It’s finally summer, a prize every teacher squints at through the long, dark tunnel of the school year. As I spend my final days decluttering the smoldering trash heap that once resembled a classroom, I find it helpful to reflect on the year and give myself a chance to celebrate my accomplishments and identify areas of improvement.
As I close this chapter on my eighth year of teaching, there’s one conclusion I’ve arrived at that stands above the others:
I’m getting old.
This is a cliched sentiment, I get it. My mom just retired after 40-plus years of teaching, and she’s been saying this same thing for the last three decades. But I realize the longer I do this job, the more it rings true.
And, unlike Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused, I find it detrimental that I get older and these high school kids stay the same age.
There’s always been things I didn’t get about my high schoolers’ lives; the social app Snapchat has been around since 2011 and I’ve never understood it to be more than a delivery vehicle for naked pictures. I’m assured there’s way more to it than that, but I’m dubious.
And of course, there’s all of the catchphrases and slang that’ve come and gone over the years. I’ve survived the YOLOs and the Bets and the Kill Moes (edit: it was brought to my attention from some of my hipper readers my original spelling — “keel mo” — was incorrect…because apparently there’s a style guide somewhere I’m not cool enough to access), and even the recent and grammatically suspicious Heems and Yeets. A couple of weeks ago, I heard a kid in the hallway say to his friend “Yo, dead ass, I’m low-key tryin’ to yeet,” which I roughly translated to mean Seriously, colleague, I am considering clandestinely leaving the school building. No, it’s not exactly the King’s English — my computer’s spellcheck just resigned — but hell, Shakespeare invented a buttload of words, and he’s basically the most famous dead white dude in history. Who am I to criticize?
In the past, I’ve prided myself in being able to relate to my students, getting on their level and speaking to them in a way that demonstrates the shit I’m teaching can be relevant to their own lives. I used to be the cool teacher, the guy that taught poetry analysis with Jay-Z lyrics or used Family Guy to explain literary allusions. But more and more, I find the culture I enrich my own life with is diverging from that of my pupils.
This is something I’ve watched happen incrementally for years. An increasing number of kids shrug when I talk about The Simpsons or Kanye West, who is apparently no longer recognized for his music but as a caricature of himself. In kid-speak, Kanye is a living meme, nothing more.
But this cultural disparity has never been made more apparent to me than last week, when a newspaper student pitched me a story about PewDiePie.
Now, if you already know who that is, you can probably predict the punchline of this one. But if like me you have no clue, we’re in the same boat.
Kramer, a senior, spent a good 30 seconds outlining the angle of this story and how he would approach it before I broke in.
“Hold on, hold on,” I said. “Who the hell is PewDiePie?”
Kramer looked at me like I had just said Who’s this George Washington guy you keep talking about?
In my defense, teenagers are notorious for assuming everyone in the world holds dear their same set of values and interests, and as a journalism teacher, it’s often my job to explain not everyone has the same niche fascination in some EDM artist who’s got 140 plays on Spotify. I hung a huge poster in my classroom that reads WHO CARES? so when students pitch me obscure stories, I can point at it and send them back to the drawing board.
“Seriously?” Kramer said. “You don’t know PewDiePie?”
“Is he a a rapper or something?” I said, which in hindsight gives me chills, because I can hear my mother saying the EXACT SAME THING to teenage me when I brought up some little-known celebrity.
“He’s a YouTuber,” Kramer said.
I moaned and tried to retrieve my eyes from the back of my skull. If there’s one entertainment medium that disgusts me more than the rest, it’s YouTube. I use the site plenty for both educational and entertainment purposes, but the amount of absolute dreck on there that passes for content gives me hives. I don’t know what’s more mind-blowing: the fact that people have figured out how to monetize videoing themselves unwrapping promotional products, or the fact that millions of people spend fucking HOURS watching it.
“And what does this genius do on his YouTube channel?” I said.
“He just talks about stuff,” Kramer said.
“What kind of stuff?”
Kramer tried for two minutes to explain the intricacies of this channel to me, but it didn’t make a lick of sense.
“Look,” I said, “I’m not saying it’s not a story, but I’m pretty up to date on things, and I’ve never heard of this guy. Just because a dude goes on the internet and talks and you like it doesn’t mean it’s newsworthy. What I want you to do is do some research and come back prepared to explain to me why he’s culturally relevant enough to warrant a story.”
Kramer agreed, and I moved on with my day, assuming he’d return the next day either with nothing or a couple of mentions on some bullshit Reddit threads.
Reader, I was wrong. Very wrong.
Next class, Kramer approached me with his laptop. “Okay,” he said, “when we talked yesterday, I got the impression you don’t really understand the relevance of this story.”
“So let me explain a couple of things. YouTube is basically this video website where people —”
“I know what YouTube is,” I said. “You can fast forward a little bit. Show me why PewDiePie is newsworthy.”
Kramer held out his laptop, which displayed several articles on PewDiePie. They weren’t blogs or Twitter mentions; they were legit profiles. Forbes. Vox. The Washington Post.
Well, okay. I guess this one slipped by me. I told Kramer he could write the story, of course, but the whole thing bugged me. Why haven’t I ever heard of this guy?
It ate at me all day, to the point that I went home and started doing my own research.
For those unaccustomed to the cultural phenomenon of this internet jackass, here’s a brief primer:
– PewDiePie, real name Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, is a 29-year-old Swedish dude who has a YouTube channel.
– He posts video game walkthroughs (which my research says are called Let’s Play videos), as well as vlogs and comedy skits.
– His narration and voice, according to Time fucking Magazine is “charismatic,” though he’s gotten some heat for anti-Semitic remarks and “casual use of words like gay and retarded” (according to a post from Kotaku gaming blog).
– And, oh yeah, he’s got 96 MILLION subscribers.
You read that right. More people watch this guy’s videos than live in 217 of the world’s 233 countries. To give additional (admittedly apples to orange) points of context, 98 million people watched the goddamn SUPER BOWL this year; the finale of Seinfeld was only watched by 76 million people.
Numbers like that are the sort of thing that not only make me sit up and take notice, but also question my viability as a member of the culturally hip. I didn’t subscribe to trends like male rompers or FortNite, but I sure as hell was aware of them. How did I miss this?
And furthermore, after watching close to 20 PewDiePie videos and STILL not understanding the attraction, why the hell do people watch this?
“My God,” I said to my wife after showing her clips of the internet superstar. “Is this what it was like when grown ups didn’t like The Beatles because of their haircuts?”
I’m not going to lie, it sent me into a little bit of a tailspin, because I know how the movie ends. My dismissal of PewDiePie is the beginning of a journey away from the land of cool, the first stop on the train to get off my lawn. What I once hated and could not understand, I will become.
Because the thing is, part of the reason I like being a teacher is because I like when kids validate my coolness. I’m the big brother home from college, regaling his sibling’s friends with tales of the great unknown.
When I first started teaching, I’d name drop my ass off, listing the bands I’d met and worked for, the celebrities I shared nights in LA or Chicago with. They’d giggle and tell their friends and it filled me with a sense of connection.
Now, when I tell them I once had dinner with Pete Wentz, they’ll shrug and give the same response I gave Kramer: “who the hell is that?”
I’m trying to keep up, really I am. After reading a lengthy and well-written feature on now-deceased rapper Lil’ Peep in Rolling Stone, I thought he sounded like the kind of artist I could get on board with. I’ve heard the kids talk about Peep and other SoundCloud sensations like XXXTENTACION. So I pulled up the ol’ Spotify and clicked on his most popular song, Falling Down, which has 332 million plays and features a verse from the aforementioned Mr. TENTACION, who is also deceased.
Let me save you three minutes and 16 seconds. It’s not good. The beat sounds like Ross Gellar made it on his Casio, and there’s no actual, you know, song. As far as I can tell, it’s just a loop of people singing the same quatrain over and over, though XXX’s “guest verse” cleverly rhymes the word “falling” with “falling,” a piece of music genius certainly worthy of the track’s platinum status.
At least moreso than “she loves you yeah yeah yeah.”
My fall into the pit of old age continued last week when I attended a graduation party for one of my senior newspaper students. Within minutes of walking in the door, it became abundantly clear the only people I knew were the kids. They stood in clumps all over the house, sipping cups of soda and eating soft pretzels the size of elephant ears.
I made my rounds, exchanged pleasantries, and then found a corner to retreat into. Because what am I supposed to do? Stand on the fringe of the kids’ conversation and wait for a moment to insert myself? They just spent four years entertaining my ramblings because they were required to by law, but this wasn’t my classroom. This party was their domain, and there’s nothing more awkward than an old guy thinking he’s part of the hip young crowd.
So I watched the kids giggle and gossip — presumably about Twitter beefs I had no knowledge of — and wished I could melt into the fucking wall.
Then I ran into the student’s mother while she criss-crossed the house performing host duties. I thanked her for having me and expressed my disappointment her daughter wouldn’t be back next year.
“Jackie wouldn’t have gotten through school without you,” she said to me. “I’m thankful for everything you’ve done for her.”
I laughed. Jackie was the type of student who didn’t need me; she worked way harder than I did in school and was organized and put together.
“You took time to listen to her,” mom said, “and gave her a lot of great advice that helped her overcome the difficulties she was going through.”
That’s when it hit me. As the void between my students’ lives and my own continues to grow, I have begun to shift roles. No longer are students viewing me as their cool older friend who can talk to them about whoever the hell James Charles is.
I’m now the mentor, the dad who makes bad jokes and doles out not-too-terrible advice. The areas I make the most impact are talks about work ethic and relationships, and, my favorite topic, relaxing. High school kids can be so hyperbolic; they get wrapped around the axle over just about everything. So getting them to step back and gain perspective on whatever dumb drama is enveloping their lives is where I can help.
I capped my school year on Friday by meeting some of my old students out for a drink. They were on my yearbook staff four years ago, and since they’ve graduated, we’ve gotten together a few times for lunch or dinner to catch up. This is the first time they’ve all been over 21, so this time they suggested beers.
It was easy and fun, and I didn’t feel like I was intruding the way I did at Jackie’s graduation party. We laughed and told stories about putting the yearbook together way back in 2015, back when I was cool.
Since this whole existential crisis had been eating at me all week, I asked them point blank.
“I really don’t get it,” I said. “Why in the hell would you want to hang out with your teacher?”
“Because we like you,” one of them said.
“I liked plenty of my high school teachers, but I’ve never had a beer with them.”
“Yeah, but you were different. You were the only teacher that talked to us like we weren’t little kids.”
“And you don’t think it’s weird to hang out with some lame old man?”
“You’re not lame. You’re really cool, like a mentor.”
“Yeah, of course.”
I smiled. “Dead ass,” I said.
The table erupted in laughter. “Please don’t say that ever again,” they said.