Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Enduring Middle School with the Occasional Wallflower

Inspired by a fourteen-year-old caller who signed her anonymous message because she "didn't want the kids to judge [her] or anything if they heard [her] on the radio," the most recent episode of This American Life was about surviving middle school. Ira Glass talked about six different facets of the awkward and terrifying time between elementary school and high school. Reporters dove into middle school dances, and spoke with new kids attending new schools. The episode included interviews with educators, parents, students, and their peers.

WBEZ producer Alex Blumberg is a former Chicago middle school teacher and spoke about what he saw from his students. "I don't know if they learned anything," Blumberg said. "They are so consumed with learning all these other lessons about where they fit in, in the social order, and how their bodies are now working and...who they're attracted to, and who they're going to be, that facts and figures and geography, and all the other stuff that you teach in school, it just doesn't even penetrate." So what about the other influences for pre-teens at this time? If not textbooks, than what about the effects of peers? Of parents? Of the media? What about books? How do fictional characters affect an adolescent, especially during these crucial growth years?

Linda Perlstein, author of Not Much, Just Chillin', The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers, talked about the developmental changes during middle school. "This is the time of biggest growth for a human being [age 11 for girls and age 12 for boys], aside from infancy," Perlstein said. "Your brain, your gray matter - during the middle school years, what happens in your early stages of puberty is this fast overproduction of brain cells and connections...and the ones that last are the ones you exercise more" on a day-to-day basis. In other words, those cells are the ones that withstand and shape your brain as it turns into "the adult you." Perlstein explained that activities, talents, habits, and ideas that are formed during these peak years are "embossed into your existence."

Look at the massive changes which take place for pre-teens. Consider the amount of chaos middle schoolers face every moment, and then think about where those young adults turn for answers and support. Friends. Internet. Television. Literature.

How have Judy Blume's Katherine Danziger from Forever and Robert Cormier's Jerry Renault from The Chocolate War affected the growth and development of budding teens? J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye has sold more than 65 million copies. How many middle schoolers have looked to Holden Caulfield for advice? How many kids have refused to listen to their parents, teachers, and counselors, but have found solace in Caulfield's determination, confusion, and frustration? How often do kids read about Caulfield's adventures and nod their heads in understanding when the character explains, "I don't even know what I was running for - I guess I just felt like it."

At twelve years old, I was nerdy, quiet, and passionate about the school newspaper and musical theater. I found my first copy of Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower that year, the same copy I still have to this day. I remember reading late into the night and feeling as if I was the only person who understood what Chbosky meant. "Sometimes, I read a book, and I think I am the people in the book," the protagonist Charlie said. Some days, I did think I was Charlie. Days when I was confused or sad or feeling out of place in my conservative Catholic grade school, I would find support in his struggles. "I just wish that God or my parents or Sam or my sister or someone would just tell me what's wrong with me," he wrote. "Just tell me how to be different in a way that makes sense."

Middle school was a whirlwind of emotion. I felt like we were all constantly on our toes - my peers and I - trying to be one step ahead of rumors, ahead of whispered comments, ahead of gossip and judgement and drama. I was not alone in finding encouragement in books. Even now - especially now - as I work with youth, I see the same trend. Kids are comforted by the people who "get it." More often than not, those people are individuals with whom teens have no physical contact - movie stars, singers, fictional characters on TV, film, and the pages of a book. But the lack of physicality certainly doesn't detract from the intimacy young adults feel. Those are the people who understand. Those are the people who confirm what life is like. "Sam and Patrick looked at me," Charlie wrote in Wallflower. "And I looked at them. And I think they knew. Not anything specific really. They just knew. And I think that's all you can ever ask from a friend."

Middle school kids will continue to grow, change, develop, and fear what is coming next. I am happy to see that young adult authors have provided reliable resources to help. Harper Lee, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Irving - among many others - offer characters who "get it."

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