It’s not even Labor Day and school has already been back in session for nearly a month. Since August 1st to be precise.
If I didn’t know that from the local news, I would know it from the procession outside my front door every weekday morning, starting around eight a.m., the surge of prepubescent kids.
For 25 years now, you see, we have lived within walking distance of a middle school, and the students whose parents refuse to drive them (not many, judging from the congestion and double parking in our neighborhood) can be easily seen slow sauntering toward the entrance or running to beat the bell. Mostly in packs – the boys in shorts even on the chilliest January mornings, bantering and jostling. A few stone-faced loners, stragglers plugged into their ear buds and their smart phones.
But whether smiling or sullen, when my husband and I take our daily dog walk past them and say, “Hey,” it is rare that they make eye contact, let alone say, “Hey” back.
It’s as if there is an invisible fence – like the electric ones that people install in their front yards to keep their dogs in – keeping these pre-teens and all adults apart. These middle schoolers: checked out, even unfriendly.
Not the same at all for my neighbor around the corner, a just-retired 6th grade counselor, who must have worked at that same middle school (what we call schools that house 6th through 8th graders) for two decades or more.
She and I sat on her porch one afternoon recently, maybe the second week of classes, chatting about — middle schoolers — and her eyes would light up when she talked about them, and even when she saw a stray boy walking past us way too early for dismissal – she wondered aloud affectionately about why he was out on the street.
When I commented that I find these kids inscrutable, she chided me gently, telling me that looks are deceiving, that their level of engagement is actually rich, their minds and passions, their awareness of what is happening in the world.
She seems to love middle school and middle-schoolers – bless all those teachers and counselors and cafeteria workers and crossing guards who work with them.
Not only did she love her work – and tells me that she felt more than a tiny pang of sadness when school started and she was no longer there – she seems to have liked, if not loved, her own middle school days: she actually has attended a few 8th grade reunions of her own class.
I couldn’t possibly imagine. In fact, I have rarely thought about my junior high school years (grades 7-9). But somehow the release this summer (amidst the usual animation and thriller prequels and sequels) of an audience favorite and critical success from the Sundance independent film festival, Eighth Grade appealed to me. While a slapstick youth audience movie mostly aimed at adolescent boys a couple of years ago, Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life was, up until a Netflix download last week, a definite must miss, this year’s story of a girl in her last week of middle school was appealing to me as a grown up hoping for a glimpse into a new generation of young women — and perhaps a revisit for me into that previously pretty much written out period of my own developmental history.
As one critic describes the movie, 13-year-old Kayla “endures the tidal wave of contemporary suburban early adolescence as she makes her way painfully through the last week of middle school.” In an effort to appear like she has it together, Kayla posts motivational videos for her fellow middle schoolers on YouTube, all about confidence and self-image — and gets very few “views.” Despite her upbeat advice to others, she struggles socially, and the only award she is destined to receive at graduation is for being the quietest student.
Without being a spoiler, the movie invites us into her world where she experiences disconnect, awkwardness, and embarrassment; has unrequited crushes; is shunned by the mean girls; and is sexually pressured. All of this in the larger context of epidemic school shootings and global terrorism.
The kids who are still going through, or are just on the other side of, this middle school period, especially the girls who have been asked to rate the film – written and directed by a male – have generally loved it, one pointing to how accurate it is, and therefore how uncomfortable it made her – how exposed – how Kayla’s mostly terse and sometimes lashing out, door slamming conversations with her single dad are dead on.
Yet, ironically, or beyond ironically, because of some four-letter words and slang terms, and a few mildly sexual scenes, the movie is R-rated, meaning that a 13-year-old is unable to buy their own ticket, unaccompanied by an adult, for a movie which has everything to do about and say to them.
Many of the reviewers who have long since passed through this stage felt more than uncomfortable after leaving the darkened movie theater.
One said that the movie brought back for him (in a good way, in artistic terms) the unwanted memories he has of the 8th grade, something he is still trying to forget in therapy, he wrote.
Critic Peter Debruge calls 8th grade “the compulsory military service of American adolescence… the pimple-infested, body-odorous, hair-in-uncomfortable-places minimum security prison every girl must endure, a real life horror movie guaranteed to haunt you for the rest of your life.”
Perhaps a bit extreme.
