Seventh graders are impressionable little things. That’s why you have to be careful how you handle them.
2010 was the year I got married. It was the year of WikiLeaks and royal engagements and the Chilean miners’ miraculous survival. It was the year Lost finally ended.
It was also the year the PG-13 horror movie Insidious hit the big screen.
I taught a really good group of students during the 2010-2011 school year. That was back when my district still had blocked classes for Language Arts, which meant I saw all of my kids for ninety minutes every day. There were only sixty of them that year, divided into ideal class sizes of twenty each, so I was able to really get to know them. They were good kids and a lot of fun.
My after-lunch class had a lot of personality. They were a very talkative, very friendly bunch, and many of them possessed that rare ability to get their work done while socializing. You can only fight that superpower for so long—eventually you have to admit that yes, they are really working while talking, make peace with it, and save your “I’m serious” speeches for test days and principal visits.
During the second semester, the sidebar conversations meandered more and more to the subject of this new horror movie that just came out—Insidious. The talk was all about who’d seen it and who hadn’t and who had to cover his eyes and how scary it was. One popular boy, who we’ll call Patrick, just went on and on about it. The movie terrified him, but he kept going back to see it again. Patrick had watched the thing at least three times when he and his friend “Mike” started trying to talk me into seeing it. Patrick had a cute/exasperating inability to form a complete sentence when he was excited, so his persuasive techniques resulted in arguments like, “Ms. Juettner, seriously, I mean, oh my God, it’s just so, so, AAAAA!, and in this one part, oh man, oh man, Ms. Juettner, you’ve GOT to see it!”
Eventually I decided I’d better see it, so I made my husband go with me.
Now, before you start rolling your eyes and saying Insidious wasn’t scary, you need to realize something. These were thirteen-year-olds, and a lot of them were very sheltered thirteen-year-olds. I’m sure some of my students had been watching zombie movies with their older siblings since they were in the third grade, but some of these kids parents’ took the PG-13 rule seriously. The kids in my after-lunch class that year were a young group and for many of them, Insidious was the first horror movie they’d ever seen. Coming from that perspective, I’m sure it was truly horrifying.
I wasn’t horrified by Insidious. (Then again, I saw Poltergeist when I was much younger than they were, and it’s a much more scarring experience.) But I was entertained by it, and it did make me jump a few times.
One of the creepy parts of Insidious has to do with this old woman who stalks one of the characters in photographs. In every photo taken of him, ever since he was a little boy, the woman in black is visible, and in each picture she is getting closer and closer to him. Patrick and Mike were especially freaked out by this part of the movie. Patrick’s incoherent rants included a lot of, “Oh, and the old woman, oh my God oh my God, she… AAAAA!”
When you’ve had a good year, when you’ve taught kids who you genuinely care about, not just as students but as people, when you’ve developed real bonds with them, the last days of school can be bittersweet. Yes, it’s a time of excitement and looking forward to summer vacation, but it’s also a time of sadness and loss. A time of growing up and letting go. And, if you’re pretty sure their parents aren’t the litigious types, a time to have a little fun with them.
During the last week of the 2010-2011 school year, my kids were working in groups creating infomercials for the random and ridiculous products they were selling. (A few weeks earlier, I’d asked my classes to write down three objects they would never want to own and said, “Be creative.” I did not tell them why. Then I collected the slips of paper and put them in a bucket. Now the kids had been forced to draw a random paper out of the bucket and attempt to sell the items listed using the persuasive techniques we’d been studying. My students were advertising everything from a purse made out of earwax to a dead body. By the time all was said and done, there was very little educational value in the project, but the iMovies they created were hilarious.) While they worked on their commercials, I took photos of all of them for a class iMovie we were making as an end-of-the-year souvenir. Since some of the kids were shy about having their picture taken, I let them pose with a friend or two. Naturally, Patrick and Mike paired up.
Now comes the confession part.
I just couldn’t help myself. I mean, it was too easy, too perfect.
The kids all wanted to see each other’s pictures and the pictures from the other classes, so I told them I’d show them all the next day on the overhead projector IF they got all of their work done. That sent them scurrying back to their group projects. These kids were self-sufficient. They were on task. They really didn’t need me.
So… I spent about an hour and forty-five minutes of my contract time downloading pictures, creating a Sumo Paint account, and learning how to Photoshop an image. Two hours later, my masterpiece was complete.
The next day, the little darlings in my after-lunch class got all of their work done early, so, as promised, I started showing them the pictures. They oohed, they ahhed, they giggled, they teased each other about the faces they’d made. So innocent.
Then I got to Patrick and Mike’s photo and, before showing it, I paused. I looked at them.
“Patrick,” I said, “you and Mike’s picture came out a little… weird.” I raised an eyebrow.
“What do you mean?” Patrick asked.
“What happened to it?” Mike asked.
“I’m hoping YOU can tell ME,” I said and stared at them pointedly, shaking my head and rolling my eyes. I went to click the button to show the picture but paused one more time, my hand poised over the mouse. “I really don’t know how you guys did it,” I said, “but you better not have used my computer without my permission.” One more pause. One more glare. The class was quiet. I clicked the button.
And there, on the screen was Patrick and Mike’s photo, with the old woman from Insidious peering out right between them.
There was one second of silence before an enormous GASP erupted from Patrick, who stood up and launched into the most incoherent of all of his ramblings. Soon though, his babbling died down into a single continuous stream of “No no no no no no no no no no no no no no.”
Mike’s reaction was more subdued. He smiled a little. Then he frowned a little. Then he said quietly, “You did that.” And when I didn’t answer, he squeaked, “Did you do that?”
I didn’t make them suffer long. The rest of the class was going crazy and I didn’t want the noise to bring any concerned principals into the room. I wasn’t itching to explain the image on my screen. The prank had worked beautifully though. In my opinion, those were hours well spent.
Seventh graders are impressionable little things. That’s why you have to be careful how you handle them. I guess Patrick and Mike would be in tenth grade now. Maybe I should look them up, see how they’re doing. I’m 70% sure I didn’t do any permanent damage to them. Regardless, I have no regrets.
[To read more stories from my teaching career, check out my Teaching Stories page.]