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It Happens Every Spring

By Patricia Williamson
Sunday, April 11, 1999

Somewhere between sixth and eighth grade many of the young people who are my students enter into a period of what I can only call temporary insanity. Doctors and psychologists give it a more dignified name: adolescence, or puberty. But when you see it played out in the hallways and classrooms of middle school, those terms seem somehow inadequate to the chaotic energy and emotional unpredictability that we teachers see each spring.

With a lot of my sixth-grade students, you can almost see as they switch their focus from family to peers in the last half of the school year. One day they are happy going home after school to do homework, chat about their day and watch TV; seemingly the next day they abandon those homey afternoons to go for hours with friends-no details to follow. Others engage in more genuinely aggressive forms of rebellion, such as fighting and even experimenting with drugs or alcohol. The concept of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde gives you a sense of their emotional lives: at one moment independent and confident, then, for no discernible reason, brooding and explosive.

But in all cases, a tip-off that the change is coming is what we teachers call "work meltdown." All of a sudden assignments just don't get done. Up to this point, a kid might not like school or find fulfillment in the classroom, but rarely would he or she defy the homework god. Suddenly, hormonally, the teenager comes alive and, for a while at least, everything else seems to fall off.

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The drive to fit in somewhere begins to overshadow the need to succeed or accomplish anything. When I talk to my students about what is going on, they often can't explain it, even though many of them are aware of the negative consequences of their acts. For most students, the first low report card brings them back to their senses.

Still, these are the times that can try a teacher's soul. At times we are the confident reassurer helping middle school students to know that they are normal, at other times the commanding general creating the line that they cannot cross. They will accept anything that is real. Middle schoolers, like other creatures that work on instinct, can sense your truth.

My colleagues and I are given names by students-affection-ately I like to think-that are based on the swiftly changing mood of the day. I was called the Wicked Witch of the West Wing by one student-who said it just loud enough for me to hear as she strolled out of my classroom but not so loud as to bring down my wrath. The next day the same student came up to me at the end of class and told me how happy she was to have me as her teacher.

The magic of this age is that these students still look to teachers, parents and administrators to pick them up, brush them off and set them on course again. We are the plumb line that allows them the freedom to build their personalities while giving the parameters of the invisible wall.

The life of a middle school student starts at the end of fifth grade, when their parents begin to worry about what their children are going to be exposed to as they leave the safe house known as elementary school. Parents come for meetings with teachers and administrators in the spring, expressing concerns about drugs, gangs, violence and older children. Meanwhile, their children visit and are concerned about gym, which teachers they will have, what outfits are acceptable, and eating lunch in a cafeteria full of choices. In the fall, they finally arrive, and despite the fears on both parts, the students quickly learn to deal with middle school. They learn how to get from one class to another in mere minutes, how to open the lockers (one of the biggest sources of worry), and how to change into gym clothes in a mass of people. The first quarter comes and goes, and most do fine. Those who don't, often get help from school counselors, teachers and parents.

The second half of the school year comes, though, and things begin to change drastically. There is a rush with the first missed assignment. Then, the grades on tests and papers begin to descend. Finally, an intense feeling, often involving humble repentance, occurs when parents get wind of what is happening. The parental reaction often determines how the child responds-at this time and in the future. When parents come in for conferences in mid-February, I know that many of them will begin the session with bewildered looks and the words: "I don't understand what is happening with my child." We then discuss this interesting phenomenon of puberty: the consuming interest in the opposite sex where just months ago there was none; the need to seem cool in front of their friends; the hours on the telephone (or online with friends); the drop-off in time spent studying; and-and this is a big one for parents and teachers-the change in attitude to create a certain distance.

I tend to remind parents that their children are still that-children, between the ages of 11 and 13-and that they still need parents to help them make decisions. Some of the best suggestions come from my fellow teachers who have gone through this process with their own kids: Don't give up; tighten up if necessary; stay involved and keep asking questions; and, most of all, understand that this a normal part of growing up.

Usually, the middle school years are survived-by the parents, the children and the teachers. Temporary insanity proves to be just that. The student goes on to settle into a calmer routine of school and life. For some kids, of course, it can take longer, demanding more of the adults around them.

Recently, I was reminded that these years of transition usually turn out fine, if the right support is there, when I encountered a boy I had taught two years before in the sixth grade. He was infamous then for his outlandish behavior and constant need for supervision. His parents were regularly called in. He was often in detention and even once was suspended. His grades fell through the floor. He made it through the grade-barely-and we quickly forgot his shenanigans as new groups of boys and girls entered middle school and began their period of chaotic transformation.

Then, one day this winter, I was visiting another teacher's class and who should be there, too, but this boy. I was surprised to discover that he had become a very successful eighth-grader, that his teachers were impressed with his participation and enthusiasm. His grades were good. He'd made it through.

As I walked out of the classroom I was almost elated. Here's a kid who proved that all the time and effort and parent involvement to deal with temporary insanity is worth it. He is what middle school is all about.

Patricia Williamson teaches sixth-grade English at Hammond Middle School in Alexandria.

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