Thursday, January 19, 2012

I listened to the Middle School episode of This American Life last night, while working on a painting of a horse-- my resolution for the first part of the New Year is to improve my ability to paint and draw horses and birds, though birds have thus far gone neglected, no surprise. It's hard to beat that pre-pubecsent, Freudian equine fixation out of a girl. Freud, however, and the entire equine population would be sadly disappointed, I imagine. I'm not making the strides with my new medium that I had hoped-- painting has never come exactly natural to me.

The episode-- number 449, available to be listened to here-- was about Middle School. They began the show talking about the neuro-development of early puberty, the middle school years, and how learning in this time period has a unique effect on your life. Linda Perlstein, the author of Not Much, Just Chillin', who researched this developmental stage while writing a book that closely followed the lives of five middle schoolers, had this to say about it:

"This is the time of biggest growth for a human being, aside from infancy...During the middle school years what happens in your early stages of puberty is this vast overproduction of brain cells and connections-- far more than you actually need...So if you think about what you learned, at the early stages of puberty-- I don't know what that was for you. For me, it was tap dancing and french. I know french much better than any language I learned after that, and not because I had a better teacher, I was learning it at the right time. I can still do tap-dances, though I won't, that I learned when I was twelve or thirteen...It's embossed on your existence."
Interesting. This got me thinking about what, precisely, was the most important thing for me in middle school. Certainly, it was the time when writing became more than just a passing thought for me, which can probably be at least partially attributed to my seventh-grade English teacher. But what else was on my mind?

If you knew me back then, you knew the answer. The blond, blue-eyed boy that I met in sixth grade and continued to crush on at least until sophomore year, arguably until graduation. Maybe until today, in some way or another. I've made a point of staying in contact with him all these years, even though our lifestyles don't overlap now, and our social circles were vastly different even then.

Still, he was always nice to me...okay, not always. But how different could I have been today if I had spent the ridiculous amount of time I spent thinking about him back then thinking about somebody with the sadistic whims of the average popular middle school kid?

So I wrote him a note, explaining the episode, and continuing with this:

So I thought back to what I was learning in middle school-- I guess, when I think of it, it was the time when writing started to become really important to me, and it has stayed really important to me. Academically, that's what stands out.

But they made another point in the program: that, perhaps unfortunately, due to these changes and all the hormonal and social chances happening to kids at this age, there's so much drama going on in a middle schooler's life that it's probably the age when they're least likely to learn anything in school-- anything in a textbook, anyway.

There's so much drama and social stuff in a kid's life at that time that many experts think that traditional schooling for kids that age is a waste of time-- nevertheless, being with other kids at that age helps to shape the adult they will become.

So I start to think of what my social life was like in middle school, what my day-to-day interactions were, who I hung out with, who I was thinking about-- and that's where you come in.
I fell for you in sixth grade. You were not, at all, the first popular boy that I'd been crushing on with undeniable hopelessness- there were a parade of them at Marion T. Morse.

But I met you under different circumstances-- Marion T. Morse and Lisbon Elementary had merged for the first time. You were aware of my stature, but didn't really have any preconceived distaste for me. Like most of the boys from Lisbon Elementary, you were just nicer, overall.

And something in that made you different. Something in that made me braver. Perhaps it was sitting in that first four-group desk in Ms. D's class with Jenn and Dan F., the four of us interacting with no real outside pressure or influence. In Mr. M's class, I passed you notes. After school, I'd call you sometimes. When I was brave enough to try to talk to you, you'd talk to me for a while. You didn't seem to see any reason that you shouldn't.

It wasn't like I had a shot, and I wasn't exactly declaring my love. But I knew, you knew, and it was just...okay.

All the rest of my life, my relationships have had a lot of similarities-- I've never felt the need to hide what I feel from people, to play some coy games or keep things to myself. When I'm attracted to someone, I tell them that-- whether or not they're in my league, whether or not they're available to me. When I love someone, I tell them that, too-- and it's okay when they don't say it back.

Interestingly enough, having the confidence to tell someone that's out of my league that I find them hot-- at least, guys-- has changed what my league would have been. Guys like a confident woman, they seem to respond to someone who doesn't play cagey games.

So, I learned how to interact with people that I was drawn to from you-- because you were kind, and (most of the time) didn't make me feel awful about myself, now, as an adult, I'm fearless and straightforward. And I like that about myself.

So I guess I just wanted to say thank you-- whoever you are now, whatever you took out of middle school and beyond, you were a great kid. And you helped to make me a better woman.

The other thing that struck me about this episode is how much it seems to explain about other people in my life-- specifically, in this case, Zack. (My husband, for newcomers)

Zack was home-schooled in middle school-- though not in elementary school or high school. I'd never thought too much about it before now, but what they said in the episode makes a lot of sense. In a time where most people are learning, in the company of other, awkward kids, to deal with their emotions and hormones and figuring out precisely how to interact, figuring out exactly what it is that's going to make them into themselves, Zack spent most of his time, in those years, burning through a day's worth of schoolwork in an hour or so, then spending the rest of the time playing video games in his room.

Today, Zack is very, very good at video games. But he still struggles with expressing himself, with his emotions, and, especially, with making friends and lasting connections with other people.

It's always been hard to discern why-- Zack is eminently likable. No one who spends any time with him ever has anything bad to say-- unless they've been privy to one of his rather loud outbursts while playing a video game, should he start to lose, or suspect he might. But overall, when he does talk, he's boyant, charming, and irreverent in a way that people can't resist-- and when he doesn't talk, they seem somehow intrigued by his charismatic silence.

Still, making friends is difficult for him, and keeping friends has proven almost impossible. Notably, he seems less anxious when surrounded with people who are younger than him, which may have been a result of the fact that his mother ran a day care all throughout the years he was home-schooled, putting him in frequent contact with younger kids.

Sadly, this loneliness seems to have become the defining sorrow of his life, and my closeness to so many people only serves to highlight it, bitterly.

I want to discuss it with him, but I'm frankly not sure I should. I've always put a lot of stock into these neuro-development things, and other biological facts that contribute to who we are and what we can do-- the kinds of things that the masses, I think, like to casually ignore, not willing to be defined by the science of our bodies. I wish I was like that-- I'm all too aware that I'm past the point where it is easy for me to learn new things, that, if I had studied French a few years earlier than I started, I'd be fluent now, because it's when my mind was ready for it. If I had learned to paint back then, would these horses today be realized with full, vibrant beauty? All too often, that knowledge is what discourages me from trying harder-- can I ever be what I might have been? Can I hope to compete with the people of tomorrow, whose parents and teachers will understand these important truths far better than I ever did?

And, Zack, too often pessimistic-- maybe he'll find the information interesting and satisfying: a reason he struggles the way he does, something concrete and scientific and not at all his fault, something to motivate him to work harder towards what he wants to be. Or, more likely, he could take it as just one more point against him, a scientific bottom line proving that he missed the popularity train.

I suppose all I can do is keep working on my shoddy French, keep painting my disappointing horses, and hope to set a good example, that maybe, just maybe, it's worth it to keep trying. Maybe I can paint him a picture that will be worth looking at.


On with it.

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