Sitting with the 8th graders during a recent study hall, I looked up from my computer to see one of my students from last year’s Humanities 7 class approaching. Imagining she had a question about her homework or perhaps wanted to run to the library, I set my face in what I hoped was a welcoming, open, perhaps slightly quizzical expression. As she sat down on the floor with me, she began to tell me about books she had read through the summer and to ask me about what I had been reading. As the conversation lengthened and took us to more and more places, I realized she wasn’t just talking about books. She was also talking about her awareness, and her family’s awareness, of how she was growing up, able to think about and learn from an ever-greater variety of experiences, in the process exploring aspects of human nature she had thus far been fortunate enough never to have encountered. And she was perhaps also testing me to see if, now that she wasn’t in my class any more, I would still be open to talking at length with her about what she thought and what she was learning. I hope and trust I passed the test. I do know she promised to hand her current book over to me when she finished it, convinced I would love it as she did.
We are certainly a community of readers at Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School. The girls are read to in Humanities 7, Humanities 8 and ESL Reading/Writing Workshop, and moreover the houseparents have also begun reading aloud to the boarding students at night. Through our independent reading programs and group novels chosen in support of different units, students have ample opportunity to just curl up with a good book and lose themselves in the story. Often when one student makes a “text-to-text connection” and explains how one book makes her think of another (one of the strategies used by good readers to help their comprehension), she will provoke an outpouring of similar connections until I eventually decide it’s time to redirect the class back to the original, central discussion.
So it was recently when I was reading Rabbit-Proof Fence to the Humanities 7 class. As they returned to the discussion, a girl from Africa raised her hand. Beginning to make a text-self connection (another of the strategies of good readers), she spoke with a touch of hesitation about how she believed it possible that the white settlers believed the Australian aboriginals were inferior to them because of the color of their skin. I held her gaze and nodded slightly, and she continued with a firmer, louder voice to talk incredulously and with a hint of anger about the time when someone asked her if when she was home she wore grass skirts and lived in trees, looking around the class as she spoke to see the other students’ reactions. A girl from Mexico threw up her hand to tell about the time someone asked her why, if she was Mexican, she wasn’t wearing her sombrero. Murmurs of outrage coalesced into analyses of how people sometimes act and why, and declarations of how they should be acting and why. Almost unnoticed, I sat and absorbed it all, ready to act quickly if need be but hoping they would continue to manage the conversation all on their own. They did so, and as the conversation began to wind down one of the youngest 7th graders commented with excitement and pride, “Who would ever have believed that little middle schoolers could have this kind of conversation?” Knowing the question was rhetorical, I nonetheless answered it: “I would.”
I would never call this group of 7th graders “little middle schoolers” any more than I would have described previous classes in the same way. At the same time, I am well aware that, for all their brilliance and insight, all their well-developed and uninhibited voices, they are still quite new to this school and less than four months ago, many of them were still going out to the playground for recess. Just this morning in homeroom, I asked them if they were ready for me to stop going over the sequence of the upcoming day period by period. Four shouted “No!”s and six sets of terrified eyes (and not a single “Yes”) told me they still wanted and needed this support. Fortunately, they were comfortable enough to let me know this, and as I began “From here, you’ll go to math and then science…” I watched relief and a sense of well-being replace terror.
These moments form a microcosm of what it means to be a middle schooler – on the one hand, bringing increasing sophistication and insight to their growing awareness of the world around them, and on the other hand, remaining achingly in touch with the child within. This may look and feel different to parents than it does to teachers and advisors – after all, you are the ones who protected them from birth, and preparing to leave that protection may be just as scary for them as it may be for you (perhaps even more so). They are trying to prove they can make it on their own, yet all too aware that sometimes they need to reach out for help, and not always certain as to what the best balance is. As we work together to help them maintain and develop their voices as they transition from childhood to adulthood, part of our job will be to track and help them navigate this transition. For us adults, too, it is a delicate balance and one that will require continual adjustment. But if we care for and support them and trust them to do their best, they will respond in kind.
And perhaps next year, I will once again look up from my computer to see a former student heading my way, and I will know that the cycle continues…