Harnessing the Healing Power of Awkward Middle School Experiences
The other day, as I often do, I told a group of my students a story from my own life to help explain something that we were working to understand as a class. In particular, we were reflecting on Booker T. Washington’s assertion that “Character is power”, alongside Vice President Kamala Harris’ claim that, “Anyone who claims to be a leader must speak like a leader. That means speaking with integrity and truth.”
Telling stories from our own lives requires a great deal of honesty, vulnerability, and at times, careful planning. I have a regular repertoire of personal narrative ideas to share with students, carefully chosen to be relevant, but not too revelatory, lest I turn my students into my counselors. A few funny stories are included, because I do teach middle school after all. Students like to hear about the time my brother urinated in a water gun, and about the time I got a haircut and a boy in class asked me if I was still a girl. They listen curiously as I recount the difficult story of a friend’s birthday party in fourth grade that was broken up when the birthday girl’s mother had too much to drink. Sometimes, with a particularly good group of students, I tell my worst middle school story, in hopes that the story helps humanize me and aids in illustrating the point I am trying to make. Such was the case this week, as we pondered the wisdom of Washington and Harris.
The story goes like this. In 6th grade, I was a big dork. Maybe the biggest dork in the whole school — which is saying something, because I went to a special school for gifted kids. Anyway, there was a girl at my bus stop that hated me. Her name was Amy. I had known she hated me since 4th grade, when she got in trouble for bragging that she had invited every girl in our class to her party except me, and then she yelled at me on the playground for “getting her in trouble”. In middle school, her hatred morphed from ignoring me to active cruelty. The pinnacle of the conflict came on a hot September morning. The vinyl bus seats were sticking to my legs as the blistering Florida sunshine was magnified by the thick bus windows. I could hear Amy start yelling from the back of the bus, where she sat with the other “cool girls” who swore and wore short shorts. I caught words like “Katie” and “Loser” so I knew she was up to the same old stuff. I flipped the page in my book, trying to block out the sound of her voice, and willed myself not to cry. Then I heard it. “Who?” she shouted, “I want to know WHO likes Katie! I think she’s a loser and most of you just pretend to be nice to her. Raise your hand if you actually like her. Raise your hand if she is your friend.” I dug down into my seat, trying not to look around. When the bus creaked to a stop across town, someone whispered to me that 3 whole people had raised their hands. I wasn’t sure if that number was supposed to be depressing or encouraging.
It’s a pretty terrible story. It’s also a pretty typical story for middle school, where kids are struggling to reconcile their identity with their role in a group, all while hormones are turning their kid-body into a pre-teen side show. My students usually listen to the whole thing in silence, and then we talk about it and move on. Sometimes I use that story to model narrative writing- pausing to show them how I include my own reflections, and use sensory details to slow the pace and heighten suspense.
However, this week, that is not how it went.
We were talking about character, and power, and what it means to lead with integrity. So I recounted the tale of Amy the queen bee, and how she made me feel so small and powerless. I got to the part where she asked the whole bus, “Who likes Katie?”, and reader, what happened in room 603 took my breath away.
Sawyer Grace raised her hand. And then Claire, and Judah, and Kasey, and Tyson. The kids all raised their hands as if to say collectively, “We like you!”
I had to take a beat. Once again, I was feeling tears well up, and trying to hold them back. This time, not for fear of humiliation, but in effort to maintain professionalism, or some semblance of it.
“You guys. You are the leaders,” I told them. “Go out and live lives of character and integrity.”