Back in my day, middle school was called junior high. But it was still just as middling and miserable. A whole building full of kids too big to be little and too young to be old. When I turned thirteen, I told my mother I would no longer be appearing in public with her, and I told a total stranger I loved him. Middle school = major mixed-up, in-between-land.
One of the English teachers had a standing rule that if we were having a bad day, we could put a copy of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad Day on our desk, and put our head down. No questions would be asked. People fought for that book every single day.
As an adult, I do not encounter many middle schoolers. They do not sneak into the bars I frequent and I am careful to attend movies when they will not be in attendance. I even avoid my local coffee shop between 2pm and 3 on weekdays because it is teeming with twelve-year-olds ordering frappucinos.
However, I have had two encounters with middle schoolers lately that have given me pause. The first was a prank. Two young boys knocked on our door and asked whether we “to win a million dollars.” When we said, “No thanks,” they plead and entreated until we said, “Okay.” Then they asked us a series of three nonsense questions. (i.e. “If a plane crashes directly on the border between the United States and Canada, where do they bury the survivors?”) Lucky for me, I must have had the same dumb riddle book when I was a kid, because my daughter and I answered all three questions correctly. Upon our successful completion of the pop quiz, the boys opened a briefcase and handed us a piece of paper labeled, “ONE MILLION DOLLARS.” Then, they ran away.
These two boneheads reminded me of my own junior high shenanigans. My friend and I used to phone boys and ask them to take a survey about the music of “a hip new band called Americana.” We would then sing invented lyrics and accompany ourselves with a harmonica and my kid brother’s drum kit. I need you, like the flowers need the rain. I need you, to save me from my pain. Most guys usually hung up.
My second encounter with a middle schooler was this afternoon when I was working in the yard. As most who know me can attest, I dislike yard work. I love the notion of growing flowers and vegetables, but I hate weeding, mowing, trimming, mulching, and any of the hundred other tasks of keeping up with neighborhood joneses. If I had it my way, I would pave my front yard with concrete. I was swearing under my breath about the thorns on the shrub I was pruning when a boy called to me from the sidewalk. “Excuse me. Do you need help with your yard?” He explained that he had a service and that he could, “mow lawns, pull weeds, and do a little chainsaw work.”
I asked the boy where he went to school and how he liked it. “I go to the middle school. And it’s, you know, middle school….” His voice trailed off and he looked visibly pained by merely reflecting upon the misery of school. I recognized that suffering. I remembered it.
“Middle school can be pretty rough,” I said. “But people don’t stay jerky forever. Hang in there.” He smiled, and asked whether we knew each other from church.
“No,” I said, “but you came and played a prank on me and my daughter a few weeks ago.” He smiled, shyly, and his cheeks colored red. I was afraid he might turn and run away again.
“It’s okay,” I said. “It was kind of funny. My five-year-old liked your nonsense riddles. She wanted to know if you had any more.”
Middle school children can be hard to like. They are too noisy at movies, too rambunctious on playgrounds, too big for trick-or-treating, and too sneaky in the 7-11.
But when I think back to my fractured pre-teen self – the girl who wore way too much make-up in an attempt to feel beautiful, who faithfully watched General Hospital, and called milkshakes “lunch,” the moron who used to watch fights in the parking lot at the funeral home, who snuck into rated-R movies, and learned to French kiss in the back of a school bus – well, I think that kid could have used all the help she could get.
So to commemorate the lousy human beings most of us were between the ages of twelve and fourteen, I’m declaring this Be Nice to Middle Schoolers week. Go to a carwash. Buy something at the baseball team bake sale. Engage one of them in conversation at the gas station. Remember: they are not evil. Just scared. And posturing. And enduring a fair share of terrible, horrible, no good days.
To kick things off, I have hired my twelve-year-old neighbor to mow the lawn and pull weeds next week. He has agreed, reluctantly, to leave his chainsaw at home.