It was my first time serving as a substitute teacher in a middle school English class. The topic was Mark Twain, and this should have been easy, as I had grown up near the park surrounding the great Missouri author’s birth home, attended a high school carrying his name, and lived in the same town – Hannibal – where Twain grew up and then used as the setting for the tales of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. I knew as much about Mark Twain as anyone in this area –how hard could it be to teach about him?
After an hour of chaos, a sixth-grade boy dropped his pants and strutted away from me with his red briefs staring me down. I made sure the school district knew that I would not be subbing for middle school anymore.
That was about 20 years ago, but the experience left me dreading the day my own child would enter middle school. I prepared her for the worst. Middle-schoolers are confused, I told her, and that confusion plays out in myriad odd behaviors.
She wanted to be part of a student leadership team at her school, which was a brand new charter school without those usual opportunities in place. When I asked the principal if there would be a student council, he said, “As soon as there’s a parent volunteer to lead it.”
I now spend every Wednesday afternoon with about ten middle-schoolers – the very beings I once swore I’d ignore at all costs.
They can’t control themselves in the rolling chairs we use in the board room. Constantly swirling, pulling the levers, adjusting the arm height. Constantly squeaking, leaning back. One boy can’t resist admiring himself and fixing his hair in the reflection of the large-screen monitor on the table. One girl never says a word. Another girl wants to do all the work. They fight over the occasional treat of fruit roll-ups like it’s the last bite of food they might ever enjoy.
But in short time, these same students have shown their adaptability and eagerness to grow and to push themselves outside their usual comfort zones. They can articulate why we need to talk to legislators about the importance of funding for their charter school. They can demonstrate the ways their international curriculum has taught them to see topics from a global point of view. They discuss leadership and agree that the three characteristics they find most important are responsibility, respect and organization, and they challenge one another to exhibit those qualities in carrying out their work.
These 12-year-olds have restored my faith in middle-schoolers. And that’s why I traveled by plane and by bus with them recently to plead their case at the Washington State Capitol. And it’s why I will continue to meet with them on Wednesdays and show them how to run meetings and committees and how to contact local businesses for support. It’s why I will help them plan an international festival and a field day, and watch them make posters for dress-down days and help them gain confidence in standing before their peers to discuss the importance of good school attendance.
I’ll even volunteer to go bowling with them and be surrounded by 60 of their peers on a Friday night. Because now – whether it’s because I’ve grown up myself or because I see their great potential – I don’t fear them as I did the kid who mooned me with his bright red briefs.
Twain said it best: “Apparently there is nothing that cannot happen today.”