When I tell people I teach middle school, I immediately receive all sorts of negative reactions, ranging from “You do what?” to “I could never,” or simply, “I’m sorry.”
I get it, because I used to be one of those people. When I majored in education in college, I had a one track game plan: become a high school English teacher. I would shape the minds of students almost entering adulthood by reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Salinger. I would have real class discussions about topics that mattered like love and loss and friendship. I would become Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers, sprinting from desk to desk in tailored suits and high heel shoes, hopefully inspiring adolescents to value their experiences enough to write about them. But, middle school? Forget that. Those kids were way too immature for anything I wanted to accomplish in the classroom. I wanted nothing to do with the “awkward phase.” Hanging out with a bunch of prepubescent teenagers was the last thing that appealed to me.
As it often happens, my plan didn’t exactly turn out the way I wanted it to. I student-taught high school seniors, which I loved, and applied to schools all over for English positions. As a 21-year-old looking for any sort of job prospect in a recovering economy, I knew enough not to be picky.
Although I always wanted to teach high school, my degree was technically from 6th to 12th grade, so I used that to my advantage and applied to anything in that range. I had a bunch of interviews for both middle and high school, and the first position I was offered was for middle school, seventh grade exactly. I accepted it right away even though I had reservations. Seventh grade? How old were those kids, exactly? What did a seventh grader even look like? I thought I had neighbor who was in fourth grade; that couldn’t be far off, could it?
Consequently, I showed up to work on the first day of school with absolutely zero expectations. I was the teacher, but I had everything to learn. Now, what I can attest to after spending the majority of my daytime hours for the past two years with seventh graders is that they are the weirdest group of people to currently exist. Though there any many, many reasons to support this, these are only five:
1. They are walking paradoxes.
I’ve never seen a group of people contradict themselves more on a regular basis than seventh graders.
My students are babies and grownups and dreamers and fighters all mixed into one. They are girls who wear extra shimmery eye shadow, thick eyeliner, and a face full of make up to appear older, but still carry “My Little Pony” notebooks.
There are boys who make fun of each other to appear tough, but then cry when I give them detention. They brag about not needing their mom to take them to the mall anymore, but call her the second they forget their assignments at home. They roll their eyes when I assign a project where they have to get into costume, but talk about it excitedly for the next several weeks, and, come presentation day, not even the most reluctant kid neglects to dress up. They complain, “What are we, five?” when I clap at them to get their attention, but always clap back with alacrity.
My students are walking paradoxes whose constant worry is the perception of one another, and whether or not they are fitting in. To them, acting mature equates to being cool; they just haven’t exactly figured out how to completely do this yet because, let’s face it, they’re only 12.
2. They come in all shapes and sizes.
Before I started teaching, if someone put me in a room with one of my current classes and asked me what all of those people had in common, the last thing I would say would be their age.
When I was hired, I wondered, “What does a seventh grader look like?” and, even now, I struggle to answer this question. Honestly, my students look like they are anywhere between eight and 20 years old. Some are 4’ 8,’’ some are 5’8”. Some boys have voices that have already deepened, while others sound like pipsqueaks. Some girls have double Ds, while others look like they could use a training bra for a few more years.
In seventh grade, everything about is changing, including your mental and emotional states, and your body is a reflection of this. Especially with the boys. Some of my male students have maybe one adult feature, like a big nose, that they need to grow into. A big nose is something we might not even notice on an adult, but on a 12-year-old kid, it literally sticks out. Sometimes I feel badly for them. I have one girl who, in the quest of a perfect smile, is having her pallet expanded. The result of this is an ever-growing gap between her front teeth. I’m sure it will eventually be closed and she’ll have better teeth than anyone, but I sympathize for her in the process.
Other girls seem like they are done growing and almost look like people I would associate with on the weekends. I have to remind myself that even though they may look like they’re 20, they still have 12-year-old brains. This constant struggle of reminding myself all the time that they’re twelve, even though they may look eight or twenty, gets to be exhausting. Combine this with acne and braces and you really don’t know what the actual fuck it is you’re looking at.
3. They are always touching each other.
When I taught high school, of course I would see the occasional couple making out in the hallway, which was visibly disturbing.
When moving to seventh grade I thought that this would be one of the few positives: kids wouldn’t be all over each other. They were too young for that in middle school, right? Well, not exactly.
During my first few days at work it became clear to me that kids actually touch one another more than I had witnessed in high school. There were probably the same number of couples holding hands or giving one another the quick hug in the hallway before classes (didn’t they just see each other, like, five minutes ago??) as there were in high school, except these kids were smaller and more awkward looking. Besides this, though, there was a different kind of touching that I had never considered, which is attributable entirely to the male population.
They are constantly pushing, hitting, shoving, punching, flicking, and pinching one another. In the hallways, at their lockers, on their way to class, even occasionally in the classroom. All the time. It’s bizarre. I guess now I understand where the saying “boys will be boys” comes from.
