April 2018

Monday, May 24, 2010

NL #26: Middle School

NL #26: For me, middle school was miserable. Except for a few friendships, I felt insecure, alone, insufficient, and I thought I might always be. I was tall, skinny and awkward. Custodians, thinking I was a boy, stopped me from going in to the girls' bathroom. I was a public school geek in a private school. I blushed so deeply that peers would say, "Look how red she is," whenever I answered role. My voice cracked like an adolescent boy's does as it changes; that made me blush. I was much more interested in sports than in boys, and I was not at all interested in gossip about our teachers' sex lives. I had my first beer in eighth grade, late for my generation.

Now I spend every other Monday afternoon working with a middle school teacher, Victoria, and her eighth grade class. Before radiation, when I was hobbling down the "hall" (really an asphalt driveway) one day, a student named Andrew from her class stepped into the hall to tell me that he doesn't know how to concentrate. We talked about some strategies, including communicating with his teachers. Then I was out for two months. When I returned, he asked me one day why I said I thought he has potential, why all the adults he knows say that. When I asked why he thought adults say he has potential, he said, "Because they feel sorry for me." In a later conversation, he told me that he had applied for an alternative school for next year, but that he didn't think he'd in get in because he thinks he isn't as smart as his peers, and he doesn't "deserve an education." The next time I went to the middle school, he'd been expelled for the rest of the year. Breaks my heart. How can you think you don't deserve an education in eighth grade?

Today I was at the middle school again. Victoria's students wrote about barriers they had faced in their lives and how they had responded to those barriers. This very chatty class wrote solemnly for ten silent minutes (that's a lot of silence in eighth grade.) When they shared their thinking, Fatima talked about how she had been afraid to climb the rope in her gym class, but she finally gained courage and did it. A mild-mannered Laurente talked about how he bullied students in fifth grade until he bullied a new student who beat him up after school. Everyone laughed about Lorente being a bully. Then Jesse talked about all the deaths he's faced in his family recently, and the class built from one student to the next on stories of loss, many connected to a far-away place some still think of as home.

I wanted to tell them that for me middle school was the worst and that life got significantly better over the years. They don't need to hear this from me. They need to believe that life right now will get better soon. They need to tell their stories and ache to have someone hear them. That's the power of Victoria's teaching: these students believe she hears them.

Today's toast is to all the eighth grade students and the adults--teachers, parents, mentors, coaches...--who stick with them. Thanks from one of those kids who needed you.



  1. Hey Mary, Can I send this to an 8th grade teacher friend of mine? It's really good.

    It's funny how I project my bad middle school experience on my daughters too. I try to not say, "Middle school is so hard." but I think they get that message anyways. Listening to them is a good point. This is rambly but just wanted you to know you struck a chord. take care.

  2. Such a good point that they don't want to hear, "it gets better" from an adult, since they are struggling and hurting and wanting relief right *now.* You are wise, Mary.


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