The Trauma of Middle School

In our class this semester, we begin each day with a question. Nothing too deep, but a chance for the students to go around the room and tell us a bit about themselves. “What’s your comfort food?” That sort of thing. Today’s started out as “Who’s someone you admire and why?” I went first, and I said right off the bat, “I admire my thirteen-year-old daughter, because she’s going through middle school right now and doing a tremendous job.”

From there, the entire class started talking about how horrendous middle school is, to the point that the question changed. Instead of “who’s someone you admire?” it turned to “what’s something traumatic that happened to you in middle school?” (For me, it was the time we were taking class band pictures outside, and someone kept throwing grass at my head. I finally got sick of it, picked up the grass, turned, and chucked it back at the guy. That’s when I realized he was a football player and much bigger than me. We got in my first (and only) fight at school. A fight I lost in about three seconds, leaving me a sobbing wreck on the ground. It was not fun.)

But as we went around the room, with everyone telling these stories, it made me reflect once more on how universally un-fun those middle school years are. (I suppose there must be some people out there who loved being in middle school. Right? But they’re in the vast minority.) Everyone is going through so many changes. Trying to figure out who they are and how they fit in, and really desperate to fit in. Or to stand out. Or to show they’re unique.

It was so encouraging to see all these students talk about where they were just five or six years ago, and to see where they are now. (I also realized in the middle of all this that these students of mine are last year’s seniors. The COVID class, who had to deal with their senior year being full of distance learning and quarantines.) And to understand that in the middle of all that struggling to fit in or stand out, most of us end up fitting in along with everyone else: by feeling like we don’t.

At the same time, I also wondered about the fact that none of us were talking about the times we provided the trauma for others. After all, it’s not like all that trauma just comes from “those people.” We inflict it on our peers in the same way it’s inflicted on us. Often unintentionally, usually without thinking, and sometimes with long-lasting effects.

Did I provide trauma for anyone in middle school? As I thought it through, I definitely did. The story that stands out in my mind is the time I wrote an article for my friend’s ‘Zine. It was intended to be a humorous piece, and it was something to the effect of “Top tens ways [Student A] is better than [Student B, who shared the same first name.]” Student B was, to us, much more popular than our friend (Student A), and so it felt at the time like that was a totally reasonable thing to write. And then make multiple copies of. And distribute throughout the school.

I still cringe to think about it, looking back. It was really a horrible thing to do, and I didn’t even blink at doing it. Not because I was a malicious person or out to get Student B, but because I didn’t even think it might affect Student B at all. I was too tied up in myself to be able to think about others, and I’m sure there are multiple other instances of that.

In middle school, I can’t help but think we all leave a trail of carnage behind us without even realizing we’re doing it. And while we’re doing it, other people are providing the carnage for our own lives.

So there’s your cheerful thought for the day. But I don’t want it to be too much of a downer, because as I said: it gets better. We get through those years, and we figure out who we are and what we want, and we stop trying to tear other people down to get ahead ourselves. (Or at least, many of us do. I suppose I shouldn’t speak for everyone.)


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