Eighth-grade “graduations” are, much like middle schools and middle schoolers, kinda cute but mostly awkward.
The events are crammed full of a grade’s worth of early teenagers in that transitional phase between Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, where they’re not quite the mild-mannered David Banner of their childhood nor quite the all-out insane Hulk of their older teen years. (Or is it the other way? Are they Hulks as children and David Banners as teens? Tawk amungst yuhselfs.)
Never once in my entire life, a life invested in education and surrounded by kids and conversations about the good ol’ days, have I ever heard anyone say, “If I could do one stretch of my life all over again, it would definitely be middle school/junior high.” Never. It would be like saying, “If I could relive one day, it would be when I had that root canal with Dr. Green.”
We recently attended the eighth-grade graduation of a girl we’ve known since her birth, and with whom my daughters attended school through fifth grade. Celebrating 43 kids moving to ninth grade took 18 more minutes than it took my school to honor the graduation of 156 high school students. Still, to be fair, the experience could have been worse and/or more painful.
The sweetest part of the evening came at the beginning. After a brief welcome, the students walked one at a time down the center aisle as an audio recording of that student's voice played over the speaker system. It was the first time I’d seen this done, with the exception of those Miss America-type pageants where you hear the Miss Virginia’s voice-over about how she hopes to cure world hunger or throat cancer as she struts the stage in a bikini and 9-inch heels.
The kids were given a surprising bit of leeway in what they were allowed to say, and in how long it could go. Some were too long. One was so short the boy had to literally sprint down the aisle. One boy's speech was: “I’d like to thank everyone I’ve ever known, except that one guy in Target who yelled at me for getting in his way because he was in a hurry or something. He was very rude.” That was his whole “speech.” That kid’s gonna be a big mess or a big success one day.
A handful of kids, however, gave me pause and left me wondering: how much can we know about a kid by merely watching them walk down an aisle as their voice cascades over the audience with a message they wrote on this auspicious occasion?
Three of the boys and one girl slouched as they walked. The girl and one of the boys in particular slouched so badly they were almost hunchbacked. It was as if the weight of their middle school lives -- the pestilence of puberty, the squeakified voice-change, the emotional monsoon season, the mob of adults and peers who, like objects in the rearview mirror, appear closer than they feel -- had pulled their bodies down.
They looked defeated. Or, at least they lacked any confidence that they could win anything even if they tried, which they wouldn’t, for fear of being humiliated, or for fear of having to put themselves “out there.”
I couldn’t help but close my eyes. Looking at those kids, the paragons of the worst parts of young teen life, was too painful, like staring at the sun, or staring at that huge zit on the end of your nose that persists week after week. Their walk of shame was a haiku version of everything about middle school that could be made into a horror film.
“Please let them recover.” This was the prayer I muttered quietly to myself.
NPR recently ran a story about the human ability to make snap judgments. By merely hearing someone we can’t see say a single word -- in this experiment, "Hello” -- a majority of us can draw remarkably similar conclusions about the person speaking.
Is the same true for posture? Does the fact that we might collectively make comparable judgments mislead us from realizing that we might not be judging accurately?
Surely their uphill climb is steeper than the kids who walk tall, who look forward instead of down. Surely their challenge on finding something like happiness as adults will be greater than the girl who walked, head up and back straight, smiling and appearing confident. Not impossible. Just more difficult.
As a semi-wizened, semi-wiser educator, I’ve seen how wrong our conclusions of adolescents and teens can be. My futuristic predictions about students have been proven wrong so many times it can make my head spin. I’ve seen the punkiest kid grow up to be a banker or a lawyer, the snobbiest or most self-centered kid mature into a community activist, the quietest kid turn into a recording artist. We think we can see how they’ll turn out, but as the play-by-play guys like to say, “That’s why they play the game.”
In the meantime, I salute those middle school teachers and employees who can ignore those instinctive snap judgments that paint kids into corners and offer a benefit of the doubt, offer an optimistic belief that, if just one or two adults can inject hope or faith into that kid’s soul, just create the tiniest of sparks, things might turn around.