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April 8, 2011

Let me just say for the record I think middle school is the dumbest idea ever invented. You got kids like me who haven't hit their growth spurt yet mixed in with these gorillas who need to shave twice a day.” If you are not familiar with that quote, it comes from the main character in Jeff Kinney’s best selling book, Diary of a Wimpy Kid. He says a lot in those two sentences and the sentiment resounds fully in the halls of adolescent academia where I spend the better part of my day. I, for one, cannot blame any of these middle school students for feeling this way either – it is a chaotic and confusing time in their lives. Even further, some of them do not believe that the three or four years (depending on the school) that they spend in middle school count for anything! Scarier still is that some parents echo these views. They see the educational progression as: elementary school, the grades-that-shall-not-be-named (throw a little “Harry Potter” at you, too), high school, and finally the “real world.” Many believe that if their child can just make it through to high school, everything will fall into place, but unfortunately that might be too late! I’m here to tell you that middle school matters more than anyone realizes! I want our middle school folks to shout, “WE ARE HERE!!!” like all of the Whos on Horton’s speck of dust (a Dr. Seuss reference, too? You betcha).

Socially and developmentally, the “wimpy kid” hit the nail on the head. Puberty is one of the cruelest tricks nature ever plays on us! You’ve got the feeble, little “Tiny Tims” mixed in with kids the same age with the physical prowess of Achilles and with all of those hormones out of whack, it is no wonder they are wandering around acting like the boys out of Lord of the Flies (those were literary references four, five, and six for those of you keeping score at home). The kids who have hit their growth spurts and have been favored by genetics have more confidence and, thus, more popularity. These children are more likely to try out for sports or get involved in many extracurricular activities where they are thrown into the spotlight. The “late bloomers” usually shy away from the attention, even though they might be a deadeye with a basketball, or have a soloist’s voice, or are a violin virtuoso. They may even join their respective groups and then just try to blend into the background and downplay their skills. The problem is, the students who do not shy away from the recognition will have more experience when they make it up to the high school. I know it is easier said than done, but the wallflowers need to ignore the pressure to fit in or blend in because the kids who make names for themselves in middle school have a better chance of being recognized up at the high school.

Likewise, academics seem to be looked on as ambiguous in the middle school as well. They get the basics in elementary school, they do some stuff that will keep the information circulating in their head for a few years, and then they will get to the stuff they will actually use when they hit the high school. What the students do not seem to understand is that each of the skills that are taught in middle school classes play an important part

in the bigger picture of their education, like the people in The Giver. For a student to ask me in my 8th grade class, “What’s a noun?” shocks me beyond words! They are as unarmed as Dally was at the end of The Outsiders! They need these building block skills that are offered in the middle schools so that they do not get blindsided at the high school.

Every year of adolescence brings new challenges. To count out a block of them as being less important than the rest does a serious injustice to a student’s progress in all aspect of their lives. If they wait until getting to high school to start applying themselves or wait for their bodies to catch up with their abilities, they are going to be more lost than the Narnia quartet on the other side of the wardrobe. Educators and parents need to emphasize the importance of every little piece of their adolescence. They cannot wait around for everything to be just the way they like it or else they run the risk of striking out when it really matters like Casey when he was at bat or trying to dig themselves out of trouble like Stanley Yelnats. In either case, most of the trouble can be avoided with some effort and a great support system behind them like…okay, I ran out of references for that one…just give those teens the support they need.

Jason Williams is an 8th grade English Teacher at Washington Middle School. He is a life-long Chautauqua County resident along with his wife, Holly, and their son, Drew. He holds two degrees in education specializing in instructing adolescents.He is the owner and director of Lights of Broadway Productions and an avid supporter of Team DJ the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.



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