An old classmate of mine I haven’t seen in decades invited me to lunch this week. We caught up on old times, and brought each other up-to-date on how our lives had turned out. The usual stuff. We both have kids of our own, and we traded “war stories.”
Both of our eldest children are in middle school now, and we each talked about how hostile the environment changes in so short a time — and how vicious the bullying seems nowadays. I brought up a few incidents I’ve encountered on the news wires of late that made me want to go right home and wrap my 13-year-old up in a protective bear hug.
Last month, a 12-year-old Winter Haven, Fla., girl jumped to her death from the top of an abandoned concrete plant. Two arrests have since been made in connection with the incident, arrests of a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old who were charged with aggravated stalking — charges based on a number of posts they allegedly made on Facebook.
My friend “Joe” and I talked about our own minor struggles during the ups and downs of middle school — called junior high “back in the day.” I think middle school is supposed to be a time to evolve from the choreographed structure of elementary school and get ready for the freedom of high school. It’s a time to build social networks — to try different sports and after-school activities — a time to fail and learn that when you fail, it does not mean you are a failure.
Parents help their children navigate these years by providing structure and oversight (without smothering them!) and by providing children with a safe place to talk and to share, as well as a place to unplug and relax. For many parents, it’s challenging to know where the oversight should stop and the freedom should begin.
Joe compared and contrasted the middle world his 13-year-old son inhabits with the sentimental sepia-toned remembrances of junior high. Joe was in the backfield, had a great smile and ruggedly handsome Latino features. I think he even had a start on a wispy teenage mustache. Joe had it pretty good, while his son — tall and gawky, preternaturally gifted in math and science, but disinterested in sports — has it much rougher.
But while the social media and peripheral technologies of our present era certainly do not help the issues of bullying that fill countless column inches in American newspapers, I believe it is our awareness and sensitivity to the issue that has increased rather than the incidents themselves.
I wouldn’t say I had it rough in middle school, but I had my share of razzing and isolation. They say life is a ﬁght, but not everyone’s a ﬁghter. Otherwise, bullies would be an endangered species. My weapon was always wit, and it was seldom a fair fight.
My family moved during my sixth-grade year, then again during my eighth-grade year. While I had enough social savvy to keep to myself and keep my head down, there were plenty along the margins who I saw belittled and savaged from the safe vantage of my relative invisibility.
I can remember the awkward first walk into a new cafeteria, looking around for someplace to sit and not finding a friendly face. I usually just wolfed down my food and snuck into the library.
Most of my lunch periods were spent in the library, where I could read rather than have to deal with where to sit. Eventually I made new friends, they were few, but funny. Playing sports helped, getting involved in various clubs and school activities even more so. I was one of the lucky ones.
There are a great many young people of my generation for whom the “glory days” were anything but. I reckon you all know some too, maybe some of you are those kids.
A lot of kids have a hard time being engaged…the burden is on parents and teachers to draw out these students. Electronic media encourages the more insular and avoidant aspects of young people, so if there’s anything that modern technology is hindering it’s this.
It’s never been easy to be a kid. It’s not a problem with “kids these days” or a symptom of our societal ills, but rather a sad fact of the human condition. Our burden is that our our ancestors, that we are to train up our children in the way they should go — that when they are old they will not depart from it.