We just finished listening to an hour long episode of This American Life all about the middle school experience. Somehow it took us almost two and half hours to finish listening to this one podcast because we kept pausing the show to talk to each other. You'd think after 10 years of marriage we would already know all of each other's childhood stories, but for some reason middle school is sort of this awkward dead zone. Maybe it's the horror of being 11-13 years old, the peer pressure, the hormones, the decades that have passed since we lived out these experiences, that make us want to forget those years. But listening to middle school students talk about their daily lives and listening to other writers share their hilarious and embarrassing stories sort of broke open our memories. We suddenly started recalling clothes and friends and being bussed from one side of town to another, and hideous one piece gym uniforms, polyester swimsuits that were owned by the school and worn to swim in and then turned back in to be washed and passed out to the next class, gag. (That was Joe's memory, thank god, not mine, because the idea of shared swimsuits, frankly the idea of having to wear a swimsuit in middle school at all, is horrifying to me, in fact I think I actually had nightmares about this when I was 12.)
The stories on This American Life included an interview with a fascinating researcher who has studied the preteen/young teenage brain and helped to explain why middle school is such a painful, extraordinary and often challenging time for kids. The brain cells of 11 and 12 year olds are overproducing at a rapid rate and when that production slows around 12 or 13, those cells have to fight it out to survive, so those cells that are studying and focused and frequently exercised survive. Focused on Spanish, or music or English, often those things that you become interested in at this age become the things the adult you is still interested in. Middle school age kids are still trying to figure out who they are, their identities aren't solidified yet. They are open and ready to try on new identities and new interests, new friends, figure out their place in the complex social strata of school. This all makes sense.
In 7th grade I vividly remember writing a story for my English class. It was some type of first person journal written by Vincent Van Gogh. I loved writing it. I remember that feeling of making up the details and emotions around the brief bit of his story that I did know and how powerful that felt. I can still see the compliments that my teacher wrote on the paper in her curvy red handwriting. Mrs. Komm was my teacher that semester and she was very very petite and she wore the highest heels that I had ever seen, everyday, while standing up and teaching class for 8 hours, she clip clopped down the hall and she was fantastic. I was hooked on writing.
So yes, the learning and education and experimentation can be wonderful in middle school. That openness and lack of cynicism makes learning new things exciting and interesting. But that sudden desire to find your place and figure out who you are in the larger world, makes the social side of school so painful. The hormones, the anxiety, the unwritten social rules, the sudden arrival of "cool" and "uncool", the desire to blend in and never never stand out because to stand out is to invite ridicule, yeah, those parts aren't nearly as fun.
I had good friends in middle school. But I also took part in those "mean girls" activities too. Excluding friends from the lunch table for no good reason. Struggling to french roll the perfect Guess jeans so I could look just like the drill team girls did. Getting uninvited from my friend's birthday party because her mom wouldn't let her invite more than 12 girls and I would have made it 13 then she ran off giggling to a group of our friends and I could hear her repeating what she'd told me, confirming for me that it was a lie, and laughing. Talking about friends behind their backs. Picking and teasing and not bullying, but not being nice always either. I don't think I was a "mean girl" often, but I was too inside my own head, letting my own self esteem and anxiety drive my actions. But I was 12.
Middle school is a no man's land. You aren't a kid anymore. You become aware suddenly of the rest of the world and at the same time terrified about where you fit in inside of that world. You lack the maturity of an adult to deal with those anxieties and fears, and so you act stupid, sometimes cruel. I wish at 12, I had known that almost everyone was nervous and uncomfortable at that afterschool dance. That everyone wanted to slow dance with someone and were equally scared that it would happen and that it wouldn't.
At 12, I was still secretly playing with Barbies. I had a Coca-Cola swimsuit with a little skirt. I though that spending the night at a friend's house, playing with the Quija board, watching Erasure, Madonna and Living Colour videos and then doing each other's hair was the ultimate way to spend the evening. I was in the chess club, but only because I had been sick on the club selection day and all of the other clubs were full. The constant rumor mill that flowed through those halls, sharing a locker, figuring out how to talk to boys without turning bright red (I still haven't figured that out.) Suddenly capable of self reflection, trying things on to see if it's you, open and flexible, picking friends for the first time, not sure who you are yet, but not yet jaded.
I can still feel that self conscious 12 year old inside of me, nervously standing in gym class, wearing that itchy gray polyester, my required t-shirt with my name written in block letters across my growing chest, waiting to learn how to dance a waltz with a boy almost eight inches shorter than me. My palms are sweating just thinking about it. That tall, awkward girl, who bumped her elbows and knees on everything, is still inside me somewhere, I'm just thankful I never have to attend middle school again, because I'm pretty sure my jeans aren't nearly cool enough.