There is something alive inside of them, possessing them, fighting to take over. You can see it in them, walking into school all wound up, buzzing with an energy that isn’t their own. It is as thought they have to fight against it every day – a battle between themselves and this unknown entity. This is adolescence, and when the fight is won, a human being emerges.
They enter in 6th grade, wide eyed, ready to be influenced, still looking for affirmation and affection from their teachers. Then, slowly, they are infected – perhaps by the 7th graders – with some mysterious being that creeps inside of them and consumes their energies, their thoughts, their beings.
This morning on NPR, they talked about a study that was being done to examine why teenagers act the way that they do. Perhaps there is a biological, sociological, more empirical study of the transformations that take place. But as an adult, spending two years immersed in this middle school world, this idea is the only one that seems plausible.
As seventh grade begins, they are lost – much of them disappears, the familiar, easy childlike demeanor, the trust that they wander through life with, the curiosity and excitement. They are possessed by this other being – perhaps it is hormones, or just some other type of internal struggle, but for a year I watch as they come into class filled with a nervous energy, reluctant to sit down, easily angered, defensive about everything. They struggle to have a conversation without raising their voice, and seem to genuinely have no control over themselves.
Then, slowly, at different points for them all, they make peace. They settle into themselves, and they once again resemble people. To an outsider you may not see it, but I watch as a level of calm has begun to slowly rest on my students.
For a year or two they have disappeared, causing their parents to come in perplexed, claiming that they don’t know what has happened to their child – they can’t imagine why they are acting this way, this is nothing like the son/daughter that they raised. I used to not believe them – I thought they were trying to escape responsibility – which perhaps many of them are. But I have see 6th graders turn into seventh graders, and become lost in this struggle to figure out who they are now that their body has been warped by puberty, and their friends have shot up at various speeds, and their interests have diverged and reunited. They are lost in a mess of 2 day relationships, classes that require more work, more thinking, peers that are getting into a lot of trouble, choices that they suddenly realize are theirs – not their parents’ – to make.
And then I watch seventh graders grow into eighth graders, and very slowly realize that they are still themselves, that they are not kids anymore, and that that’s okay. They discover themselves as some sort of individual, and begin to view the choices they make as a privilege rather than a burden. It is as though they have killed that beast that lurks within them.
Surely there is much more growing up to do – there will be many more struggles, many more opportunities for self-discovery and development. But this is the first, and the hardest, and as I look around my eighth grade class, I see that some of them are emerging with a sense of self that they didn’t have before.