The big joke among middle school teachers is that hardly anyone chooses middle school. Middle school is the true pariah of school districts. Most teachers start out in the high school or at one of the elementary schools, and for one reason or another, get transferred. Some couldn’t find a job in their subject area in an elementary or high school. Once in, however, many middle school teachers wouldn’t leave if you (ahem) paid them. Maybe it’s because we have the privilege of bearing witness to a metamorphosis. There are few phases in a child’s life where they undergo so much transformation.
It’s a weird, complex age, the whole twelve-to-fourteen year-old period. I teach the seventh graders. Making the transition from elementary school to middle school is nothing short of exhausting, and frequently traumatic for them. No longer are they in one classroom all day with their best friends. They arrive, with brand new backpacks and sneakers and excitedly navigate a brand new building, filled with new kids and new teachers. Gone are those sweet little desks that held all their books and papers. In their place are hall lockers with new lock combinations to deal with in that frenzied three-minute timeframe they have to get from one class to another. The novelty of changing classes for each subject is tempered by the fact that they change teachers as well, and each of us have different personalities, expectations and breaking points. By the time they get to fifth period lunch and realize their “bff” isn’t there until sixth, the shine is pretty much off the penny.
The drama of changing clothes for gym cannot be underestimated. They’re riding the fence, both physically and emotionally. Some days they really want to be treated like little kids, others, they’re convinced that they are mini-adults. This is the age of braces and unfortunate forays into hair and makeup experimentation. It marks the onset of puberty and all the emergent feelings that accompany that. The girls, many of whom already occupy the bodies of women, tower over the boys in seventh grade, but by eighth I’m often looking up at those same boys teasing them, saying, “What did they feedyou this summer?”
Most of all, they’re goofy. Seventh graders get hysterical while reading “A Christmas Carol,” every time the character named “Dick” is mentioned. They have to be reminded (often) of the necessity of deodorant, and don’t even get me started on the copious spraying of “Axe” in the hallways after gym. They write all over their hands and arms, and are obsessed with their cell phones and chewing gum.
If their name is Robert, and you ask them what they’d like to be called (Rob? Bobby?) It is entirely possible that they will misunderstand and reply, “The Dark One.” Girls with beautiful, old names like Catherine will take the opportunity to reinvent themselves and ask to be called “Lexie.” They develop crushes, form cliques, bully one another and are young enough and idealistic enough to believe that they have a great shot at being a professional skateboarder, actress or rapper (in my district, I have yet to have a child lay claim to President). To them, the eighth graders seem arrestingly exotic. The eighth graders, well aware of this, work their worldly image for all it’s worth; “making out” in the hallways, rolling their skirts to make them shorter and whipping out that hair elastic to cinch their shirts tighter in back. They call the “little” seventh graders “cute.”
I teach Language Arts, what we used to just call “English.” In my school, Language Arts and reading are actually separate subjects, so what I really teach is writing. In September, when I first get them, if I assign an essay, more often than not, I will get a paragraph. Then I have until April and the dreaded NJ Standardized Test to turn that into five well-organized paragraphs. Along the way, I grade literally thousands of papers. Sometimes I keep a private record of the “best of” the essays I’ve graded. I have included them here exactly as they appeared in their essays:
“Once I got lost and a stranger picked me up and drove me home. My mom was so happy she gave him four hundred dollars but he just gave it back. But my mom did let him date my sister…”
“I am trying to improve my grades so that I can be on the on-a-roll.”
“Many reality shows are supposed to be real but most of them are fake. Studys of Julie Arts, which is an acting school, say that more then 67% of people need to know how to act when entering to be in an reality show.”
“Parents will save more money on clothes with hammy downs, and not hassle with new clothes when you can just past the clothes down.”
“According to the First Commandment, we have the right to free speech.”
“My aunt Linda was a teacher until one of her students made a website called “Ms. Linda Crowfeet STINKS!!” My aunt got a law suit and won, but she still goes to therapy lessons four times a week.”
“My grandmother Becky had eighteen children in the years 2000 to 2002 and she went to the therapist once a week because it was hard for her to keep track of each one and pay bills at the same time.”
