From the Eagle's Desk...
To anyone who has, will have, or has had a middle school child:
I’ve recently decided that my son, Nathaniel, is at the perfect age. He’s almost 18 months old, and I just don’t think anyone sweeter exists in the world. This is the age where I feel he actually gets how much I love him. There are no complicated fights, no doubts about my love for him, just pure love and the feeling is certainly mutual. I have thoughts about what it will be like when he’s an adolescent, fighting with me over little things, questioning everything, and it makes me draw him close for one more unquestioned hug.
In other words, the idea of my perfect little baby as a middle schooler terrifies me. A feeling I never thought I’d have! I teach middle school, not because someone is making me do it, not because it’s the only job I could get, not because I have no other abilities. I teach middle school because I love middle schoolers. That’s a fact that few other people believe. You tell a new acquaintance that you teach middle school and you’d think from the look on their face that you diffuse bombs in Afghanistan or broker peace in the Middle East. They thank me for my service, equal parts awed and disgusted that a person like me could exist. Recently, knowing the small fraction of parenting that I now know, I have begun to understand why people fear the middle school stage of life. But I also know that that fear doesn’t have to be all there is, and so I wanted to share with you why I love your children. I really do truly love getting to work with 6th, 7th, and 8th graders every day. My prayer is that one day Nathaniel will have teachers who can see in him what I may struggle to see day in and day out.
Here is what I love about your children:
Middle Schoolers challenge everything.
I believe in my heart of hearts that this is the reason middle schoolers get such a bad rap. There is nothing I can say without getting a “Wellllllllll” or “I meeeeeeannnnn” in response. I can ask, “Can we all agree breathing is better than not breathing?” and I’ll get five hands in the air before I’ve finished the sentence. And yes, it gets annoying. But it is also the single motivator that brings me back to school every morning to interact with these beautiful little weirdos. Teaching Religion (and previously Social Studies) to people in this stage of life is a gift few in the world receive. Up until middle school, children are taught what to believe and how to believe it. When they kneel, what to say in confession, how to treat others. In middle school, many for the first time, your children start to look at the things they’ve been taught and say, “Is this true? Is it right for me? What if it isn’t?” It is in those questions that they become Christians in their own rights. Until they start to have doubts, they cannot begin to defend their faith. Last year I saw 8th graders doing research and writing articulate responses to issues such as immigration, food deserts, and gun violence in schools. I didn’t assign them topics; I asked them to find something that bothered them about the world, research what the Church has to say about it, and write a report explaining that to me. These kids care about the world around them, and seeing them begin to challenge what they know—albeit often terrifying and annoying—is the best thing middle schoolers have to offer.
Middle Schoolers don’t care about what you want them to care about.
As a parent, as a teacher, this is a frequent battle of wills. As much as I want them to care about Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, it is hard to convince anyone in the range of 11-14 that Moses is a fraction of the importance of their friend (or frenemy) across the classroom. I feel like what I’m teaching has a bearing on whether they grow up to be a good person, whether they find God in their lives, whether they choose heaven one day…but it doesn’t stand a chance against the enigmatic thoughts of their neighbor. And like I said, it’s often very frustrating. But it is also so important in their development as people. When we talk about Creation, we talk about how God created both Adam and Eve because we are meant to be in community. Jesus tells us where two or more are gathered, there also is the Father, because church exists for community. At this stage of our children’s lives, that community is the number one priority for them. Over time they will find a balance between caring about others and the other parts of life, but I often have to remind myself that it is good that they care about others. That after all is the difference between a sociopath and an empathetic adult. They crave relationship, which is such a deep motivation of the human that it’s hard to hold it against them.
Middle Schoolers want to be treated like adults—but aren’t actually adults yet.
Many of our frustrations seem to stem from one of two things: a) that our middle schoolers are not perfect adults or b) that our middle schoolers refuse to be treated like children. We literally call it middle school. We know, these kids are in the middle of developing. They aren’t children anymore, but they also definitely aren’t adults yet. I tend to err on the side of having expectations like they’re adults and loving them like children, but it really isn’t fair to treat them as though they are on either side of the continuum. I love this stage because they get to figure out where they fit into the world. Does that make it hard for us to know where we fit in their world? Certainly, but how will they ever grow past childhood without this paramount (and confusing) stage of development?
Middle Schoolers are hilarious.
Perhaps it says more about my weird sense of humor than anything else, but I laugh more in my classroom than I do in most any other setting. Your kids light up my days, sometimes when they least expect it. Their take on the world is drastically different from any other group of people, and I consider myself blessed to see the world through their eyes. I have to say the lines shouted from Vines don’t quite fit into my sense of humor, but luckily Vine seems to have faded and the next annoying trend doesn’t seem to be in full swing just yet.
I could go on with many more reasons (e.g. they break out into song at the least appropriate times, they are ready to change the world, every idea is a new idea to them), but I think the ones above sum up the main reasons I love coming to work every day. Having a middle schooler—as a child, as a student—is a blessing. A complicated one to be sure. But a blessing nonetheless. I know that I will need to read this over again when Nathaniel reaches this stage, a reminder that he is still a beautiful, unique, positive spirit. But I hope you know that we don’t roll our eyes and purse our lips when your son or daughter walks into the classroom. We may have to remind him to tie his shoes or ask her to enter silently, but we know that the gifts he or she brings are unique, that the opportunity we have to know this ever-forming person is rare. We love your middle schooler.
It's been a long time. Inhaling that unmistakable aroma of books and paper and glue and pencil shavings and - now I'm dating myself - chalk dust. Sweating out a test or two, doodling discreetly on a desk, laughing at a lunch table with friends that understood me, crying in a bathroom over a boy. A long...long time.
Yet here I am- same school, different desk. I work in the office of the same K-8 school from which I graduated. My former computer teacher is now the principal. My children are now in class with the children of some of my classmates. I can find my dad's picture on the graduation wall above "Class of 1963." My grandparents worked to help start the school in 1954.
To anyone who hasn't set foot in the building, this might appear a sheltered, rather uneventful life. But my story is deeper than that.
In my years at St. John, I learned discipline, responsibility. I learned the triumph of a job well done as well as how to start over and try again. I learned that I was loved, not because of what I could do, but because of who I was. Somehow the teachers saw in me things I could not begin to perceive in myself, and yet they were right all along. I learned my faith. It wasn't just a subject. It was something I was challenged to live. There was no other choice of school for my kids.
Time moved on and as a recovering perfectionist, I hesitantly answered God's call from the lips of Mrs. Vogtner, our current principal. I would work, not in a classroom as I had for many years prior, but in the office as Director of Advancement, helping to market the school and ask for funds to advance the school's mission. I knew I would make many mistakes, but failure at SJE is a beginning- not an end. There is just as much love on the inside as I always felt on the outside. From this side of the desk, I see how a little mouse was really a mighty Eagle all along. She went to school and learned that with God all things are possible.