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


Deborah is K-12 educator who nurtures a healthy interest in reading, writing, running, ethics, mystics, and interfaith dialogue.

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16 Responses

  1. Heather O. says:

    I still think of my young women leaders as these powerful reservoirs of wisdom and knowledge. I looked upon them as safe havens of comfort at a time when the last thing I wanted to do was talk to my mother but when I still desperately needed some adult guidance.
    As an adult, I realize just how much these women were struggling in their own rights, and they probably didn’t realize how much I needed them. We also share many difficulties in our lives now, and are really more like peers, or, as one former leader put it, sisters. Of course that’s a natural progression–after all, when you are 12, somebody who is 24 seems awfully old. When you are 31, it’s obvious that you will be friends with a 43 year old. I still enjoy the relationship (when I see these women, which isn’t often, I must admit), but part of me still wants to be the young woman who could talk to them about almost anything and get their advice about my problems that seemed so complex, but weren’t really. And maybe they do, too, actually. One of the women said to me a while ago, “Don’t you wish it was like old times when all we had to worry about was making sure your boyfriend didn’t sneak a grope?”

  2. jana says:

    When I was 13–literally the day I turned 13–I was in hospital bed, newly diagosed with bone cancer. Just the day before my bday I’d learned that I would lose my leg.

    I wish so badly I could spend some time with 13-me now. I want to hold her and hug her and massage that place between her eyebrowns that creases when she’s frustrated. I want to tell her that she will grow up to be something amazing. I want to tell her that it’s okay to make mistakes. And I want to tell her to smile. A lot.

    But since I can’t do that I give all of that love and advice to my kids. My oldest is entering jr hi next fall. We’ve talked a lot about it. In some ways I am so eager to see him striggle and grow through the next tough years. In some other ways I want to build a bubble of love around him and protect him from everything.

    Thanks for your post Deborah. It was nice to spend a few moments remembering….

  3. Keryn says:

    This is an amazing post, Deborah. I still remember the first activity after I became the Mia Maid advisor. (I was 26.) It was ice-skating, combined with the YM. When we got to the rink, the girls I drove scrambled out of the car and ran ahead to catch up with the rest of their friends. I found myself thinking, “Oh! They don’t like me! They don’t want to even walk with me!”

    And then I realized I was reacting the same way I had in similiar situations during middle school and high school. And I had to laugh, a little shocked. But it taught me that I needed to make a conscious effort not to act like a teenaged girl while I was AROUND teenaged girls. I think that flash of insight really helped me in my calling.

    Thanks for reminding me of that lesson, in such a wonderfully-written way.

  4. Deborah says:

    I felt unexpectedly emotional as I read your responses. It’s definitely May — the slow goodbye to this year’s students.

    Heather: My first students are now halfway through college. One of my favorite pupils is 21-years old and training to be an English teacher. I knew even when teaching her that we could be peers one day — honest-to-goodness friends, years down the road. When she e-mails with updates, I still sense that need to view me as a rock. A loving, steady mentor who gives her an anchor. She would not want to hear up my life choices and ups and downs — not yet. A skeleton version is fine. I think we have a craving for intimate leaders who allow us to lean on them without expecting the same in return. Someone wiser and more compassionate to point the way. My students love to hear stories about my childhood and teenage years — but I share very few stories about my current life, except for an occasional well-crafted tale. They don’t need to hear about my weekend; but need to tell me about theirs. It’s a healthy boundary. Now, as an adult, I still look at my favorite high school English teacher with a certain amount of awe — not for what I knew about her, but for how she made me feel about myself.

    Jana: Yup. I wish I could visit my younger self too — mostly to let her know that she’s going to be ok, and I had nothing like the face-to-face encounter with mortality that you did.

    Keryn: Beautifully said.

  5. Starfoxy says:

    I was carefree as a 13 yr old. It wasn’t until I was 15 that life became miserable. 🙂 Since I graduated from college I’ve wanted to be a YW leader. After reading this post, I can see a good reason why I shouldn’t be just yet. I’m not sure I’m mature enough yet to put away my own insecurities and give the girls the attention and help they need. And given the story you shared, they need lots of attention and help.

  6. AmyB says:

    This is a beautiful post, Deborah. I remembered my first year of YW. It was a traumatic and miserable time. I would often go home and cry after activities. I just wasn’t accepted or treated nicely by the older girls. Once I had my group of friends all in YW with me, we made a conscious choice that the younger girls would not be treated the same way.

    Heather: “and get their advice about my problems that seemed so complex, but weren’t really.”

    I had a reaction to this statement. Heather, it’s clear you are looking back and those problems wouldn’t be so complex to you now. I’d be worried if they were :). But I think it gets easy to belittle the problems of children and teens, when in fact at their level of development those problems are monumental.

  7. Darryl says:

    This is amazing. Are all women this incredibly insecure all the time?

  8. Caroline says:

    I don’t know where Darryl’s non sequitur is coming from, but I’ll remind him this is a post about being 13. So I would say. No, obviously, all women aren’t insecure all the time.

    If I could speak to my 13 year old self, it would be to say, “Lighten up! Have some fun!” I took everything so hard. Writing an essay was a traumatic event. Every comment on what I needed to do better crushed my soul. I actually would make my mom sit next to me for 5 hours straight as I was writing so I would have someone to bounce ideas off of and not feel so alone. (poor mom!)

    Likewise with my self-perception. I thought everyone was looking at me all the time and was terribly self-conscious. If only I could tell her that looks really don’t matter that much, being popular doesn’t really matter that much. Just be a nice person, do your best in school, and try to enjoy yourself.