Back in 2004, I took the opportunity to use the fact that it was an election year as a “teachable moment.” Instead of essays, I had the kids choose a candidate, research their stand on the “issues” and then write campaign speeches. Many of these were priceless, (the comments in parenthesis are mine, I couldn’t help myself):
“I have a lot of other things to say about healthcare, but it would take forever, so I will move on…” (Oh, if only it worked this way in real life!)
“I will also give poor seniors free vitamins, and make hospital payments and education payments free!” (Free payments! Where do I sign?)
“Kerry is presenting a plan to identify, disrupt and eliminate terrorist networks. They will be hunted down and slaughtered. They can run but they can’t hide. He will use military forces if necessary…” (Ah, but only as a last resort…)
“Finally, I’ll talk about the environment. I say that since I have taken office, the U.S. has been enjoying air, water and land… ”
“The last issue I’ll talk about is healthcare. We work hard and still don’t have enough money to buy ourselves a new outfit every month. That’s because we give so much money for healthcare and other programs.” (Ugh! I hate that!)
“I am very alarmed that Americans are concerned about Iraq and other foreign policies.” (Yeah, aren’t they aware of the outfit problem??)
“In addition, if what he says is true about doing enough for our environment, then why do we still have filters for our water? We aren’t satisfied. Why do thousands of people every month catch asthma from inhaling bad air? We aren’t satisfied, are we? ”“
“Education is very important because if you don’t have one you won’t get no where in life. The No Child Left Behind Act gives schools the chance to be flexible and learn new ways to spend government money.” (I ain’t touching this one!)
“I believe in making changes for my country such as lowering taxes, and making schools a little non-strict. I want to be as good a president as Bill Clinton, God bless his soul.”
“I offered a tax credit to dry cleaners that use environmentally friendly technology so it can clean and decrease the waste lagoons so we can swim in them again. I will also help the hog farmers.” (I just don’t know where to begin…)
“I have been thinking about starting a new program to keep forests healthy. One way is to allow companies to cut down trees that could end up being part of forest fires.” (Clever! Now why didn’t I think of that?)
“John Kerry is also a kind man because he chose me, John Edwards, as his vice presidential running mate.” (Hmn…)
Someday, I’m going to write a long, detailed essay challenging the rotten propaganda Chris Christie has generated about New Jersey’s teachers. I’ll extoll the virtues of my co-workers, talk about the fact that most of the teachers at my school have Master’s degrees they’ll never get reimbursed for, work longer hours than most people imagine, and spend a ton of their own money on supplies that make school better for kids. I know of at least one teacher who buys her own class set of paperback books for her kids to read, and another who keeps a loaf of bread and jars of peanut butter and jelly in her closet. She often makes sandwiches for those kids who forgot to bring their lunch, or have none to bring. Most of us have second jobs.
The faculty at my school have identified and helped children who were being hurt or neglected at home, cutting themselves, starving themselves, using drugs, and being bullied for their sexual orientation. They’ve come in early and stayed late and tried, really, really, tried, to develop lessons that were dynamic and engaging and meaningful. The creativity, compassion and dedication I work alongside with fairly blows the mind.
Yes, there are perks. I have loved being able to be home in time for most of my kids’ soccer and field hockey and softball games. Having the summers off? I kid you not, it rocks. But on this last, hot sweaty day of the school year, sitting in a 105 degree classroom with a bunch of the quirkiest pre-adolescents on the planet, who were asking me again if next year, I will really mail to them the letters I had them write to themselves for 8th grade graduation (and yes, I will), my irritation was interrupted by a young, first year teacher who I mentored this year. She came by to chat for a few minutes, so we talked about summer plans and then said good-bye.
I got one of those glimpses of how quickly it all goes by, and what a gift it is to be able to share this awkward slice of their lives. That young, bright, poised, first year teacher was my student back in 2001. What a remarkable thing it is to remember her then, and see her now.
The bottom line is that no one goes into this profession for the money, and if you go into it for the shorter hours, vacation days and summers off, you won’t last.
As for me? Well, I’m in it strictly for the laughs. :)