Don’t ask me why I teach junior high. I guess I fell into it, people started telling me I was good at it, and for some odd reason I find it fun. I’m also certifiably crazy, so there’s that. Perhaps that’s the best explanation for why I thrive in junior high: I’m nuts. Junior high kids are their own special brand of crazy. Most of them will grow out of it. I suppose I just didn’t.
Since being diagnosed with bipolar disorder last fall, I’ve been on a revolving cocktail of medications and therapies that are slowly bringing me to a place of stability. I texted my husband last week and said, “The more sane I get, the weirder these kids seem.” Because they are so. very. weird.
Do you know what else is weird? Mental illness. And, in possibly the weirdest simile ever created, here is why teaching junior high is like having bipolar disorder:
1. Everything is extreme. The things I hear kids say on a daily basis are some of the same things that my brain has told me at various states of depression and mania: “This is the BEST DAY EVER!” or “My life is COMPLETELY OVER!” or “MY LIFE IS PERFECT!” or “EVERYTHING IN THE WORLD IS TERRIBLE!” Bipolar disorder is frequently thinking in capital letters. Lots of capital letters. Junior high kids don’t only think in capital letters; they speak in them too.
2. Other people don’t get it. When people find out that I teach junior high, they have one of two reactions: they either get a completely baffled look on their face and say, “Ummm…why would you do that?!” or they look sympathetic and say, “Oh, bless you. You must be a saint. I could never do that.” Seriously. Those are the only two reactions. Next time someone asks what you do for a living, tell them you teach junior high. I bet you $10 that you’ll get one of those two reactions. It’s actually a bit creepy how everyone says the same two things. Anyway, I get variations on those two reactions when I’ve told people about my bipolar disorder. Most of them are super confused because they don’t know what it is, or they have gross misconceptions about it. Other people start crying (literally) and act like I’ve just told them I have terminal cancer. I mean, I’m not going to lie…bipolar disorder sucks, but it doesn’t help when people act like I’ve just been handed a death sentence. People don’t get why I teach junior high, and they also have no idea how I’ll live with bipolar disorder. Trust me, both can be done. I’m doing both of them.
3. Sometimes I wish everyone would please shut up. I cannot tell you how many times a day I hear, “Mrs. Hillboro! Mrs. Hillboro!” I answer to that name quicker than to Hazel, for sure. In my life, I get called Mrs. Hillboro at least twenty times more than I get called Hazel. That is not an exaggeration. Anyway, when my students are working on a project or asking me questions in between classes, five or six of them will all start talking to me at once. They have no concept of taking turns or waiting for someone to be finished talking. It’s a very egocentric age group. Sometimes I want to yell, “EVERYONE LEAVE ME ALONE!!” Obviously, that’s a bit…erm…unprofessional, so I don’t do that. When everyone’s talking, though, sometimes it reminds me of my brain. When my thoughts start racing, it’s like I have five hundred things to think about all at once and I can’t think fast enough to get to them all. My brain starts doing this weird jittery thing where I think about everything for about 0.2 seconds each before moving on to the next thing, and I can’t actually concentrate on anything. I want to yell at my thoughts, “EVERYONE LEAVE ME ALONE!” but I can’t because they (like junior high students) are very loud, obnoxious, and persistent.
4. The little things become big things. In junior high, everything is a big deal. You have a zit and picture day is next week? Well, you’d better freak out and try every single home-remedy zit cream Google can give you. You’d better worry constantly from now until next week because if you have a zit on picture day, obviously everyone will hate you, you’ll be a social outcast, you’ll never get a boyfriend, and you might as well start adopting cats now because THAT’S ALL YOU’LL EVER HAVE FOR COMPANIONSHIP! Obviously, all of the worrying will probably cause more zits instead of fewer, and you basically just shot yourself in the foot. Call PetSmart and start stocking up on MeowMix. Perhaps this pertains more to an anxiety disorder than bipolar disorder, but I have a hard time differentiating my crazy. Sorry. Anyway, sometimes I get fixated on one thing, and I absolutely cannot calm down about it until it’s solved. I need to pay an insurance bill? Well then, I need to pay that RIGHT THIS MINUTE, because if I wait until after work I’ll probably forget, and when I forget then I’ll probably get distracted and forget tomorrow too, and when I keep forgetting then they’ll eventually discontinue coverage, and that will be the exact moment that I get into a terrible accident and look like one of those cartoon characters all wrapped up in bandages like a mummy with their leg in one of those lift things by a hospital bed. That’s what will happen if I don’t pay this bill RIGHT NOW, so I need to use my lunch hour to do it and probably need a teacher to cover the first ten minutes of my fifth hour class in order to get it done. It’s like my mind has no “back burner.” I can’t table that issue until later. It will bother me and sensationalize itself until I just-freaking-do-it.
5. It’s a bonding agent for those of us that understand. When I meet another junior high teacher, we are instantly friends. That’s the truth of the situation. Even if they’re a horrible person and we have nothing else in common…oh,they teach junior high? Besties. Not many people understand the intricacies of this job. It’s nothing like teaching elementary school, but it’s also not like teaching high school. It’s its own little universe, and not many adults live there. Similarly, people who struggle with mental illness can understand each other in a way that other people can’t. If someone struggles with bipolar disorder specifically, then suddenly I want to talk to them for hours. I want to know everything they’re willing to tell me. More often than not, we have a lot in common and it is so comforting to realize that yes, having bipolar disorder is isolating and feels like it’s own universe, but guess what? Other intelligent life exists there too. Let’s find each other and build a colony, because then we can all make it through this wasteland.
6. Sometimes it’s confusing beyond all reason. I’ve been in this profession and with this age group for quite a few years now, and still there are days when I find myself thinking, “What? What just happened?” The kid stuck his testicle in another kid’s eyeball? A student just crashed a teacher’s car into the creek by the school? Someone brought his cat to school, and the cat just had explosive diarrhea in the hall? WHAT? (Those are all true examples, by the way). One of the best and worst parts of my job is that you never really know what’s going to happen next. It’s the same way with bipolar disorder. Once you think you’ve got everything under control – BOOM – curve ball. Something totally unexpected happens. I have a delusional panic attack. I need to switch meds again. Old thought patters resurface out of nowhere. I think the only standard is that I’ve come to expect lots of curve balls (both in teaching and in having a mental illness). This is probably a good thing, really You can be a lot better at catching them when you’re expecting them.
There you have it: why teaching junior high and having bipolar disorder are basically the same thing. I’m already pretty good at the first one, but it took a few years to get there. I’m sure I’ll eventually be alright at the second one too.