These things happen daily at schools everywhere: Boys inappropriately touching girls in the hallway. Often it’s bumping or brushing up against unexpecting and unwilling recipients, but sometimes it’s more overt. In class, a student who gets frustrated by another, might angrily blurt out “you’re a fag!”. Other students might exclaim “don’t be gay!” Any conversation about gender or biology at any point is greeted by nervous laughter and dismissive “jokes.”
On any given day, this is all before lunch.
Welcome to middle school, where being called gay is one of the worst things that can happen and where human biology is something to be ridiculed for and embarrassed by. Much of the rest of the day may be spent figuring out what consequences are appropriate for any of these situations and, of course, trying to figure out what else is going on in these volatile lives to prompt these behaviors and keep them out of further downward spiral.
How do students (at any school) learn in this environment? How do gay and lesbian students concentrate on anything except their own safety in this environment? How does anyone in schools concentrate on content with all this going on in the background? How does anybody survive adolescence?
Monday we all returned from April break. There was lots of energy in the halls in the morning before classes begin as people saw each other for the first time. There was also the return of the adolescent drama, those power struggles as young people search for a sense of self in the social hierarchy. I heard a boy asking about the new kid and whose advisory he’s in because he is concerned that he won’t be the tallest in his advisory any more. Lots of gossip and trying to corroborate and validate stories heard over vacation filters down the halls….
Middle school students want to be heard and recognized. This, I am convinced, is part of the human condition. Looking for a sense of self by trying out new looks, friends, or mannerisms is often part of this game. Unfortunately, so is putting down others to make yourself feel better, more important, higher up in the social strata.
These are the behaviors that are unhealthy and which, if left unchecked, may evolve into more complex patterns of controlling others. The bullies in middle school may grow to be the abusive partners in adulthood. They may grow to be racist. They may grow to be homophobic. They may grow to be any number of things that stifle the voice and liberty of others, all in the name of making themselves feel better, feel more whole, feel something.
As educators, these are behaviors we must challenge whenever we can. These are patterns we must interrupt and try to replace with empathy. Sure the classroom content is important, but creating healthy human beings is the core of what we do.