Middle school

I had a bit of a breakdown this morning just as we were pulling into our parking spot. I had to take a minute to compose myself before heading into the office. You see, we had been listening to This American Life’s ‘Middle School’ episode. Sigh.

After dropping Bear off at school (yes, I insist on calling it school. ‘Day care’ sounds so sad to me), AO – who was driving – abruptly turned off public radio and switched to the Oldies station. Something weird was going on with WPR – the station seemed to be playing yesterday’s news. Anyway, I didn’t want to listen to the Oldies station because, for one, it’s not even Oldies anymore. I mean, they play Billy Joel and Modern English for crying out loud. For two, I really like hearing calm, chatty voices in the morning. I just do. So I plugged my iPhone into whatever it is I plugged it into and clicked on my This American Life app.

(Before TAL started to play, though, this came through the speakers. I had watched it before we left the house. It’s really amazing and I think you should check it out. Gosh, I love that movie. And sometimes I still wonder if we should have just gone for it and named Bear ‘Gertie.’)

The app started to play an episode I was about halfway through listening to: ‘Middle School.’ The episode is about how awful middle school can be, with the first chapter centered on how odd middle school dances are and the second about two sisters who renamed themselves ‘Mimi’ during their tween years and pretended to be rich, blonde, white girls instead of the poorer Latina gals they actually were. The next chapter was just starting as we drove toward work. It was about middle school ‘news’ reporters and the daily shows they put on for their schools. It was entertaining. I admit to spacing out for a bit and when I returned to listening, the program had changed to a story about a kid named Leo who, I gathered, had been uprooted from his home in Rochester and was transplanted elsewhere, along with his sister and parents. I didn’t pick up on where Leo’s family had moved, but I quickly felt his despair. He told the reporter that he was miserable and everything about his new school was terrible. And he said he had no friends. Leo observed, correctly I worry, that his nine-year-old sister had an easier time making new friends than he because, as he put it, people become more judgmental as they age and it becomes harder to find people who like you. So, Leo goes off to school every day, sad and alone. He emails his parents from school, “I feel awful.” The reporter notes Leo, unlike how I just wrote the sentence, did not even put a period after awful, demonstrating how infinite his awful feelings were. I ached for Leo.

A teeny tiny ray of sunshine then appeared. One day, Leo emailed his parents from school (I know, this is shocking to those of us who can’t remember how we would have ever contacted the outside world in the middle of a school day) that the school’s mashed potatoes were simply delicious. At this point, I start to cry a bit. Little Leo has found a little smile in some mashed tubers. My heart ached just a little more. There’s more, though. Leo also told his parents that he had invited a boy, named Devon, to come over some time. I smiled. Later, though, Leo can’t get himself to call Devon on the telephone to finalize their plans. It’s just too much. My heart resumed its light ache. Enter: Leo’s dad. Leo’s dad then called Devon’s parents to arrange the meet. We hear Leo’s dad leave a message for Devon’s parents that went something like this, “Hi, I’m Leo’s dad and Leo is really looking forward to playing* with Evan someday soon, so I was wondering…Oh! Devon. Devon. I’m so sorry. I’m getting evil glares from my son…” and the call quickly wraps up. I giggled. Leo’s dad giggled. Leo’s dad pleaded with Leo, “I’m sorry! I panicked!” Leo then giggled, too.

At this point, Aaron had parked the car and it was time to head into the office. I sat in the car for a moment,Β  pretty much weeping. I composed myself and we headed in for our day.

I haven’t heard the rest of Leo’s story yet and while I want to, I am not on the edge of my seat. I heard so much in that little bit to make my heart ache and then swell with genuine affection. I just find it heartbreakingly sweet that Leo’s dad would call another kid’s parents – parents he didn’t know, a kid Leo barely knew – to set up a play time for them. I know this might seem like a small gesture, but it’s a tremendously important one. It must have meant so much to Leo. I’m sure there are parents all over the world who would say, “You’re old enough to use the phone, Leo. If you really want to make friends, you’re going to have to call them yourself” or variations on that theme. But to Leo, it was daunting and it was scary and it was awful. He had already asked Devon to hang out – a courageous move in itself – and he just needed a little help with the next step. And why not help? Life’s hard, but if we feel like we’re all in it together, it’s a little easier. Which leads me to the next part of the story that I love. I love that Leo’s dad said, “I panicked!” With that confession (whether it was true or not), he bonded with Leo in a way that let Leo know his dad gets scared, too. He let him know he doesn’t think his son is a coward or a social leper; meeting new people, making new friends can be frightening, even for dads. I laughed through tears at this simple and invaluable paternal gesture.

