Mar 10, 2012

Middle School Blues

Orlando Junior Academy in College Park, Florida, where I spent my middle school years.
I think it's a lot easier to be a middle school teacher than it is to be a middle school student.  Sure we teachers have to deal with poor attitudes, bad work habits, and all kinds of disciplinary issues.  But we also have the gift of the Big Picture.   We can see beyond the classroom doors and the middle school drama.   We have our families and friends, our personal interests and pursuits.  But more than the big picture of life before and after 8 to 3, we also see the Big Picture of our students' lives.   We know in away that is hard for them to grasp, that this too shall pass, that life is much bigger and better than it might seem from their viewpoint now.  We can take their anger at us their teachers over the grave injustices of having their cellphone confiscated or their name written down when they "weren't even talking!" We know that they'll get over it, and in the long term might even thank us.  We've seen former students go on to face the wider world and make a life for themselves.

But to be right in middle of middle school, to be in the belly of beast, sitting in the desks, doing the homework (or not), walking the halls just trying to get through the day, with your body juiced on hormones and going haywire, your emotions all over the map, and burdened with the weight of knowing everything and being surrounded by idiots, chief among them the adults you have to deal with.  That's hard.  We adults tend to be dismissive of teen-age angst, but I don't think that's really fair.  Most of us forget that without the Big Picture that can only come with time and experience, middle school blues are very much real.

The following are some snippets from my pen and paper journal from 24 years ago when I was a skinny fourteen year old with a bushy head of hair, big glasses, and high-pitched voice.  Through these entries, I'm taken right back to the feeling of what it was like to sit in the desks my students now inhabit:

First, a little time capsule!

Wednesday, March 9, 1988

We had an election for who WE would have voted for in the primaries last night.  [Al]Gore got 2 [votes], [Jesse] Jackson got 3, and [George H.W.] Bush got 10 (I voted for Bush along with nine others).  Bush won the real primaries here too.  I think it's going to be Bush and Dukakis.  Troy can sing the words to "Paradise" by David Lee Roth.  He does it good too and even sounds like him. . .

A fairly quiet day turns dramatic at recess:

During Study Hall we went outside for recess.  Again I was not on Alpo's team (Hurrah!!).  Neither was Dean because he secretly dislikes being over there ["Alpo" was derivative nickname we had for a student who attended our school for a few months during my 8th grade year].   John also switched over to our team and they took Ricky.  It was a fairly good game.  But Alpo was making us sick.  Every time he made a point he'd make a point or something: "Believe that!" or "How do you feel!"  I burned him bad when I got that touchdown.  But anyway the others started calling him a n-----. . .John said I was on the wrong team [our team was predominantly white, the other predominantly black].  I said "No, I'm not.  The only reason the teams are like that is cause he's prejudiced."  It's true.  Oh brother, what a troublemaker.

One thing that really strikes me about my own middle school experience was the racial tension ever percolating just under the surface at our Central Florida school in the mid to late eighties.  We were already twenty years out from the end of southern segregation and yet it seems like things were much worse when I was in middle school then they are now.  I have many memories of classmates and even teachers and pathfinder leaders making openly racist comments similar to what I described above.  I'll never forget one teacher who proclaimed to us that he didn't like "n-----rs."  And then proceed to explain that not all black people fit that description, only the bad ones.   My memory of that one teacher's comment was that it was awful, but when I read my journal entry about it, I seemed not to be bothered at all.   I guess I comforted myself with the knowledge that I was one of the "good ones."  I tended to take incidences like these in stride, at least on the surface, but I think deep down it was quite upsetting and frightening, especially when talk like this came from authority figures.

Outwardly what appeared to bother me more than racist declarations from my teachers was  "injustices" like this one:

I asked for my Mad magazine back from Tim but he said Mrs. Kovalski had taken it way and I had to ask for it.  So I asked for it and Mrs. Kovalski said someone was looking through it and had taken it.  She also said such magazines were inappropriate. Inappropriate my A!!  Grandma doesn't mind these magazines. . .

