This weekend is my 20th high school reunion. Having been pleasantly surprised by my 10th, I was planning on going--but for various reasons I can't. Still, I've been enjoying the Facebook page set up for the reunion and the photos and reminiscences of my classmates. I've also reconnected, in small but meaningful ways, with a few people I hadn't thought about in years.
One of them is a woman I'll call Britomart, a name that approximates her unusual given name. Like her warrior-woman namesake, Britomart came armed for combat. I only had a few classes with her, but I recall her getting into fierce arguments with every teacher we shared. At the same time--at least with her peers--she was warm-hearted, generous, and a real straight-shooter. On our Facebook page another classmate mentioned that in the fourth grade, when she and her best friend were fighting and weren't speaking to one another, Britomart hauled them into the girls' room, yelled at them, and forced them to talk and make up. I didn't go to the same elementary school, but that sounds like the Britomart I knew as a teenager.
I liked Britomart and admired her no-bullshit attitude, but her conflicts with teachers made me uneasy. For one thing, they never seemed to be about anything: some minor change or perceived change in policy or due dates, maybe, or a question on a quiz she perceived as unfair. I can still see the way she'd cross her arms, screw up her face, and bark out an angry objection, halting the class for a tense minute or two. It was particularly uncomfortable in the English classes we shared with my favorite English teacher, an equally fierce but birdlike little woman nearing retirement. I took five or six classes with this teacher and I adored her. She was also spectacularly good to me.
Even at that age, I understood that my teacher felt threatened and disrespected by Britomart, and it troubled me that these two people, each of whom I considered good-hearted and clear-eyed, seemed to hate one other. I didn't know what Britomart's deal was or why she had such a chip on her shoulder, but I also felt that my teacher should have been able to see Britomart's good side. (And maybe she did; but what I saw and felt was the tension between them.)
Being back in touch with Britomart, now that I'm a teacher myself, has made me think harder about those ancient battles. On the one hand, I know what it feels like to be the person whose authority is being challenged, and I recognize myself, proleptically, in my teacher's sharp-tongued reassertions of control. I know how it feels to always have one antenna out, tuned to that problem kid in the corner, forever expecting and dreading that he's going to speak up again and derail the class. But I also knew and liked Britomart then, and I know what she's become: well-grounded and successful, with a family and an emotionally demanding job in the caring professions. Whatever anger she was carrying around then seems to be long gone.
I'm sorry I won't be seeing her this weekend, but I hope I'll remember her the next time I'm tempted to write off a mouthy troublemaker as all problem and no possibility.
And just in case you've forgotten what 1993 looked like, let me remind you: