There are few things in life I do better than speaking the secret language of teenagers when I'm at work. In fact, I'd say that I am fluent in speaking Girl. Whether it's a 6th grader or a junior in high school: I can get them to talk to me. It's a storyteller characteristic. In order to get people to open up to me and speak then it behooves me to place myself in a vulnerable enough position to gain their trust.
So, when Kari Bedford, a local photographer who happened to take the wedding photos for my daughter last year, asked if I could wrangle up a few girls for a project she's working on I knew it was a no-brainer. Can I get young girls to follow me into the creative realm and do stuff for picture taking and meet off-site from school at a new studio for a photographer they've never met?
Ummm, yeah. Easy peasy. Have you seen the amount of selfies they take? I HAVE AND OH MY GOD I HAVE SEEN SO MANY SELFIES.
In middle school, we live in the Land of the Adolescent where their brains are not yet fully formed. Where kids speak in coded language and constantly make up new words at breakneck pace. Where sometimes the only complete sentences uttered by them are song lyrics. Where what is in their heads is out of their mouths so fast that they don't have the speed bump necessary to slow it down should it be inappropriate or rude.
I love it here. It's absolutely nuts but I never wonder about my fashion choices or my hair or my words because they will tell me when they don't like something. This land is where my skin toughened up and where my back became waterproof.
Very little bothers me when it comes from people that don't mean anything in my personal home life.
Oddly enough, there are times when I meet people who shouldn't mean anything to me that end up profoundly affecting me.
I have been called every name you can imagine. Ever. (Sometimes I am slightly impressed by the imagination and creativity and compound words they create.) (All of them are NSFW.)
I have been threatened physically by students and parents.
Once, while supervising lunch a rather difficult student yelled, "You are a such a fat bitch!" at me.
In my most sing-song, high-pitched Princess voice I responded:
"Excuuuuuuuuse me. But did you call me FAT?"
This land is rough terrain.
Learning to speak Girl means being as good a listener as you are a speaker. The girls who showed up last night at Kari's photography studio ended up in the street, playing outside when they were waiting to be picked up by parents. The street was closed off as are many streets downtown right now for construction purposes so I wasn't too worried about them since I could see them from where I sat inside the studio.
I heard a commotion and noticed a group of boys on bikes had ridden by them and one fell off while doing some trick so I went outside to see. The sun was just setting and I caught them with my camera as they took off around the corner.
The girls were interested in my camera and we talked about my very amateur status and lighting and shadows. They let me practice on them while the sun set in the background.
Once the girls were picked up by their parents I took off and headed for home. My car was parked a bit away due to the street closing and as I turned the corner I saw the group of boys on bikes again. By the time I reached them I made eye contact with a few and then stopped to tell them I had taken their picture earlier.
"Yeah, that's when I fell off my bike. They all laughed."
The other boys laughed again when he said that.
I told them I was practicing with my camera and they asked to see the shot so I obliged them and then asked if I could take another of them, right here, in front of me. They obliged that, too. They smiled for my camera and laughed at me when I would say, "Oh, just one more picture! You're all so handsome."
We chatted about where they went to school and if I knew so-and-so and we spent a few minutes making connections. They told me who their cousins were who go to my school and I told them who my teacher friends were who work at their schools. Only one of them said he was out of school already.
Walking away, I promised them to post their picture on Instagram so they could see it and, looking past them I noticed a White police officer on a segway. As they rode away from me I heard their low voices say that they needed to split up and "There's the police" which an emphasis on "po". My body froze in that spot to watch them.
Everything changed. Their body language changed instantly and their comfort in posing for the camera just seconds before were now gone. No longer boys, they were men in an instant, morphing to fit the audience in a flash. With just the addition of the police officer who, by the way, had not approached them. The air shifted and became still. I don't know if the sun was still settting or not, but it hung in the sky not moving.
His presence was enough.
His Whiteness was enough.
Their youth was enough.
Their Blackness was enough.
What was just there, this brief sense of stranger trust, was gone. I had laughed when one of the boys said he was going to lift his bike over his head for the picture. Just like a middle school boy, I thought. Bravado. Strength.
The police officer didn't know which group to follow and I turned away so that I didn't watch him too closely, either. Whatever the ending was, I didn't watch. I didn't want to place all the blame on him for boys who've lost their innocence too quickly because they don't get to be boys. Kari purposefully blurred this photo for me because I feel like it represents what I could almost see if I squinted hard enough: Black boys who get to be innocent kids having fun playing outside on a beautiful Autumn day.
I speak more than just Girl or Middle School. My fluency in the language of children was tested last night and I know that I code switch.
But I wanted to speak Boy with them. Maybe with a special dialect of Innocent Black Boy.
Or maybe I was just speaking Human.
I wonder about the proficiency of our world to speak it, too.