Nurturing Your Inner Beehive
When my brother visited me a year or so ago, we were sitting in a bagel shop when, at about 3:15, a gaggle of middle school students entered — gawky, bold, and loud. He tensed noticeably and then admitted, “Middle school students put me on edge.” He’s not alone. Want to be at ground zero in our collective dread of this age? Walk around for a day telling people you are a middle school teacher. Dozens to hundreds to by now thousands of people have said to me:
You couldn’t pay me enough . . .
You must be a saint . . .
Wow. That’s a tough age . . .
Or simply put: “Bless you, you masochist you.”
After eight years of teaching, I have a glib rejoinder: “It’s much easier to teach this age than it is to be this age.” But it’s true. Most people who view my job with dread haven’t spent much time with age group since they were this age. And that’s the rub. I think seeing young teens can conjure up emotional memories of our own awkwardness; our first unrequited crush; our first period; that rumor that raced through homeroom. I happen to love the company of thirteen-year-olds — their developing sense of justice, their dramatic identity shifts, their intellectual excitement, their barely masked hope that you will like them and take them seriously as people — but even I don’t want to be resurrected as a pubescent.
Last year I took a group of students camping. The contracted wilderness instructor acted brusquely almost immediately toward one of my girls – a unabashed fashion diva. The counselor dripped with sarcasm at every encounter, until the girl asked me, “Why does she hate me? What did I do?” Alone on a canoe with the woman, I gently probed, and almost before my eyes she became a thirteen-year-old herself, threatened by a “popular” girl, feeling desperately uncomfortable in her own skin. How much of our adult insecurity is rooted in our middle school selves?
A family therapist I admire wrote that most fights in marriage relationships are some incarnation of that first big fight as a couple. Middle school is our “first big” of a hundred dynamics. I remember feeling like an autonomous person in a way I hadn’t known before, and it was intoxicatingly terrifying. I pulled away from my parents, yearning instead for connection with female friends, and explored my identity almost breathlessly in these interactions. I embarrassed easily. I consciously kept secrets for the first time – about my body, my emotions, my thoughts. And I felt guilty for years about an event or two from 8th grade. Nothing note-worthy – but what seemed big at that age imprinted and remained life-sized in my consciousness. Until one day a few years back . . .
. . . I was on a Washington DC trip with my 8th graders. On our third day – a 70-degree, blue sky, cherry blossom day – two girls approached me nervously. “We think Z is cutting. Actually, we know she is. She did it last night in our room.” And they spilled out all that they knew. I thanked them — it takes courage to come to an adult in these moments – and I told them it was off their plate now. I spoke to Z, called her mom, arranged for a flight home. The cab ride from Bethesda to Dulles has its own soundtrack in my memory: achingly fragile. Z sat next to me, reluctant to talk but not so reluctant for my company. And as I looked at her, she became me – thirteen and yearning for an adult to talk, to take me seriously, to help carry my worries. Look how small she is, how new, how complex, how beautiful. And I thought the Deborah of thirteen wouldn’t want me to still be carrying around her insecurities – she expected more from the promise of growing up. Somehow that night, I began to embrace her, and I began to let her go.
So . . . who were you at 13? In what ways does she linger with you?
P.S. The picture is from a great organization: Educators for Social Responsibility