1 What’s a Middle School Makeover? – Middle School Makeover: Improving the Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years

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What’s a Middle School Makeover?

Visit any elementary school near the end of the academic year, and you’ll hear parents lamenting the transition to middle school.

“I’m so nervous for her!”

“We just don’t know what to expect.”

“I hated middle school.”

“Poor thing, he’s got such an awkward couple of years ahead.”

“I’m dreading the bad attitude!”

“I’m dreading the bad influences!”

“I’m dreading it all.”

And so on.

Middle school gets a bad rap. Even the name implies that it’s a no-man’s-land, stuck in the middle between cute elementary school and important high school. Historically, this has been the case. You probably remember going to junior high, not middle school. In the mid-1960s middle schools slowly began replacing junior high schools as part of an effort to distinguish between a model of kids attending “little high school” and a new concept where the unique developmental needs of kids ages eleven to fourteen could be addressed right along with their academic needs.1 Whether or not developmental needs are truly addressed in today’s middle schools is questionable. Instead, many parents see middle school as a tumultuous, hormone-driven, attitude-filled, peer pressure and rebellion–ruled subsociety where every kid must serve time before gaining entrance to the happy world of high school.

In part, that’s because it’s the socially acceptable thing to think. We aren’t supposed to like the fact that our daughters are becoming interested in boys, that our sons are cutting up in class to make girls laugh, that makeup and deodorant and feminine hygiene products and cell phones and expensive sneakers are littering already too-messy rooms. We feel we’re supposed to complain about our kids making their own decisions, and making a mess while they do it, because that’s what parents of kids this age talk about. We gripe to each other to form a common bond over how awful it all is, and we joke about needing wine therapy and about how much we dread the dating and driving and drinking soon to follow. We pretend misery loves company when what it really craves is a new perspective.

It’s time for a middle school makeover.

I know that times have changed since we were in school, and our kids face more challenging situations than we ever imagined. But, we’ve created a self-fulfilling prophecy in which, for many kids and parents, middle school really does stink, in part because we fully expect that it should. Did you know that in many other cultures there is no such saying as the terrible twos?2 In countries like ours, where we have a high regard for all individuals, we expect toddlers to integrate into our family systems just like every other member of the family. To an exploratory two-year-old, that means he must share, adjust to adult schedules, and comply with adult norms. Cue crying and pounding of fists. In other countries, parents expect older family members to forgo their own needs so that a toddler’s unique needs and desires may be tended to. The result is, you guessed it, happy and compliant two-year-olds, and that leads to happy parents.

Why am I even mentioning two-year-olds when this is a book about middle school? Because two-year-olds and twelve-year-olds have a lot more in common than you might think. Like a toddler, your middle schooler is learning how to operate a new body, identity, emotions, desires, and intellectual thoughts. Talking about this like it’s a big, ugly process and worrying about how messy it might become, or ordering him to learn how to control himself to fit into your family’s structure, is counterproductive. (Cue crying and pounding of fists.)

The middle school makeover is about improving the way we think about the middle school years. What if, instead of dreading middle school, we got excited about it? There is a lot of magic that happens during the middle school years and it has the potential to be one of the best times of your parenting life … if you can see middle school through a new lens.

One of the first steps in doing that is getting rid of your own middle school baggage. We often send our kids into middle school carrying more than that already-too-heavy book bag. In addition to forty pounds of books, binders, and pens, they might be burdened by expectations or worries built on our own memories of bullies, popularity, social pressure, exclusion, growing up too fast … you name it.

I surveyed one hundred parents of kids in third, fourth, and fifth grades about their expectations for parenting middle schoolers.

25 percent said they had a definitively bad experience in middle school

30 percent had a definitively good experience in middle school

45 percent had some good experiences and some bad experiences

Of the 25 percent who had a definitively bad experience, half could not identify one thing to look forward to about their kid going to middle school. Sample comments from these parents were:

“Nothing. Most other parents identify this time as one you have to ‘survive.’ I rarely hear positive things about it.”

“Excited about middle school? Nope, nothing, I am not looking forward to the next three years AT ALL …”

“Nothing, I’m scared for him.”

“To be completely honest, not much! They are crummy years!”

