“And that was the first time I saw boobs.”
The conversation began innocently enough when I opened a copy of The New Yorker at work. “Work” was a media lab for youth and adult camps at WHYY, Philadelphia’s public radio station and home to various young, sprightly and bespectacled journalists. Sam, one of my more engaging camp students, mentioned that his parents always had a copy of The New Yorker on hand. The first article he had ever read tucked within its venerable pages was a story on Hugh Heffner. Sam told this story with a sixteen-year-old’s eagerness, if not self-conscious need to please, a brace-faced smile as he casually tossed his gaze upwards in the direction he had spiked the front of his hair that morning.
As an intern and teaching assistant to high school students, my job required supervising activities: in this case, Sam’s editing of a short film. He bore my constant presence with good grace. I knew little to nothing about Final Cut software, but Sam took my suggestions politely and asked my input on his final cuts. I heckled him innocuously as he sipped his seltzer water—seltzer water—between edits, letting him moan over his lead’s delivery skills.
And then, the boob joke. Caught somewhere between laughing incredulously and acting like a responsible adult, I made a blustery choking noise.
“Sam, I don’t need to know that. I don’t want to know. Sit down,” I said, gesturing towards the desktop.
At the interview, the media director said that my job was equivalent to that of a middle-school Spanish teacher—I need only be a few chapters ahead of the students. Which was convenient. Who needs practical experience?
When the director asked why I wanted to work with high schoolers, I told him not because I wanted a teaching degree—I don’t—or because I’ve seen every Best Picture Oscar winner since 1930—I haven’t, I live under a rock—but simply because I liked to teach. Which was me subconsciously expressing my simple, ego-driven, hedonistic need to be liked.
This proved difficult. I don’t think I realized how young the students were until a group of boys pestered an intern—unassuming, gold-hearted Stetson—to buy them tickets to the The Bling Ring because they wanted to go see Emma Watson indolently bathe herself in Paris Hilton’s bathtub. Sure, we could buy beer and R-rated movie tickets, join the army, and pay our own rent, but we were only separated from the kids by a marginal number of years.
Being a likable assistant that the students might freely accept advice from, while preserving my authority, was paramount I thought. I can compare this to walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls as doe-eyed sharks wriggle about beneath the white caps. One day, a group of camp girls asked what my name was, because “yesterday we couldn’t remember! We were like, ‘the one with the brown hair, the cool one who kind of looks like a teacher—”
Apparently I came off as matronly. My sophomoric pride took a hit, but I was cool. The cool one. And these girls had the pluck (or depravity) to say it to my face.
Then the following week, Sam regaled me with the “first time I saw boobs” revelation. And all I could do was pray the director couldn’t hear my blustering from his office down the hall.
This was, in retrospect, a fairly innocent joke. Had the instructors heard Sam’s mild anecdote, he might have received a shake of the head and an exasperated “get back to work.” But where would I have been? The buddy-buddy intern? The shameless instigator? The dirty joker with her mind in the gutter? I would be blacklisted and never receive a recommendation and have to apply for future jobs and bank accounts and driver’s licenses under the pseudonym Barbie Campbell. After I move to Texas, that is. Because everyone knows that Texas lets you get away with anything, except an abortion.
But indeed, when I say that teaching, for me, was a subliminal way of expressing my need for love and respect, I am also disclosing my own weakness for vanity. I am hardly out of my teens myself: what the fuck do I know about teaching a child, or another human being? When did I delude myself into thinking I was John Keating, and that my students were going to salute me with “O Captain, My Captain,” feet planted defiantly on their desks in my honor?
Should I really be concerned, when these kids are using what interns have been provided to them as props? Poor, magnanimous Stetson suffered a camper spitting coffee into his face six times just to get a shot right. We have stood on the streets of Old City in 101 degree weather holding boom microphones for grumpy adolescents. We have gentled them along whilst sniping their bat-shit story ideas. We have allowed them free lunch while we eat brown-bagged peanut butter and jelly. We aren’t getting paid.
I was practically asking for that inappropriate boob joke. I’m not a sixteen-year-old boy, I’m worse. I’m a twenty-year-old female college intern.