Middle School #atozchallenge

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My youngest child is finishing up middle school this year and moving on to high school. I have to say that I couldn’t be happier. Overall, middle school has been my least favorite parenting experience. And it was my least favorite childhood experience, as well. Middle school is the time when children are forming their own identities away from their parents, moving into cliques, discovering what they might like to do, what they are good at, and realizing that they can project the things they don’t like in themselves onto others.

When my oldest entered our town’s middle school, I distinctly remember sitting in a parent meeting in the cafeteria with a large group of parents. The principal stood on stage giving her spiel, and finally, she proudly stated, “There is NO bullying in our school. None.” And then she turned to the students she had coerced to be on stage with her and said, “Isn’t that right, students?” To which they all nodded, looking like deer in headlights.

As a teacher, a parent, and a long-ago middle-school student, I remember thinking that principal must have buried her head so deeply in the sands of self-created utopia that she had no idea what was happening in the halls she walked each day. And in fact, I was correct.

There was plenty of bullying at our middle school. But there was also much opportunity for growth. Middle schools are tough places, and so I offer some thoughts to help prepare for this experience.

1. You will not find “your people” in middle school. There will be a lot of people there, but they might not be people that you want to hang out with. They might not even be people you like. Don’t be discouraged. You are more likely to find them your people high school, but you might not find them until college. You will eventually find people with whom you have much in common.

2. Don’t work on being popular. From my experience, middle school popularity (even high school popularity) is fleeting. The people who are popular now will find themselves in amongst people who are older and smarter and more popular than they are, and they won’t know how to fit themselves in with those people. Besides, the focus on popularity holds you back from true success in life.

3. Those people who look like they have it all together? The people who don’t accept you because you don’t play a sport or you don’t live in the right part of town? They are just as insecure as everyone else. If someone doesn’t accept you, that is a reflection on who they are, not who you are.

4. Middle school is just a brief period of time. I know it may seem like it lasts forever, but it will be over before you know it. Keep your focus on your school work and on developing the best you that you can be, and you will come out stronger and more amazing than when you started. You are enough, and you are exactly what this world needs. Develop your talents and figure out who you are becoming.

I am quite happy that we are reaching the end of our middle school experience. For all of you who are not, I wish you the best of luck. Remember: this too shall pass.

Perspective

Every now and then, we catch a glimpse of our children’s lives through reflection on our own experiences, past and present. Recently, I had one of those moments… when my thoughts on my children’s attitudes suddenly clicked into place in a new and unexpected way. It was an “ah-ha” moment, of sorts.

Over the weekend, I was introducing my sister to some people who grew up one town over from our own hometown. Since it was a small town in a rural area, growing up in the next town implies that we shared a fair degree of history. We knew some of the same people, competed as rival schools in sports, hung out at some of the same places, frequented the only local movie theater, and shopped in the same stores.

As we briefly discussed the fact that my sister graduated from a different high school, my mind wandered back into the past. My sister and I had different teachers. And just like any school, a handful of teachers were known to be “difficult,” more in their behavior and attitudes toward students than in their educational expectations.

For the most part, I had teachers who were memorable in positive ways: they wanted to teach, and they genuinely liked working with students. However, there were exceptions. There were teachers for whom unflattering nicknames had been passed from one class to the next for near generations. And it was one of these teachers with just such a nickname that I stumbled over while I was taking my ‘mind journey’ down memory lane over the weekend.

And after stumbling, I sat sprawled on memory’s path, realizing that we hadn’t been very nice back in high school. And then, I was pulled to the present, to the words I had recently said to my son when he called one of his (male) teachers a diva. “You shouldn’t be disrespectful to your teachers, C. They have a tough job teaching you guys all the things you don’t think you want to know.”

Gulp!

There I was, stuck straddling a line. As a teacher myself, I would normally advocate for the teacher in this instance. Getting up in front of a classroom full of apathetic, sometimes ungrateful (insert year here: sophomores, seniors, you name it) day after day is not an easy task. It can be brutal.