“Nothing. Wish we could skip it altogether.”

“Mostly, I dread middle school.”

I understand. It’s been thirty years since I walked the halls of seventh grade (ouch), yet I still have a vivid recollection of the people and events that characterized these short but important two years of my life. Maybe, like me, you can recall the stuff that happened in middle school—embarrassing moments, friendship betrayals, first kisses—with high-definition clarity. It was the first time in your life, after all, that you dabbled in total independence from your parents, concentrating your mixed feelings of excitement, doubt, guilt, and pride as you tried to figure out who you were in this world.

I encourage you, as you read this book, to do two things.

Think back on your middle school experience and distill it from your child’s. One way to do this is to watch your middle school moments like a movie with some detachment and, if you’ve cast yourself in a victim role, take yourself out of it. Give your younger self some grace toward the mistakes you made. Harder still, give those kids who mistreated you not one more second thought. That was a reflection of their bad decision making, not yours.

Reframe the way you think about middle school in general. When you talk about middle school, use words like “opportunity” and “exciting.” Before long, you’ll have created a self-fulfilling prophesy of the nicest kind.

MY STORY

To help you get to know me a little better, and as an example of exorcising middle school baggage, I’d like to share with you my middle school story.

In fifth grade, I attended Brooks Elementary School in Medford, Massachusetts. This was the third of four elementary schools I would attend. How to describe Brooks Elementary … did you ever see Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds? Not that bad. Those kids were hard-core criminals! Let’s say about one-tenth that bad. Did you ever see Meatballs? About twice that bad. Brooks had a staff that could not have cared less and an out-of-control student body comprised overwhelmingly of dim-witted pranksters and soon-to-be juvenile delinquents.

Needless to say, the academics at Brooks were far from rigorous. I remember my fifth-grade teacher explaining her grading system to us: “If you turn it in on time, it’s an ‘A.’ A day late, it’s a ‘B.’ After that, a ‘C.’ ” And so on. My parents grew alarmed. This would not do. One weekend they told me they were taking me to a private school for admissions testing. If I could get in, they would figure out a way to pay.

Easier said than done. The cost was about $13,000 per year back in 1983, the equivalent of about $30,000 today, although current tuition is $39,000 per year without boarding. The point is, it was very expensive.

I did get in, and that must have been a mixed blessing to my parents. We were not wealthy and paying tuition meant taking out loans, but my parents, thankfully, were committed to giving me the best possible education.

My new school, Buckingham, Browne & Nichols, (BB&N for short) was exactly what it sounds like: a beautiful, well-endowed, and exclusive New England prep school with a student body comprised of the wealthy children of Boston’s elite (plus a few kids like me thrown in for diversity). As the start of school drew closer, I became increasingly nervous about becoming a private school kid. Would I fit in? Would I make friends? Would I have the right clothes?

Of course I wouldn’t have the right clothes! I had “public school clothes.” I asked my parents if I could get some fancy clothes to start my fancy school, but their money was all tied up in tuition. I would have to go as I was.

Nuh-uh. “Going as I was” was entirely unacceptable. Did Willis and Arnold “go as they were” to Digby Prep when Mr. Drummond tried to enroll them? No! They put on sweater vests and wool slacks and marched to the beat of their own drum by fitting in. Did Jo Polniaczek “go as she was” to Eastland School with Mrs. Garrett? No! Jo may have pulled her necktie askew, but she still wore the uniform and looked pretty much like every other girl there. If TV taught me anything about poor kids straddling the economic divide, it was that a large dose of sassy attitude and the right “uniform” were essential to fitting in.

(It occurs to me now that my primary education on how poor kids behaved around rich people came entirely from ’80s television sitcoms. Clearly, this was a major part of my problem.)

Because my new school did not require us to wear uniforms like my sitcom role models, I needed to get creative about my wardrobe. I did what any self-respecting tween would do (any who couldn’t actually sew like Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink): I called my grandmother. She offered to buy me one new outfit to start my new school. I needed only to be sure it was killer.

The year was 1983. You may recall a new TV show had recently aired called Silver Spoons, in which Ricky Schroder played a rich teen living in a mansion with a working train to transport him from room to room, among other cool things.

