Caught in the Middle
October 1, 2003
by Kay S. Hymowitz
I don't know the name of the guy who invented middle school, but he sure had a wicked sense of humor. Collect all the kids between about 10 and 13, the most egotistical, volatile and peer-obsessed creatures on the planet, put them under one roof and expect them to treat each other respectfully while mastering pre-algebra and "Romeo and Juliet." Yeah, sure.
Linda Perlstein's "Not Much Just Chillin' " (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 260 pages, $24) paints a vivid picture of the difficulty of the task we've set for ourselves. Ms. Perlstein, an education reporter for the Washington Post, gives a season-by-season description of a year at Wilde Lake Middle School in Columbia, Md., one of the nation's first planned communities. Though Wilde Lake is a little "rougher" than more affluent suburban schools, by and large it is a safe place.
But as Ms. Perlstein shows, safe is not much to crow about. Wilde Lake tweens are diligent students, but their subject isn't math or English most of the time. It's themselves. Just entering puberty and in an agony of self-consciousness, they worry obsessively about their clothes, their breath, their weight, their breast size, their sexual orientation.
A year in the life of a middle school: It's not a pretty picture.
And no wonder. Their classmates are like the KGB with orthodonture, surveilling the halls for unusual odors, dress, language or manners. "If your Adidas are colored because your mom says white shoes get ruined too soon, you may as well be wearing Stride Rites," Ms. Perlstein writes, but white shoes are only one item on an encyclopedic list of edicts.
Everyone trembles at being called gay, which seems to be an all-purpose synonym for uncool; one sixth-grader is still being teased for wearing tights in an elementary-school production of "Robin Hood." Eighth-graders eye entering sixth-graders for signs of weakness and stuff the defenseless into lockers. Moderately well-liked kids do service as couriers for the most popular; "Adam is mad at you" or "Mia likes you," they report. No one is allowed any secrets, not a C on a science project or a crush on a friend's brother.
Which may help explain why middle-schoolers become so protective of their privacy at home. Wilde Lake parents have little idea that their children are living under such a punishing regime -- not because the parents don't care but because their children will not talk about it. The parents of seventh-grader Elizabeth Ginsberg, one of Ms. Perlstein's subjects, are surely as devoted as any soccer parents in Maryland, but their daughter has gone mum anyway, limiting her lexicon to "No," "I don't know" and "Who cares?" Even on the day she breaks down crying in a school hallway over pressures building toward her Bat Mitzvah, this once trusting, affectionate child answers her parents' questions about what's new by snapping, "Nothing."
Of course, peer pressure and sullenness have been defining traits of these school years since long before middle schools were introduced in the U.S. in the 1960s. At the time, educators hoped to shape learning around new scientific findings about the nature of pre- and early adolescent thinking. But cultural changes since then have magnified problems already inherent in the middle-school project.
For one thing, though always prone to passing notes in class and shoving kids on the playground, middle-schoolers have become harder for teachers to discipline. According to one veteran instructor at Wilde Lake, parents often take their child's word over a teacher's; worried about his daughter's grade, Elizabeth's father demands of her music teacher: "How are you making this fun for kids?" And kids are puffed up with notions of their own empowerment. "I know my rights and I have a right to go to the bathroom!" one girl announces.
Adding to the disorder is the noxious influence of the entertainment media. Seventh-grade boys have probably been teasing girls about their bra size since the Eisenhower administration, but MTV-educated males also grab girls' breasts, squeeze their buttocks and taunt them with sexually graphic language. The girls don't seem to object all that much. The attention makes them feel "self-esteemish," as one girl puts it, and they're not above commenting on a boy's "ass" themselves.
Ms. Perlstein, careful not to sensationalize her material, finds that much of the sex talk is bravado. For most suburban middle-schoolers, boy-girl relations are limited to "a few awkward phone calls, a lot of empty instant-messaging, a mildly flirtatious note or two, a slow dance at a school social." But she also worries, reasonably, that a 12-year-old girl in a Playboy bunny T-shirt is not learning what she needs to about meaningful relations with the opposite sex.
Wilde Lake has the predictable assortment of initiatives to tame the middle-school beast -- classes on sexual harassment, "team building" camping trips, anti-bullying campaigns, all under the management of attentive teachers. None of these programs seem to be turning the school into a place you would be happy to send your children to; if anything, they add to the feeling that adults are pleading rather than asserting their case. And academics suffer. Up to fourth grade, Ms. Perlstein notes, American students perform fairly well by international standards. By the end of middle school they are falling behind.
Ms. Perlstein thinks the answer is more progressive pedagogy in line with recent neurological discoveries. But maybe it's time to try something radical. Some communities are experimenting with K-8 schools with the hope that they will dilute the hormonal intensity of middle school and encourage feelings of leadership in tweens. It may not work, but how bad could it be?
Ms. Hymowitz's most recent book is Liberation's Children: Parents and Kids in a Postmodern Age (Ivan R. Dee).
©2003 The Wall Street Journal
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