Jordan Junior High School in Palo Alto, California, was certainly grayly institutional after the small neighborhood schools I had attended leading up to 7th grade. The early 1960s building (which I can see now was modestly sized) seemed big, with asbestos ceilings, huge loudly ticking wall clocks, long rows of lockers, including my untidy one whose combination I could never master. A large athletic field I would walk to the very edge of to commune with a fellow outlier and the seagulls. The gym with the ugly blue regulation bloomers and more-dreaded trampoline (you could get out of the obligatory jumping if you had your period, which I had more often than not). The food choices, all of them poor: chips from the machine, vanilla shakes from the shake shack, chocolate cake, and nothing else on the gravy-pooled lunch plate. The knots of mean girls. The boys who ignored me. The clumsy searching for my own cluster, not often successful until high school and beyond. Red Cross student ambassador. Girl Scouts. Bad dark poetry. My history teacher makes a sign for my desk, with words like morose or happy, and tells me to let him know what my mood is every day. I refuse to say the Pledge of Allegiance in home room and I am periodically given a class detention, or at least threatened with it.
And beyond those walls: on my pink transistor radio: Dion and Del Shannon and Michael Row the Boat Ashore, and The Lion Sleeps Tonight. In the daily newspaper and on Walter Cronkite: JFK’s inauguration, the first human in space, five horrific passenger jet plane crashes, the Bay of Pigs Invasion. With the Cuban Missile crisis straight ahead.
In my own family, my husband went to a K-8 where at least his cohort was at the top of the heap, so to speak, no worse than any other alienating year for him as one of the few Jewish kids in that part of Phoenix, Arizona. Our adult children range from calling their middle school years the worst ever, to uncomfortable and obsessive, to insecure and angsty, but no more or less than any other middle schooler as they also swam the turbulent waters through serious family illnesses, the tail end of divorce, the presidencies of both Ronald Reagan and Clinton, the war in Bosnia, Columbine.
As a group of many generations, your tween and early teen years were shadowed by many different outside events: the Kennedy and King assassinations, the Iranian Revolution, the energy crisis. Some of you were hyper aware. Others not so much so.
Some of you told me that personally those middle school, junior high, extended grade, or high school years were relatively benign, a continuation of your life, your childhoods, with much bumpier years ahead. Using words to describe yourself like active and outgoing, inquisitive, naïve. Others used words like awkward, geeky, shy — obviously in need of improvement in social skills. Definitely not the best years of your life. A total misfit.
A lot to take with us.
Parent and author/blogger Michelle Icard reminds us that we bring our own middle school baggage to our attitudes about and toward today’s middle schoolers, understandably. When she surveyed parents of 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders, a quarter of them had definitely had bad experiences, 30 percent mostly good experiences, and the rest both good and bad. When she asks adults: “If you could be magically transported through time, back to age 12 or 13 or 14, would you do it?”
No way in hell, not for a million dollars.
Those daunting, discombobulated places. The people we were.
Why is it that the stuff that happens to us in middle school sticks, making it harder to see middle schoolers as they are – the positives as well as the maddening and puzzling? What they offer us in our families and our communities that we might not see or more important learn from. Who we can ignore or greatly misunderstand, or instead see through the eyes of those who work with them and research them, again like Michelle Icard, who says what she has come to love about these young people is that they are, yes, baffling and frustrating, but also impressive and inspirational.
Because behind the grumpiness and the bravado is where their adult identity formation is taking shape, the sorting out, the testing out of who they are apart from the parenting figures and the other adults in their lives, surrounded by peers with the same exhausting task.
That only half developed person, veering from toddler regression to a preview of our fully realized selves – for boys 28, for girls 22. That person who can feel “fake” or “changing,” learning to be different around different people. That self-conscious “everyone is looking at me” kid with almost no way to filter the mean remark, the eye roll, the giggle – that helps form the answer – accurately or not, of who they will become.
A time of wanting to be seen for who they truly are, fighting sometimes literally for dignity and respect (kids from Renroe with a fight everyday).
Yes, because the decision making and critical thinking, long-term consequences and impulse control part of their brains is a still under construction, they can either be out of control or feel the need to be completely in perfect control, and turn on those peers who they believe do not meet the same impossible standards.
Perhaps because of, and despite of, this physiological fact, the emotional control center kicks into highest gear – causing both disproportionate upset about seemingly small situations, hypersensitivity to real or perceived slights and frustrations – short-lived romances and one-way crushes – and on the upside deep empathy, what can be described as a “middle schooler’s super power.” A disproportionate response to social injustices.
They are natural justice makers.
As adults who have lived past middle school, we can help them through these years by listening well, by encouraging them to take risks, find good friends, and go on their own quests. As Kayla advises in the movie Eighth Grade – face your fears, let people see the real you, you never know what’s next and that’s what makes things exciting and scary and fun.
In this time of mind-numbing thought-lessness and truth-lessness, they can model for us the sheer emotional force of their justice-seeking. Their waves of compassion.
It’s just not fair, they say.
It just is not.
In the words of the Hebrew prophets: Justice, Justice shall you follow, that you may live.