Middle Me This! Some Backhanded Validation

While helping stimulate the economy one manicure-pedicure at a time, I was surprised at the salon cashier’s reaction to my response to the typical question, “What do you do?”

The cashier, attempting to make idle chatter while swiping my debit card, had just processed transactions for a bank teller, a homemaker, and an office manager— the types of jobs she knew how to generate conversation around. When I replied, “I teach middle school,” the conversation came to a dead halt. My answer left her speechless. Why does our career choice leave so many people perplexed?

At some point in their career, most middle grades teachers experience similar reactions from non-educators who struggle to understand why we do what we do. We receive smiles of gratitude from appreciative parents, pats on the back from colleagues and administrators who celebrate achievement levels and, of course, adoring grins from students. However, every so often we might get a reaction unlike any other. For me, it came from Tally.

I’m Just Sayin’

Prior to my mini spa trip to the mall, I was having a typical Thursday at school, when a group of teachers asked if they could observe one of my class periods as part of a staff training program. Although it was last minute, I agreed. It’s not as though I’d have to change anything to accommodate them; I’m the same teacher, with or without guests.

Self-reflection was built into the professional development model we used school wide, and the kids had seen teachers observe in other rooms, so they paid little attention to the visitors. However, on this particular day, the ignore-the-extra-bodies-in-the-room message escaped an animated and sometimes self-absorbed seventh grade girl named Tallessa, or Tally for short.

The lesson began as usual with students answering a journal prompt in their tablets, sharing thoughts with peer partners, and analyzing posters at their desks. The activity continued with students moving from table to table, examining photos and articles tied to the unit.

During one of the rotations, the bouncy young lady who thrived on lessons that involved movement sidled up to me and said, “Why are they [teachers in the back of the room] here?” Not even trying to be inconspicuous, she pointed and stared. Patting her on the shoulder, I responded, “Don’t worry about them, Tally. They’re here to watch me.” I nudged her back to work.

Her furrowed brow showed reservation, and her narrowed eyes told me she wasn’t buying my answer. A student who had spent her share of recesses in timeout, Tally wore skepticism like most girls her age sported designer brands. She was also bright and appreciated sarcasm.

When she still hesitated to return to the group, I said, “Tally, please don’t worry about our guests; they are here to make sure I’m doing my job.” I paused before adding, “They want to make sure I’m not just sitting behind the desk painting my toenails!” Thinking this would send her back to her task and me to mine, I was not prepared for her comeback.

Tally glanced down and stepped back to get a better look at the floor—or actually, my feet. She cocked her head to one side and then to the other before looking me straight in the eye. Shaking her head as only a 12-year-old can do, she sympathetically replied, “Ms, no offense, but I think you should give up being a nail tech and just be a teacher. Stick with something you know how to do.” She turned with a flip of her hair and rejoined the class.

Initially stunned, I glanced at my open-toed sandals with Avon’s Passion Pink peeking through the straps and noticed that my toenails were a bit ragged. Embarrassment really wasn’t the emotion of the moment, nor was being tickedoff. I felt an odd sense of pride.

In her own seventh grade manner, Tally had paid me the ultimate compliment. She’d told me to stick with what I knew best: teaching. And, not just teaching a subject or content area, but teaching her, an average 12-year-old girl. Her affirmation made my day!

Middle Grades Memories

As I stood at the counter waiting for the cashier to complete my transaction and finish our conversation, I asked, “What are your favorite memories of middle school?” The 20-something employee was caught off guard but then pondered the question.

“Um … I suppose my friends, oh and the dances. Definitely the dances!” she said with a grin spreading ear to ear.

“Yep. Our students love the dances, too!” I said, handing her the signed receipt.

As I turned to leave, she added one more comment, “Oh yeah, there was also this one teacher who made us laugh and made learning fun. That’s what I remember about middle school.”

Middle school.” I smiled back at her as I left, and I could hear her telling her co-worker about her eighth grade year—and laughing.

It made me wonder what Tally would remember from her middle school years: the subjects learned, the dances, or a random teacher who didn’t flinch when a bad pedicure got a critique in the middle of class. I can only hope she remembers she was cared for in an environment that let her be herself.

Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, October 2012.