Ricky was the quintessential rich kid and I knew I needed to dress like him to make a good impression at my new school.

My attempt to look like a successful and wealthy private school kid. Nailed it!

This is my sixth-grade class picture. I chose the most corporate outfit I could find for an eleven-year-old girl. That’s right, I was a girl back then. Don’t let the haircut fool you. If I could have afforded a briefcase, I would have bought that, too.

DAY ONE OF SIXTH GRADE

Wearing my eggplant dress slacks, puffy-sleeved dress shirt, matching eggplant rayon bow tie, and sporting a back-porch haircut, I walked into my new classroom. And someone laughed. Someone looked directly at me and laughed. I felt like everyone laughed, but it was probably just one or two kids. Still, that was all it took for me to slink to the back of the room and avoid talking to anyone else for the rest of the day.

Dr. Charisse Nixon, a professor of developmental psychology at Penn State, has done some fascinating work around the concept of learned helplessness among adolescents. Her YouTube video on learned helplessness, posted as part of The Ophelia Project, depicts a startling activity Dr. Nixon does with her college classes, in which she renders one half of the class academically helpless in about two minutes flat, using nothing but a word jumble.3 Dr. Nixon explains that the same thing happens to kids socially. One or two social failures can lead to a total meltdown of confidence, after which kids quickly stop trying, in effect becoming socially helpless.

So on day one of sixth grade, two minutes into my new school, I was already socially helpless. My dreams of finding a Blair, Tootie, or Natalie to hang out with were dashed; I resigned myself to being a loser. This was not what I signed up for.

While I fantasized about riding from class to class on a miniature train in my corporate raider attire, campaigning for and winning the coveted role of sixth-grade class president, attending mixers with my classmates, and talking about “rich stuff” over heaping bowls of Doritos and M&Ms, it just wasn’t going to turn out that way.

Thus began my long career as an introvert. In just one day, I cast myself as the shy girl, a role that I played well for many years.

On the upside, later that sixth-grade year, I made one friend. She was the world to me. I’ll call her Hannah. We were best friends and did nearly everything together that school year. On Wednesdays, our school ended at one o’clock in the afternoon. Perfect, because Days of Our Lives started at one. We would run from school, through Harvard Square to her house and down her basement steps, where we would indulge in the grown-up fantasies of middle-aged women. Hannah’s neighborhood was filled with the beautiful homes of Harvard professors and local celebrities (Julia Child lived right behind her), and I don’t think there was a TV in the living portion of the home. This meant her basement was our secret getaway, where we could watch our shows and eat copious amounts of Ritz Crackers. I was so, so happy there.

ALL OF SEVENTH GRADE

BB&N was divided into a lower, middle, and upper school campus. In seventh grade, our class bumped up to the middle school campus and we received an influx of new students. One of them I’ll call Rachel. We hit it off instantly. Hannah, Rachel, and I were three peas in a pod. Uh-oh. You know what happens with a group of three girls.

So it was weird when I would call one of them to suggest we all get together, but they were already hanging out. This happened a few times, but I was slow to catch on. Rachel and I carpooled, but she stopped speaking to me in the car. I was getting a severely cold shoulder that left me stranded in middle school feeling very alone. I began noticing every eye roll, every insult, every private joke that kept me on the outs. Walking down the hall, I kept my eyes on the floor for fear of anyone noticing me and making fun.

Guess jeans were the fashion standard that year. Still desperate to fit in but unable to afford the expensive clothes worn by the popular girls, I bought a pair of Jet jeans. Please don’t confuse these with the JET jeans worn by celebrities like Kim Kardashian these days. My Jets were decidedly off-brand. I thought they were cool enough. Jet sort of sounded like Guess … I guess.

I was a timid Jet jean girl in a too-cool Guess jean world. And the eighth-grade girls noticed. There was one eighth grader at my school who dressed like Madonna. I mean a full-on, 1985, “Like a Virgin” Madonna. She was terrifying. On the bus to and from sports she would pull down her window and suck on a lollipop seductively whenever a man pulled up next to us at a stoplight. I did not know what to make of her.

