by: Grete Howland
“To truly accept people of this age as fully human is to unlock a treasure chest that’s been hiding in plain sight.” In defense of middle schoolers…
Middle schoolers are considered untouchable in our society. They get ignored, and when they can’t be ignored they get yelled at. We want them to be able to control themselves better, to act “normal,” even though our understanding of the brain tells us they often can’t. They are rarely featured in our popular stories – in books, on TV, or in movies – because they’re no longer cute little children, but neither are they independent enough for the adult-less adventures of high school and beyond. Like everyone else, these middle schoolers are self-centered and insecure, the only difference is they haven’t learned how to hide it yet. They are expected to disappear from public life for two or three years and then come back to society more disciplined and less awkward, at which time we will, perhaps, accept them as people.
That’s where I come in – those two or three years of intentionally separated transformation. You see, I am one of those mythical creatures who not only chooses to hang out with early adolescents, but actually prefers their company to that of adults. I am a middle school teacher. Despite the condolence-laden admiration that’s communicated by the raised eyebrows and “Oh my god’s” I get from people when I reveal my chosen vocation, the truth is that it’s everyone else who’s missing out. Middle schoolers are among the most inspiring, encouraging, deep-thinking humans on the planet, and we would all know that if we didn’t let our lingering pubescent insecurities get in the way of our ability to be present with them through a particularly tough time in life.
What nobody tells you about jumping into the company of middle school students as a grown-up is that you will, no matter how mature you think you are, be immediately spirited back to the rank and fearful hallways of your youth. You will care what the cool kids think of you. You will regress into inhibitions you’d thought you’d overcome. You will be paralyzed by others’ awkwardness, hoping it doesn’t become associated with you. You will be tempted, in essence, to be as inwardly-consumed now as you were back then, and you probably won’t even realize that is what’s happening. All you’ll know is that you’re remarkably uncomfortable and that you want to run away. But if you want to see what I mean, about how valuable middle schoolers really are, you must resist the temptation. It is the twelve-year-old’s time for selfishness, not yours.
If you accept this challenge – if you do the courageous work of embracing and forgiving the teenage version of yourself that’s been cowering in a dark corner of your heart since high school graduation – what you will find on the other side, other than your own peace, is what the parents and teachers of middle schoolers wish everyone could know: that to truly accept people of this age as fully human is to unlock a treasure chest that’s been hiding in plain sight. While there is a lot that’s unpleasant about the way the body and brain re-work themselves during puberty, there’s a lot that’s magnificent too, and it won’t take long to realize that fact once you learn to sift through the layers of hormones in the way.
First, middle schoolers are easily excited. I don’t mean they’re easily made hyper, though that’s very true. I mean they are interested – in ideas, in propositions, in people, in opportunities – and they’re not afraid to show it. I’ve found this to be a significant difference between them and the middle adolescents they’ll soon become. While high schoolers have grown used to intellectual work and are often more occupied with demonstrating an ability to remain aloof in the midst of the currents of the world around them, middle schoolers’ brains have only just become capable of abstract thought. Thinking is novel to them. New pieces of information are revelations. Do you remember what it felt like to get excited about having an idea? Not the idea itself, but the process of arriving at it? Most of us don’t as we’ve been thinking for far too long. We take it for granted. Hang out with middle schoolers, though, and you’ll learn to appreciate how awesome our brains are, and what a wonder it is to make a connection between one thing and the next.
Because they are new to abstract thinking, middle schoolers are often prone to more interesting and creative ideas than the average adult. Though they are profoundly concerned with what others think of them, early adolescents are also rookies at sating that concern with normalized behavior. In other words, by a certain age we all figure out how to fit our ideas into modes of logic and expression that are well within the proverbial box. Being less well trained in the art of fitting in, middle school students have a freedom of imagination that leads them to interpretations of the world that would blow the mind of any college professor willing to listen. I experienced more exciting and perspective-expanding discussions with a bunch of thirteen-year-olds in my first year of teaching than I had in all four years of graduate school combined. If you want intellectual stimulation devoid of pretension, talk with a middle schooler about whatever they’re studying that most interests them at that moment.
Another offering this age group brings to the table is a strong sense of justice. Like most traits, this one has its dark side. Any parent of an early adolescent will tell you that with puberty comes a phase of black-and-white thinking that is stubbornly clung to by the young person in question. They become, from the adult’s point of view, unreasonable. But while this may not be the most fun development for the grown-ups who are perceived as getting in the way of the child’s sense of fairness, it is useful – and even inspiring – when directed toward larger societal issues for which more mature folks have lost their fire. Middle schoolers, because of their strong (if simplistic) sense of right and wrong, are eager to engage with social justice dilemmas. They want to call out wrongdoing; they are unapologetic about demanding fair treatment, not just for themselves but for all beings they know of that suffer. This level of conviction combined with their fresh thinking skills make middle school students an ideal resource for creative problem solving at all levels of community and society.
So why don’t we turn to them for collaboration? Well, say the exhausted adults, with all propriety and caution, what do they know? Not as much as others who are older, this is true. And yet, it could be, also more. If they lack some knowledge they have yet to gain, they also have some knowledge we adults gave up along the way. Knowledge of the thrill of cogitation and collaboration. Knowledge of how strange and simultaneously deserving of respect everybody is. Knowledge of what it means to abide by the awkwardness and burdens of desire we all live with but grow to deny or ignore. Perhaps we dismiss them because some of what they have to teach us falls under the category of what we’d like to forget. Perhaps we think it will take too much effort to change course and give their ideas a try. Whatever the case, we reject them at our own peril.
The truth is that when we dismiss an entire group of people because of where they are in their process of development, we dismiss that stage of development in ourselves. But it needs to be integrated, just like they need to be integrated. There seems to be this unspoken assumption in our society that a young person has within himself all of the information he needs to grow up, that the individual will naturally mature. Though this may be true for physical development in most cases, it is not true for the social and emotional aspects of life. Teenagers need the guidance, opinions, regulations, honesty, and just plain physical presence of adults around them consistently in order for them to become supportive and supported members of society. Even if their only response in the moment is to push back against those things, we must not turn away. Middle schoolers in particular need us not to be scared of or disgusted by their emotions and their bodies. They need us to see past those things, which will only be out of control for a relatively short period of time, and into the beauty of their hearts and minds. Those are the things that will endure – and be our saving grace – if we cherish them as we should.
Grete is a writer and educator living in Portland, OR. She holds an MA in creative writing and literature, as well as an MA in theology. Her work as a teacher focuses on empowering adolescents to be critical thinkers and world-changing citizens. She also writes about her personal journey away from Evangelical Christianity at www.weird-name.com.