This kind of thing happens all the time with my students.  A phone or ipod gets passed around and I end up confiscating it from someone other than the owner.  I can also now relate to my teacher's casual loss of my magazine--the mentality is "Hey, you shouldn't have brought it to school in the first place."  However, I think I sometimes forget that my students view of appropriateness and my own are different.  I have also experienced that justification students feel when they feel their family supports their actions (Though in truth, I don't think grandma would really have been "okay" with Mad magazine had she really looked at it.  And I say that as someone who still doesn't necessarily see it as inappropriate (though who knows what it's like now. . it's been years since I looked at an issue.)

The day ends with a long conversation on the phone with a girl I had a crush on.  By this time the crush was beginning to fade to some degree and morph into more of a friendship (on my end anyway, for her that's all we'd ever been).

Christi called and we talked a LONG time.  It was really interesting though I forgot a lot of what we talked about. . ."

I guess these days these conversations would happen via text message. I imagine it's much harder as a parent today to know what your kids are up to now that you don't have your teen obviously tying up the phone for hours at a time.

The next day, March 10, exactly 24 years ago today, drama with "Alpo" exploded.  We were in P.E. class and:

Then it happened our favorite friend Alpo got sent out of the game for losing his temper so often.  He through his [field hockey] stick at the stage and as he walked by I said, "I guess you're a big man now."  He turned around and attacked me. Then he let me up and as I started up, he jumped me again.  He is crazy, plain stark CRAZY!!  Well he left.  I wasn't bothered much.  Just a little bit shaken.  Talked awhile [with classmates, undoubtedly about what just happened].  I heard him making plans with his slaves [my term for my classmates who sided with him].  Changed [clothes after P.E.  Alpo came into the bathroom  "Sean, I got one thing to say to you.  Don't ever talk to me" and then Supermouth went on to tell me about how he knows I don't like him and everything and how if I say anything he's gonna have to kill me.  That's the biggest piece of horses--- I ever heard.  The whole time I stood there tapping my foot looking at him. . .

Went to study hall.  Me, Jonathan, and Todd all went to the library to talk about Alpo in peace.  Unfortunately, he followed us down there.  I thanked Roxie and Enoch for sticking up for me. I never thought I'd see the day Roxie would stick up for me.  I guess now we are fighting a common enemy, ALPO.  Well, anyway we went and whispered about him.  We also talked about the elections and Jimmy Swaggart. Sometimes Arf-Arf Alpo came near our table and listened but he heard nothing.  Once he even went into the books to listen but still we said nothing.  What a faint [??? My handwriting is sometimes illegible]. . .

Nothing else happened of any interest at all except Alpo hit Roxie twice today and called her a f--khead.  Christi called but we didn't talk much. Mostly about Alpo.

I played it cool in the moment when this young man came after me physically and verbally, but I remember that feeling of adrenaline coursing through me, and frankly being quite terrified despite my apparent bravado.  That feeling was not unsual for me in middle school.

Our treatment of the boy we cruelly called "Alpo" is one of the great shames of my class.  He was difficult, this is true and to a large degree he did bring upon himself much of the students' disgust.  He arrived at our school before Christmas, and with his charismatic personality and bad boy persona, was instantly popular.  However he had trouble understanding how to make and keep friends, and quickly fell out of favor with many of my classmates.  By the time he left a few weeks after the entry above, he had alienated every one in the class and was pretty much a pariah.  With hindsight, I see now that he was misunderstood, and we, like most middle schoolers were unforgiving, impatient, and harsh, uninterested in trying to help him find his way.  I am ashamed to say that I rejoiced that my status in the class was upgraded at his expense.   I don't know what happened to him after he left our school; our paths never crossed again.

As I look at my own students I feel that some, at least, are having a better middle school experience than I did, but I think many of them are experiencing the same roller-coaster of emotions that I did.  Some are posssibly having an even worse experience than I did.  My goal is to let my students know that I care, that I believe in them, that they matter.  I don't know if they'll hear me; I don't know that I ever heard my own teachers, but I'm going to keep trying.

I find it rather ironic that I, who have such dreary memories of my middle school years, would end up choosing to spend year after year in 7th and 8th grade.  It doesn't feel the same though, and I guess that's because as an adult, I can see what I couldn't see as a fourteen year old--I can see the future.  I don't think it's possible to be a middle school teacher without being a futurist.  To teach middle school is to live beyond the right now to the bright future that belongs to each child we teach.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow, great insight!