And then, of course, what’s maybe the best part: hearing Leo laugh with his family. If I had to guess what happens next, I’d guess that in a couple of days, Leo gets to hang out with Devon and they find out they both love video games, vanilla ice cream and tire swings. I’d put money on my guess, though, that Leo turns out a-ok.

*I realize ‘play’ might not be the word you use for 12 or 13-year-olds, but just go with me.

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4 Responses to “Middle school”


  1. 1 Jane Roe October 18, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    I love TAL. The story of Leo is such a tragically common one. For some kids it’s a move to a new school, for others it is suddenly getting dumped by grade school “friends” because of being no longer being considered cool. In almost forty years of teaching I never figured out how to help some kids get past the social horror that school was for them. I could be their friend and a refuge, a place to hang out, but I couldn’t eliminate how totally isolated and alone they felt on an almost hourly basis. I always wished I could just say ignore it, high school is such a tiny part of your lives. But it wasn’t a tiny part of their lives at that time and it really hurt them. It still brings tears to my eyes.

  2. 2 kateandgracie October 18, 2012 at 4:03 pm

    Yeah, I listened to the rest of Leo’s story on my walk and, actually, it ended with him still very sad. I hope it’s just a short phase and high school is better for him. He seems like such a kind chap.

    There was a story earlier in the episode in which a guy suggested kids just do factory work for a few years in their tween years because they’re incapable of learning anything because their bodies and everything is changing so much and so rapidly. In response, a middle school administrator (or something) was interviewed and, not surprisingly, disagreed that the kids are incapable of learning, but acknowledged the challenges of teaching kids during these years (and I know high school can be just as bad for some people). She was talking about just how much the brain is changing – and let’s not get started on the hormones – at this time. There was then a later story with a teacher talking about how she had this student who was consistently dirty and was continuously made fun of for it. He, of course, came from a very difficult background and an impoverished one. Anyway, she was talking about how much they would try to do for him – get him clean clothes, provide him with space to wash up, try to get other kids to knock it the &^%*^$^* off. The stories really made me think about these teachers and administrators who, day in and out, have to watch such cruelty and attempt to abate it and how, year after year, frustrating and hard that must be.

  3. 3 Kathryn Ozma Robarts October 18, 2012 at 5:17 pm

    Watching the cruelty sucks.
    There are two sisters I still think about from the elementary school (1st-6th) I taught at. Their mother was often gone for long periods of time but getting them out of that place wasn’t working. They did smell a little like cat pee. The older girl was tiny, too small really.

    Teachers helped them come to school early and take showers and washed some of their clothing…and tried to keep the area bully-free.

    I remember when, on a dentist day (twice a year dentists come to check for cavities and teach about oral health) the younger one had no new cavities. She was so happy she ran down the hall and jump hugged me. I hugged her back…but knowing that the person who is going to he so happy and pour and hugable is a foreign teacher at your school…heartbreaking.

    Watching kids like that go to JR high (7th-9th) was so painful…because we all knew the bullying and bad situations multiply there.

  4. 4 kateandgracie October 19, 2012 at 9:22 am

    Oh, Kayt, that’s so sad. But although it would have been nice for the sisters to have had friends to celebrate their dental health with, it’s comforting that they had you. I mean, I know adults are no substitute for peer approval and acceptance, but a kind heart and a warm smile are valued from wherever they come, I think. At least I hope.

    Your story reminded me of the awfulness I felt in seventh grade when I learned my *friends* signed up for the bowling club as a team without me. What had happened, I wondered, we were all on it together in sixth grade? Putting aside how lame it sounds to want to be on a bowling team, I was crushed. What made it worse was that it was the science teacher, who must have been in charge of the club, who had to break the news to me. I can still see her face when she had to let me know that I was, essentially, friendless.


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