Then again, being a kid in a class with a teacher who has forgotten what it is like to be a teenager—a teacher who hasn’t updated his or her approach to teaching since the age of the dinosaurs, and chooses not to (ever) smile—is not easy, either.

Suddenly, I realized that what I perceived as “disrespect” was really something of a rite of passage. As we work to figure out our relationship with the world and how to deal with people we don’t necessarily want to get along with, but need to get along with, we seek to find a comfortable place to fit them into our experiences. We use nicknames to diminish these people so they are slightly less intimidating and they fit more neatly into our experience. For teens, this can be the way they survive the classes that otherwise threaten to bore them, annoy them, or terrify them.

And straddling this line between kid and teacher is the constant battle I face as a parent. This is the battle that determines if I am successful or not. I am constantly faced with the need to remember what it was like to be in my children’s shoes—whether they are teenagers or toddlers, while still teaching the skills necessary for them to function in a world which requires an ever changing mix of diplomacy, sensitivity, and candor.

For the most part, my children are respectful and polite when they walk out my door and into the world. Perhaps then, they really are learning what they need to know to make their way in the world. Perhaps a little name-calling, in the right context, can help to put relationships in perspective.

Bullies

This week, the final week of the semester, the hot paper topic seems to be bullying. I have read papers on bullying and suicide, the role of bullying in school shootings, bullying and Asperger’s, and bullying in prisons. So today, I am revisiting an experience we had with bullying….

My daughter was in kindergarten—riding the bus with elementary students through fourth grade—when she experienced bullying for the first time. It was the first year of public kindergarten in our town, and some important guidelines hadn’t yet been established. In fact, not long after this incident, one of several incidents on our school busses that fall, kindergarteners would be restricted to seats in the front of the bus, so the driver would be able to keep an eye on them….

Because my tiny daughter had a big, second-grade brother on the bus, she rode toward the back to be near him. But one day, not long into the school year, a fourth grade boy got on the bus and sat in the seat with her. He was big and tough and willing to use his size and age to exert his power wherever he could. On this particular day, he exerted his power over my five-year-old daughter.

When the bus stopped to let the kindergarten, first, and second graders off on their playground at school, this fourth grader turned his back, talked to his friends, and refused to budge, purposely blocking my daughter’s exit. By the time the bus drove around the school to the “big kid” playground, my daughter was scared and in tears, knowing she was in the wrong place. When she got off the bus, a fourth-grade safety patrol student came to her rescue, walking her around the building and depositing her with her class.

Not long after, I saw this young bully playing with his friends near our house. “You should really pick on people your own size,” I told him as I walked by. Interestingly, he knew exactly what I was talking about.

“The principal believed me when I told him I didn’t do it,” he responded, his eyes wide and purposefully innocent.

“That’s fine,” I said calmly, still walking. “But my daughter doesn’t know enough about busses and bullies to make up a story like that,” I shrugged, letting him know I knew the truth, and I continued on my way.

His response came about 15 minutes later when the boy’s mother knocked on my door, trembling with anger. “If you ever speak to my son again,” she said, but she didn’t have an end to her threat—you know, the part that is the actual threat. As she went on about the virtues of her son and the fact that she believed his side of the story, her continued threats of “Don’t you ever…” kept trailing off into emptiness. Her son stood behind her, smug and satisfied that his mother was putting me in my place.

When I finally had enough, I turned around, stepped inside, and calmly closed the door, shutting her out and sealing in my family, my home, my peace. I turned to see my children—all three of them, then three, five and seven—wide-eyed and stunned, looking to me for reassurance that this wasn’t as scary as they thought it to be.

“Well,” I said with a sigh and a wink. “Now we know where that boy learned to be a bully, don’t we?” Their little bodies relaxed as they nodded their agreement in unison.

Indeed, children who watch their parents bully others are at risk of becoming bullies themselves. On the other hand, children who have good role models at home… they can change the world for the better!