Everything I love about being human is embodied in this group I get to work with daily.
Eighteen heads are bowed quietly over an exercise on prepositions. Joey looks up absently, just as a tall blonde woman strides past the window.
“Adam, there’s your mom,” he says. Heads bob up, eager for distraction.
“Hey, Adam,” calls out Thomas from his seat in the far corner of the room. “Your mom is hot!”
The room falls silent. All eyes dart toward me, and I stare in shock and consternation at Thomas. From his corner, Thomas stares back at me with equal shock and a measure of fear.
Welcome to sixth grade, where the impulse to say whatever comes to mind reigns supreme, rarely checked by forethought because, well, sixth graders don’t have much forethought. Their evolving sense of right and wrong develops retroactively, reactively, in response to actions already taken – such as calling your friend’s mother “hot,” out loud, in front of your teacher.
Thomas knew the second the words leapt from his mouth that he had said something wrong – he knew it, and I knew he knew it. In that moment when his eyes shot over to me, his expression of awful surprise matching mine, I felt such affection for him, such tenderness and sympathy and humor. I wanted to hug him and laugh, “Thomas! How could you say that?!” and let him laugh and be forgiven.
But we are big on consequences here in middle school, so Thomas and I have a serious though calm discussion after class about what is and is not appropriate to say out loud, about the importance of thinking before you speak, about the need to apologize to Adam for making him feel weird about his mom.
When “the talk” is over, he shuffles out, sheepish and relieved, hands shoved deep in pockets. Though Thomas surely still finds Adam’s mother hot, he will likely avoid saying anything out loud about anyone’s mother for a while. At least for a couple of days.
Among educators, middle school students have a reputation for being difficult, even distasteful. Those who teach middle school by choice are thought especially saintly or especially masochistic, depending on the crowd. I came to middle school from a position teaching high school, and I was not at all sure I would like this not-quite-teenager, not-quite-little-kid age group.
What would they be like? Young enough to accept without question the authority of a teacher? Old enough to test authority and push limits? Would the boys be into video games and baseball cards or subversive music and girls? Would the girls wear bras? Play with Barbies? Eschew Barbies? Menstruate? Be obsessed with horses and kittens?
The answer to all these questions, I have discovered in the seven years I’ve been teaching middle school, is yes. Middle schoolers, particularly those I teach at the front end of it, almost defy definition, so wide is the range of “normal” among them.
Every year in my classroom there are small, skinny boys with big ears and knobby knees who like board games and computers. Sitting beside them are boys whose growth spurts have already begun, who hang out in skate boarding parks and idolize Jimi Hendrix.
And the girls … the girls are everywhere: quiet, flat chested and bespectacled; bosom-sprouting and brassiered; mall crazy and sports crazy and boy crazy and boy fearful. They are dressed in tight jeans and cropped tops or warm-ups and baggy T-shirts, toting YM Magazine and lip gloss or Hello Kitty purses and stuffed bunnies.
Sixth grade is characterized by contradiction; that is what I love about it. In fact, everything I love about being human is embodied in this group I get to work with daily. All the raw emotion, mixed impulses, physical exuberance and fatigue, the silliness and sadness and joy and boredom and awkwardness of being a person is lived here every day.
The scraped elbow from PE class hurts so much! The chocolate chip cookie is so good! Farting in class is so funny! The story we are reading is so boring! It is a world of exclamation and humiliation, resilience and humor, and pure, rich poignancy.
That is probably why all the middle school teachers I know – myself included – are absolutely wiped out by the end of each day. It is exhausting to try to hold the attention of a group of young people who are daily experiencing a nearly full range of human emotion.
But it is also why we wake up each day full of hopeful anticipation. I know I will never be bored at work, never watch the clock wondering how it could only be 10 a.m. If anything, middle school teaching is overstimulating, and there is never enough time in the day to convey and elicit all we want to.
Of course, overstimulation can be wearing, and we are not saints. But for all the moments of frustration a day at school may bring, there are at least an equal number of deeply satisfying, hilarious, and downright heartwarming moments. When I see “popular” Lisa help shy Jane find her place in the textbook, when tough Martin helps scattered Will pick up the nachos that slid from his lunch tray, I am filled with a sense of hope for humankind.
I remember the wide smile on Emily’s face when, discussing a novel we were reading, she said, “Oh, I get it. The weather outside is getting warmer as Robin is getting happier. What’s happening outside matches what’s happening inside the character. Cool.” And, in the midst of the ensuing discussion, Henry raises his hand. “Hey look,” he announces. “I just made a hockey stick out of my book cover!”
Everyone laughs. The moment of reflection is ruined. And I am once again reminded of why I love my job.
Jennifer Weinblatt is a local middle school teacher.