Naturally, she and her friends noticed my Jet jeans. More importantly, they noticed the way I was always alone and afraid to make eye contact. That started many lonely months of being teased openly and relentlessly about my clothes. I hated school. I got stomachaches and wanted to stay home. One day on the bus, I sat alone in the front row behind the driver, while Madonna and her friends pelted food at the back of my head. I remember thinking if I just stayed quiet and didn’t look at them, they would stop.

The sad irony is that my parents were shelling out thousands of dollars they didn’t actually have to give me an extraordinary education, but all I could focus on was becoming invisible. I never engaged in class. I never raised my hand. I was so afraid of people seeing me, and not liking what they saw, that I tried to disappear.

This is how middle school passed for me, like a far too slow and lonely walk through thick mud. But then came high school.

FINALLY, A LITTLE DRAMA! (THE GOOD KIND)

I spent my final four years at BB&N on the upper school campus, and it was there that two important things happened to me.

In ninth grade, I tried out for the musical. How does a girl afraid of being seen in middle school decide one year later to put herself on stage? At the time it wasn’t obvious to me, but now I see that being on stage gave me a compelling opportunity to be someone else for a change. I was one of four freshmen to be cast in the musical, and at that point my life changed. People noticed me, and I liked it. I started making eye contact with kids in the hall, wondering with hope, “Do they recognize me? Have they heard me sing?”

The other thing that happened was that I changed physically. My previously buck teeth, after four miserable years of braces and headgear, were finally straight. This put an end to one of my father’s favorite jokes about me being able to eat corn through a chain link fence. Hysterical! Also, I traded in my glasses for contacts and started devoting some serious time to “styling” my hair.

My beauty regimen, consisting of these essential products, became very important to me:

  • Baby oil (to be applied while lying out on a towel on my driveway)
  • Blue eyeliner
  • Frosted pink lipstick
  • Brown blush
  • Aerosol hairspray

Funny what a little bit of confidence and $10 at CVS will get you: noticed by guys, that’s what. I was by no stretch popular and I’m not sure my classmates thought I was pretty. Cute, maybe? But you have no idea how insurmountable “cute” felt to that girl in the sixth-grade class picture. If you haven’t already guessed, I’ll tell you that finally being found attractive, even just attractive enough, made me long for further acceptance from my peers. I had my toe in the door and I wanted more. Being rendered a misfit in middle school had a solid effect on my high school days, too.

Our experience in middle school sets the foundation for what we believe about ourselves in high school and beyond.

I believed my value came from the way I looked. But although my exterior changed and I finally found a space where I belonged, my inner misfit was still controlling my every move. I took too many risks in search of praise. I put too much emphasis on my outward appearance. I was not strong enough to stick up for anyone in need. I was utterly filled with doubt.

In fact, the results of my middle school experience extended long past high school. I spent too much energy putting up walls so that people wouldn’t see the real me. My biggest fear was being vulnerable. Even as an adult, I have been reluctant to expose too much of myself, even the parts of myself I like, because to expose my favorite qualities and then be rejected? That would be unbearable.

WHY IS MIDDLE SCHOOL SO STICKY?

Perhaps you can relate to my story and to that feeling of being the awkward one. Can you still remember the name of that girl in middle school who made you feel not good enough? Or how it felt to be picked last in gym class? Can you also recall the name of a kid in middle school who went out of his way to make you feel good about yourself? Amazing how after all these years (twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five years?) those memories come back so quickly.

When I ask adults, “If you could magically be transported through time to a week in middle school, would you do it?” almost all of them give a variation on, “No way in hell.” “Not for a million dollars,” I’ve been told many times. Isn’t that bizarre? Why is it that the stuff that happens to us in middle school can stay so raw, for so long? What is it about middle school that makes it “stick”?

The short answer is that middle school is when you begin the important job of developing an identity. For the first time in your life, you begin asking the profound question, “Who am I apart from my parents?” Every rude comment, eye roll, heavy sigh, giggle, smile, and high five from your peers helps to form the answer that embeds itself into your developing brain.

Our middle school makeover begins with shedding any negative thoughts you still carry around from your own experience and preparing to support your child’s independent experience, by being enthusiastic and hopeful about this new phase of your kid’s life.