4. They are extremely gullible.
They believe anything. I learned this the hard way.
One time I told the kids to clear their desks and take out a pencil because they were having a quiz on something we had just started learning yesterday. We really weren’t; I just wanted to mess with them. Well, one girl looked like she was going to have a panic attack, and when I explained that I was kidding, hardly anyone laughed. What the heck, I thought, my seniors would have thought that was funny!
Another time a student didn’t hand in his assignment and I said something snide like, “Way to give it your all,” and he just stared at me not understanding. It was then that a quotation from A Separate Peace popped into my head: “Sarcasm is the protest of those who are weak.” Why did I feel the need to be sarcastic? It wasn’t funny, and I was just causing confusion. Seventh graders are too young to comprehend sarcasm or any type of verbal irony. Thankfully, I’m more goofy than sarcastic anyway, which definitely resonates with them more.
5. They have turbulent mood swings.
I knew enough to expect this when embarking on this seventh grade mission, but holy crap! Being aware of this fact in theory and actually witnessing it, not to mention being on the receiving end of it, are two completely different monsters.
A few weeks ago, I had a student exclaim to me, “I hate this class! I hate you!” after not receiving the topic she wanted for a mini-research project. I think she wanted to research The Beatles (who doesn’t?) and I gave her Robert Frost because I figured she could relate to some of his darker poetry (she’s pretty angsty, as I’m sure you can see).
Ten minutes later she happily was jabbering to me about his life in New England.
Another time, I had a student storm out of an extra help session because she didn’t agree with some criticism I was giving on an essay. Five minutes later, she came back in with a vulnerable expression on her face and asked me to walk her out to the door because she was embarrassed and felt uncomfortable walking in front of the wrestling team.
Once I had a boy burst into tears because he couldn’t find his copy of The Giver. And I’m not talking silent tears, but loud, uncontrollable sobs. I sent him to the bathroom and he came back happier than ever, thankfully, and was immediately joking around with his friends.
The point is, even if you think you know a kid, you never know what to expect. I used to try to figure out what I did if they seemed angry or had an outburst, but now I know better. Simply asking them, “What’s wrong?” when they seem off opens you to their world.
Maybe that girl had a fight with her mom this morning because she won’t let her sleep over her friend’s house Friday night. Maybe that boy is mad at himself for striking out during the baseball game yesterday afternoon. Most of the time they’re displacing their anger on people who don’t deserve it, which they can’t help. It’s almost like they feel these powerful, adult emotions, but their little baby bodies aren’t capable of handling them. So they lash out but then hug, cry but then laugh. Their moods aren’t about me, or their other teachers, or their peers. They’re about them. Until they develop the capacity to successfully cope with their feelings, which only comes with time and maturity, my seventh graders won’t always express them in the most optimal or expected ways.
Middle school is the middle child no one wants to teach, and seventh grade is the middle child of that middle child. Even among middle school teachers, there is a certain disdain for seventh grade. Sixth graders are cute. Eighth graders are mature. Seventh graders, though? They’re a different breed. They hit each other, they don’t do their homework, and they blame all of their problems on other people. They’re crazy, juvenile, obnoxious, and awkward. But they’re also loving.
On the last day of school last year, after saying goodbye to my first class, I felt a weird pang of confusion as I realized most of the kids were moving towards me. What were they doing? It finally clicked that they wanted to hug me, and I felt like I wanted to melt inside. More importantly, my students are impressionable; all seventh graders are. I know that these kids are watching my every move — that’s what I did in middle school, after all — so I try to provide them with the most positive example I can be. And I think it’s a two-way street. Spending time with them forces me to become a better person because they need to see role models who are respectful and compassionate, even when it is hard to be. I find myself making better decisions even when I’m not around them because their faces pop into my head and I don’t want to be a hypocrite.
Two years ago if you told me that I would teach seventh grade and love it, I would have laughed in your face. Now, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Of course, I teach my students the basics: how to write an effective thesis statement, the various comma rules, how to construct a perfect argument and add compositional risks to their writing. The real learning happens through reading literature, though, from examining the thoughts and motives of characters, from putting yourself in their positions and asking, “What would I have done?”
My students learn the value of individuality from The Giver and the importance of maintaining innocence from The Outsiders. I ask them every day how they will contribute to their own stories. Seventh graders are old enough to have adult conversations, but young enough to value their education (or care about pleasing their teacher) by trying their hardest. They are idealistic enough to see the best in people and situations because most of them haven’t been hurt yet. Because of this, they are unwavering in their convictions, which is something I hope they don’t lose as they become older.
Sure, some days I drive home from work, clutching the steering wheel, wondering what I did to deserve my current employment situation, but most of the time, I laugh. I think about their actions and their quirks and their stories, and I can’t help but crack up. In spite of their weirdness, or probably because of it, seventh graders are actually really funny, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.