Whenever I tell people I’m a teacher, their response is respectful but often tempered with some comment that indicates that perhaps I was not intelligent enough to get a real job.
When I add that I teach seventh and eighth graders, it’s as if I said, “And I have leprosy too.” There is slight recoil, a shaking of the head, and finally words like, “That must be really difficult.” Sometimes—even from another teacher— I might get, “Oh, I would never teach that age.” I am a middle school teacher and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
We are the bridge group. We take in youngsters and send off adolescents. We take kids in the climax of their childhood years and move them onto the road filled with the detours inherent in puberty. We help smooth that transition so they can begin to make sense of and take ownership of who they are. Even if their sense of selves is still in flux, by the time they move to high school, they are better able to handle those ups and downs.
Middle school is not a way station; it’s not a stopping point. It is a preparation for something in the future, part of students’ very fabric, their innards. A good part of who they become has to do with what they experience during these years.
Middle school is a crucial time in human development. The clear blacks and whites of childhood begin to fade to gray. Understanding the grays is a challenging task for young adolescents. How do they make sense of things being neither right nor wrong? How do they understand the world outside their immediate circle? How do they even make sense of the face they see in the mirror each morning?
These middle grades years give kids a roadmap from the place they occupy in their world to the world beyond. They gain academic knowledge and skills, but they also learn to navigate the nature of popularity, peer and media pressure, sexuality, independence, security and insecurity, responsibility, and changes in physical appearance—all while getting good grades.
They question everything, learning what to accept as truth and what to doubt. It’s daunting, but they do it and it’s magic. It’s how they become themselves, or at least more of themselves, and develop their emotional intelligence, the clearest barometer of adjustment, happiness, and success.
They are asked to grow up faster, but watch out for what’s not right for them. How do they know how to judge? Their frontal lobes are far from fully developed, but they need to make more judgments than the young adolescents who came before them.
This is heady stuff for these kids, and it’s exactly the reason I love teaching them. To watch a young person go from the beginning of middle school to the end is a wonderful run. It’s dizzying to watch their moods swing by the moment. But that’s exactly it. There is no boredom, there is no ennui.
When they write, their thoughts go back and forth, searching for a path that will guide them somewhere that makes sense. They are chameleons. They can manipulate and hide behind facades, but we can see right through them. They can be opaque and transparent at the same time, and it doesn’t matter to them.
No Hollywood screenwriter could manufacture young adolescents and make them bigger than the lives they lead in their own realities every day. Drama is as present as they are. Their ordinary judgment is questionable, but tell them you trust them and they will go to the ends of the earth for you.
Teachers can make a real impact, as long as they understand the power they have to swing a child in one direction or another. However, there is work that soars, hugs that warm, eyes that tear, and trust that leaves a handprint on your heart. This is a wallop that lasts.
I’ve taught middle school aged kids since 1972 and it never gets old. Every time I teach a lesson, it’s new, because their reactions are unpredictable and fascinating and compelling and wise and curious and filled with wonder. Even if my bones ache and my head throbs, they can help me make it through because when their eyes are trained on me, it takes away anything irrelevant to the situation at hand.
I am Larry Sandomir and I am a middle school teacher.
Larry Sandomir is a seventh grade English teacher at the Calhoun School in New York City. He has been working with middle school aged students for 40 years. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Originally published in Middle Ground magazine, April 2012.