    Thanks for the post, Deborah. I’m actually a credentialed English teacher and am eligible to teach middle school English. It sounds pretty fun to me in a lot of ways (though I worry about classroom management.)

  9. jana says:

    I agree with Caroline–this is about being 13 and the big insecurities that come with being that particular age. Though women at any age can feel insecure, even deservedly so, those feeling are magnified during the early teens.

    I’ve found that as I’ve gotten older I have become more and more confident, and I care less about what other people think about me. This seems to be a pattern that I’ve seen in my female friends as we’ve aged.

  10. Barb says:

    I love the movie “Hope Floats”. Particularly the part where Harry Connick, Jr (swoon!) tells Sandra Bullock (could she be any cuter in this movie?) that she used to be “bodacious”. When he said that, I knew exactly what he meant because I used to be bodacious too. I was absolutely unflappable – at the top of my game in everything that I did. It just never occurred to me that life wouldn’t just hand me whatever it was I wanted. I’m not so sure that I ever really moved out of that operational mode, I just think that I quit aiming beyond the mediocre. It has really only been recently that I’ve decided to embrace my former high aiming bodacious self. I’m deciding what I want and moving through my life with a sense of entitlement that I haven’t felt since those many sunny summers long ago. Ah, the clarity of youth and old age. What ever happens to us in the middle? 🙂

  11. Brooke says:

    I am wondering about what you said when you were describing your relationship with one of your first students who is in college now. Talking about how much you tell her about yourself, you said, “A skeleton version is fine. I think we have a craving for intimate leaders who allow us to lean on them without expecting the same in return.”

    I have often have friends who are teenagers and sometimes don’t know how much to say. My question is, how did you come to this conclusion? Is it something that developed with your professional experience or training? Is there ever a point where your relationship with this former student would change and you would share different kinds of things with her that you might share with a close friend? And, do you ever feel you are putting on a façade in not talking about yourself as much?

  12. Deborah says:


    Great questions. Long-winded answer to follow.

    Let me respond from a teacher’s perspective first. I spent three years working with student teachers, and the biggest difficulty many of them faced was the impulse to be their students’ “friends” — to be the hip teacher by blurring the boundaries. I have adopted the phrase of a great head of school: “I get my love at home.” In other words, I strive first for my students’ respect. I know from experience and study that many of my students are pulling away from their parents, exerting their need for autonomy. But the truth is, they still want and need strong adults in their life. Thus, many of them transfer this need for advice and validation to me, other caring teachers, youth leaders, coaches, etc. I often talk with parents about this, and they are grateful for other adults who can step in when they face slammed doors. Sometimes I get calls from parents asking me to talk to their kids about some issue or the other because they think I might have more success. Just last week at our Field Day, a mom was about to call out to her seventh grade girl to tie her shoe but stopped herself. “She would die of embarrassment if I said it,” she said.

    “Let me,” I responded, “Hey, Y — tie your shoe before you trip!” She complied with a smile.

    The other problem that occurs with teachers get too friendly is that, well, it becomes too easy to play favorites. I find some students’ personalities more appealing than others, but I strive like hell to treat them with equal regard and respect in a classroom setting. Last week, a mom related the backseat conversation among some seventh grade boys. They were listing teachers pets, and when they got to me they said, “Mrs. X doesn’t have favorites.” I remember years of teachers and YW leaders where I felt 1) they had favorites — where they acted more chummy — and I wasn’t one of them 2) they had favorites and I _was_ one, and other students were resentful. Not healthy.

    That said, what about a one-on-one relationship, no group dynamics. I tend to share but share selectively with teens, because if they are seeking me out they tend to be seeking me out as a mentor — it doesn’t need to be (and can’t be) a friendship between “equals.” Someday, perhaps, this student and I will become true friends — I have bridged that gap with one former teacher of mine — but she’s not ready yet. We don’t talk often and when we do it’s because she is looking for support. I love her and am happy to play that role — it’s not fake; in many ways, it’s the best part of me.

    That’s my take.

  13. Dora says:

    Thank you for this wonderful post Deborah!

    I confess to a lingering desire to work with the young women. Maybe a belated desire to help other women navigate the waters tha seemed so bewildering at the time?

    My mother, who developed two careers after her youngest child started school, was confused when she was called to be a YW leader. Not that she didn’t like teens, but she generally was only interested in her own children before this calling. Anyway, her bishop said he felt that with her ideals of education and self-sufficiency, she would provide a new dimension to the role models the YW were being exposed to. And, much like Deborah, I don’t think my mother ever got very chummy with the YW. However, I do believe that she provided a much needed model for integrity, encouraged the girls to pursue their educations, and was an overall anchor for them.

    In my youth, my mother was not my friend, she was my mother. I do think that children need parent-parents, more than they need friend-parents. However, as I’ve gotten older, the line between mother and friend has gotten a bit more blurry, and we’ve been able to interact more as peers, although I suspect that she still does “shield” me from some things. One of my favorite ideas about parenting (from a child’s persepctive), “They were always there when I needed them. And never seemed hurt when I didn’t.”

  14. Brooke says:

    Thank you, Deborah and Dora–and many other commentors. This has made me think some more about parenting as well as teaching and leading the youth. I know it’s not healthy and can be damaging to a child when a parent is a friend-parent (as Dora put it), and can be a needy parent as a result of that dynamic.

    One thing about my own parenting and interactions with youth–I just hope I can get over the lingering Jr. High insecurities before my kids start their teens! Right now I feel like I’d be really hurt by the kind of rejections and dislike that can come from a teenager towards their parents.

  15. Anonymous says:

    I taught middle school spanish for 1 year! It was the hardest year of my life but… as the time fades the kids do kinda grow on you. Congrats on teaching and mentoring them!!


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