The two most common reactions I reactions I receive after I tell people my chosen profession are: “Oh...why would you want to do that?” or the kinder, but still confused, “You’re so brave!” And I’m not planning on scaling Everest. I am hoping to teach middle school. I’ve spent a considerable bit of time defending my reasons, to myself and to others, for wanting to devote my life to voluntarily working with people in the midst of a time of life that most of us would gladly forget. And so, I want to make a short but heartfelt defense in the public arena for our angsty, challenging, hilarious, sometimes embarrassing, exceedingly awkward, but infinitely wonderful “transitioners.” I believe that we can learn quite a bit from them.
So, without further ado.... Lessons from the Middle!
*Warning: Overuse of bold, italics, UPPERCASE, and exclamations ahead!!!! (We're talking about middle schoolers here.)
Lesson#1: Tension is GOOD
As uncomfortable as all the changes of adolescence are, would we have changed at all without the discomfort? Tension doesn’t go away after we leave middle school, we just become better able to control it and mask its effects. So, if you are in the midst of any tension, remember the days of seventh grade. Hopefully the problems that loomed large then are laughable now. You may not be able to laugh at the tougher struggles that adult life offers, but you will live through them and the tension and suffering they bring can utterly transform your sense of self, your relationships, and how you take on life. Growing pains can be intense, but they are wonderful reminders that we are indeed growing!
Lesson #2: Bring on the identity crises!
Okay, I know it's weird, but stay with me. Remember when it really mattered who you sat with at lunch, whether you had a date to the middle school dance, or whether you were invited to that party? Remember when one little descriptive adjective - popular, nerdy, athletic, smart, loser, etc. - could trap you in a box that determined everything?
Hopefully, as you sailed through shark-infested waters, you realized that while the winds and rains were out of your control, it was up to you to adjust your sails and take the helm. I hope you realized that you identity was not something imposed from without, but an expression of your personhood, reflected and shaped by the decisions you made.
Identity crises can be vital moments of conversion. They force us to look in the mirror of our souls and ask ourselves if we like what we see. If we don't, are we willing to change? Identity crises force us to recall who we want to be, or, more importantly, who we are called to be. St. John Paul the Great understood the value of these moments, addressing them positively when speaking to youth in Compostela, Spain in 1989. "What do you seek? Each one of us here must ask himself this question. But you above all, since you have your life ahead of you. I invite you to decide definitively the direction of your way. With the very words of Christ, I ask you: 'What do you seek?' Do you seek God?"(1)
Lesson #3: Under [Pressure]
Oftentimes, middle schoolers are lambasted for falling prey to peer pressure and putting extreme stress on their peer relationships. I'll admit that I'm biased towards middle schoolers, but, honestly, are we being fair to them? How many of us have actually outgrown the tendency to want to swim with the tide and blend into conformity? It's painful to stick out and take an unpopular stance, even when conscience is at stake. It's easy (and self-deceptive) to look at peer pressure as something we outgrow.
In reading My Battle Against Hitler, I was struck by how the debilitating and poisonous fear of rocking the boat made otherwise good adults, including leaders within the church, compromise with the evils of national socialism, paving an easy pathway for Hitler's takeover. The silent assent of many allowed Hitler, with the help of his SS thugs and pandering admirers, to become the ultimate bully, choosing the "losers" who would become victims and the "supermen" who would take control of the schoolyard of Europe. Perhaps the willingness to conform to social pressure that we criticize freely in young teens should give us pause for personal reflection.
Do we surround ourselves with people whose consciences are alive and active and encourage us to live according to our own? Or do we prefer to toss our moral compass overboard and shut our eyes to the rocks ahead in order to keep a cozy spot on board with our shipmates?
A scene from My Battle Against Hitler shows how a sensitive conscience can spur a person of character to break the veneer of social nicety when necessary. In his memoir, Hildebrand remembers a dinner he attended at the German embassy in Paris. During the meal, several Dominican friars expressed their belief that it would be best if Catholics found common ground with Hitler. In no uncertain terms, Hildebrand expressed his conviction that National Socialism and Christianity were "absolutely incompatible" and when the friars jokingly sang a popular Nazis song, he willingly spoke the lone voice of dissent: "I will leave here immediately if you continue to sing this song, for I have no intention of listening to it even for a moment." In this moment, peer pressure and social custom were entirely subjected to the importance of truth. (2)
It does not matter how old we are; the pressure to agree with the status quo is always present. An inspiring witness of how young people can overcome social pressure, Malala Yousafzai, 2014 Nobel Peace Prize Winner and activist for the education of girls in the Middle East, reminds us that "when the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful."
Lesson #4: The Best is Yet to Come!
This is perhaps my favorite quality of the middle years. Middle school students are keenly aware that they are in-betweeners. They dream, naively and nervously, of high school, their driver's license, increased freedom, new friends, girlfriends, boyfriends, college, careers, travels, and adventures. They are under no delusion that these middle years are the "best years of their lives." Few of them have made serious commitments of any kind and still look at life as a range of possibilities. But the "firsts" of life pass by one by one, many completely different in reality than the electric, sparkling expectations we form during our early years.
It's easy to become disillusioned, jaded, or cynical. It's easy to shrug off our past expectations as embarrassing naivete. What if, instead of focusing on our let-down, we saw the destruction of expectations as a necessary shedding of what was limited by the confines of our inexperience? What if each let-down brought us closer to a truer vision of reality and a stronger hope in something deeper and greater. What if, instead of hoping less, our hope grew stronger. "The best is yet to come" is not a delusional coping strategy, but a true guide if our vision of the future is broad enough to include the transcendent and eternal. A favorite band of mine, JOSEPH, realistically acknowledges the cutting disappointments of life while maintaining deep hope and belief in goodness here, and goodness to come. I love this statement from their band's website: "Believing takes more courage than doubting, though doubting looks sexy and feels more powerful. Many of us set our aims to low to avoid disappointment, but good narratives happen in the efforts and failings of hope. What are your dreams? What would it look like to believe in them?"
So rather than roll your eyes at the stupid, selfish mood or just plain awkward things that early adolescents do, take a moment to remember that you may not be so different from them after all. Encourage them to be patient and courageous through the tension. Help them find ways that they can become themselves through loving others. Pray that they have the strength to stand up for what is right. Fan their flames of hope for their own great and beautiful future.
And then, do the same for yourself.
(1) "Blessed Pope John Paul II: Champion of Catholic Youth and Vocations," http://www.calledbychrist.com/mn-vocations/E-News-2011-05-Blessed-John-Paul-II-Champion-of-Catholic-Youth-and-Vocations.pdf.
(2) Dietrich von Hildebrand, My Battle with Hitler, 71.
(3) "5 Inspiring Quotes from Nobel-Winner Malala Yousafzai," http://www.inc.com/zoe-henry/5-inspiring-quotes-from-nobel-winner-malala-yousafzai.html.
(4) JOSEPH, http://thebandjoseph.com/