its way onto light switches in random rooms, with guests feeling for the switch in the dark – and reacting.

Then an elderly lady found it on her door handle below the Do Not Disturb sign. For the clincher, the boys used a length of string to hang the hand (covered in tomato sauce) out of a window and then swung it to tap on the bedroom window below… Appeasing the victims took time (and apologies with extravagant promises of punishment and future perfect behaviour).

When I confronted the team, the discussion began with, “Let me get this straight. You didn’t for one moment pause to THINK…?!” Of course they hadn’t. Now that I have the perspective of hindsight on the episode, I can’t help a sneaky wistful thought: wouldn’t it have been just so awesome to have again been one of the gang?

Bruce Pinnock teaches at St Alban’s College in Pretoria in Gauteng.

Category: Autumn 2015, Regular Columns

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