When I was a boy, we learned about animals from a syndicated TV show called “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.”
The show featured a zoologist named Jim Fowler clad in khaki safari gear and giving off a big Indiana Jones energy before Indiana Jones was a thing.
Fowler went into the field to research wild and dangerous animals from aardvarks to zebus, often wrestling crocodiles or tigers to put tags on them for further study.
A silver-haired fellow zoologist named Marlin Perkins narrated films of Fowler’s adventures from the studio in dark suits. He looked like a cross between Vincent Price and Alistair Cooke.
And, dear reader, if you’re too young to know who any of these fellows are, I suggest you use your smartphone to look up something besides which laundry soap to ingest.
I find myself hearing Marlin Perkins’ voice in my head as I stumble through my first year as a sixth grade teacher.
If Perkins were around, I think his commentary would go something like this:
Here we have the sixth grade student. They are generally aged 11 to 12 and come in all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds. However, they almost all display a behavior our scientists have come to call “attitude.”
Attitude is directed at anyone and everyone, but especially at adults and those in authority.
Attitude generally conveys through a series of body movements, such as eye rolls, shoulder shrugs, or exasperated sighs that the object of the expression is the stupidest person to have ever lived and having to interact with them at all taxes their souls beyond their capacity to exist as an individual entity.
Paired closely with attitude is rebellion.
Though not quite the storming of the bastille, the sixth grader often challenges the norms of their environment with tiny tantrums of individuality such as refusing to sit in an assigned seat as if being asked to do so was capitulation comparable to Neville Chamberlain at Munich.
(Look that one up, too, young readers. History matters.)
The modern sixth grader apparently has evolved tinier bladders than their ancestors and is more inclined to dehydration.
What else could explain the constant requests for restroom breaks and trips to the water fountain?
It’s important to remember the sixth grader is still in the developmental stages. They are mushy.
The same student who growls ferociously at being asked to wait their turn or refrain from wandering about the classroom in the middle of a lesson may also be spotted hugging a stuffed toy during a test.
The sixth graders’ diet consists of candy and chips of the most disgusting flavors possible. I’ve observed them playing soccer with apples and oranges.
They follow that with a variety of chewing gums that come in thick, clear plastic packs big enough to carry ammo cartridges on a military uniform.
The sixth graders crave gum and those that have it become temporarily the most important person in the pack.
Those without gum beg for a piece shamelessly. Sometimes money is offered, but seldom does a real financial transaction occur.
Instead, the gum holders sometimes rebuff their suitors until they retreat pouting and crying about selfishness.
More often, the gum holders release a few pieces of their riches to maintain good relationships with the rest of the pack.
Only a precious few sixth graders seem to show any interest in learning.
This may have something to do with the novice teacher in the front of the room.
However, the teacher hosts a video game-playing club, which its members call “e-sports” though nothing athletic is attempted.
The teacher has observed these e-sports players play a game called “Smash Brothers.”
Characters from classic video games across multiple generations fight each other and groups of five or six people play at one time.
The graphics are amazing, and the action is furious to the bald, middle-aged teacher with creaky knees and slow thumbs.
One character can split into two characters and rain hellfire down on all the other characters.
Meanwhile, a character name Kirby, who appears to be a pink balloon, blows up and eats people, and sometimes Donkey Kong shows up and punches somebody off the screen.
The teacher realizes that time has passed him by.
These sixth graders process all this information while casually chatting. Their fingers dance across tiny controllers.
The teacher sits stupefied at the hand-eye coordination on display and the rapt attention the games draw from the sixth graders.
Oh, to have but a fraction of this interaction for a lesson about figurative language or connotations.
But how can the teacher compete with the finest software engineers in the world?
The level of visual stimuli is so great the teacher could be struck by lightning every class period and the students would look at him glassy-eyed with that sheen of deadly boredom that is their default expression.
The teacher wishes Jim Fowler was still around to tag these sixth graders, release them back into the wild, and check in on them in a few months.
The closest he can come is winter break, which comes on Dec. 22, not a moment too soon for both teacher and student.
Middle school teacher Daniel P. Finney is a Marion County Express columnist.
Daniel P. Finney wrote for newspapers for 27 years before being laid off in 2020. He teaches middle school English now. He writes columns and podcasts for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating $10 a month to help him cover the expenses of this site.
Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311.
This is a gem! For those of us who remember the show and teaching (or raising) 6th graders, you’ve made an apt and hilarious comparison. I, too, can hear Marlin Perkin’s voice in my head with every line.
Love this! As a retired teacher I feel your pain and commend your ability to laugh at yourself despite the daily slog. I hope the recent study about people not really needing 8 glasses of water every day will soon free our educational system from the tyranny of the student water bottle.