Middle school involves both freedom and choices.
Electives are a great example of this. The freedom to decide which classes to take is, for many students, a revelation. It brings the realization that decisions will not always be made by someone else, that as we age we get more and more control over how we spend our time, and that life contains seemingly endless possibilities beyond the ingrained pattern of math, social studies, and reading.
For almost every middle school student, the ability to control a few hours of every school day brings an almost intoxicating sense of power. This, every middle schooler must think when contemplating this newly-discovered power, is what George Washington was thinking all along.
But freedom is the easy part.
Making choices is a little more difficult. Every time we choose one path in life, we choose not to pursue another. Many middle schoolers confront this harsh reality for the first time when choosing electives. Choosing to sing with the choir may mean giving up journalism club. A choice in favor of the thrills of sawdust and band saws in Shop Class might require foregoing the delicious brownies of Home Ec.
Nothing is easy in life, and of course choices between brownies and band saws always seem insignificant in retrospect. Like, for example, when a person gets to college. Don’t even get me started on that. How to choose between two different paths, one leading to Physics for Poets and the other leading to Poetry for Physicists?
Middle school is dangerous.
Nothing proves this point more than science class. Science class doesn’t merely allow, but actually demands, activities that in elementary school are either frowned upon or banned: using glass beakers and test tubes, starting fires with Bunsen burners, mixing volatile chemicals, and using sharp objects to dissect animals. Glass can shatter, fire is dangerous, chemicals are toxic and deadly, and sharp objects can cause puncture wounds.
This sort of danger is completely absent from the elementary school curriculum. Sure, it is true that an elementary school student can fall from the monkey bars, slip on a polished floor, or be hit in the head by the occasional flying book. But these sources of danger are not intrinsic parts of the academic environment.
All that changes in middle school.
Science is intellectually invigorating of course, but what makes it all the more exciting is something else: the slight aura of danger surrounding it all.
The science classroom itself screams danger. There are eye-washing stations, plastic aprons, eye protection fit for a Wookie, an enormous first-aid kit, and a prominently displayed and easy-to-reach fire extinguisher. Plus, incessant safety lectures from the science teacher and safety videos bombard students with risk-avoidance strategies seemingly every week. Add to that the amount of paperwork required by science and it is almost enough to take away the thrill.
Recess is a key component of the elementary school schedule. Monkey bars, swing sets, play structures, dodge ball, and soccer field—all are fair game. Recess promises no shortage of options, and not much confusion about what to do once you choose one. There are rules to observe, procedures to follow, and in most cases an end goal in mind. Everything is structured.
Middle school is different. No more recess. No more play structures. No more swing sets. What emerges in middle-school is a completely new, heretofore undreamt of thing: unstructured social time. Hanging out. Acting cool. Chilling. No structure, no protocol, no procedure; just other people and empty space.
It can be terrifying. At least in dodge ball you know where to put your hands. When hanging out, it’s a mystery. Hands in pockets or out of pockets? Arms folded across chest or hanging at sides? Stand or sit? Move around or stay in one place? All are complicated decisions and potentially filled with social peril. Compared to this, algebra is a piece of cake.
Is all of this by design or just an accident? Either way, it is perfect preparation for college-age socializing on the quad or the eventual water cooler banter of adulthood.
Still, it isn’t easy to get used to.
Nothing says middle school like a shiny set of braces. Metal mouth. Silver smile. Galvanized grin. Tin tooth. Whatever the nickname, braces appear and spread among middle-schoolers the way weeds invade untended flowerbeds in late spring.
Every day, it seems, someone shows up to middle school with a new set attached to their teeth, like a single-track railroad line built to allow a journey from molar to molar with a scenic glimpse of the gum line along the way. Everything changes once that railroad line is built. Eating, smiling, drinking, flossing: nothing is the same. Care must be taken when eating broccoli, a simple smile can snag or scratch the tender skin inside the mouth, and flossing becomes an exercise in needle-threading that could frustrate even the most skilled seamstress.
In short, life after braces is less carefree.
Don’t even get me started on the trips to the Orthodontist. Mine was a piece of work. He was the only one in town and so the only option for anyone with crooked teeth or an overbite. He was a forty-something guy who wanted desperately to be cool. He wore purple clogs and shiny disco shirts. Hair mousse and gold chain were standard every day. Top 40 music played constantly in the office. Appointments with him were like having an Elton John wannabe reach inside your mouth. Plus, his jokes were lame.
But in the end, none of that matters. When those braces come off, it is back to business as usual. Caramel, broccoli, pizza: all can be eaten without a second thought. There is, of course, a completely new issue: the retainer. But that’s another story.
Middle school was all about new things and experiences. New teachers, a new building, new friends, a new bus stop, and a new back pack. But nothing marked the rite of passage from kid to tween like the newest, most exciting thing of all: my very own, fully lockable, freshly painted locker.
When I opened that locker for the very first time, I knew I had arrived. It even had vents. Vents!
Before that, the only place I had to keep my things at school was the inside of my desk or the zippered pocket of my backpack. The locker introduced, for me, a whole new level of privacy that I had never before imagined. I could put anything inside and only I would know it was there. (I was, of course, too young to know that the custodian could open any locker he wanted. You did know that, right?).
Oh, the possibilities.
And talk about cool. Nothing is as cool as the casual spin of a locker’s dial many times to the right before the methodical right-left-right (or was it left-right-left? Details…) brings the gentle clunk of the lock letting go. Don’t even get me started on the mirror hanging from the inside of the locker door, the furry carpeting lining the interior, or the snazzy shelving constructed by hand in wood shop class.
All very cool, but none of it as cool as that very first spin. I felt like a spy every time I spun that dial.