Credit: Pixabay stock image

There is something deeply confusing about the middle-school mind. 

An outsider looking in will find themself baffled while observing a middle schooler; even a parent fails to recognize their own child. And then, of course, the middle schooler themself will frequently become perplexed by their actions and decision-making. Middle school kids flummox even themselves. 

One reason for this strangeness is the rapid brain development during these years. 

As a mom of a toddler (and a toddler-in-training), I can attest that I find many similarities between my students at school and my babies at home. In both spaces, I’m often silently repeating the same mantra: There is a giant rewiring happening inside these brains, be patient. 

There is a very specific facial expression these two age groups share. A sort of furrowing of the brows that should be accompanied by a floating caption that reads: loading. (Maybe a spinning wheel should be hanging close by.) 

In particular, 7th grade, which by definition is the very middle of the middle, is often tumultuous. Have you ever approached an adult and asked them to recount a story from seventh grade? The look of horror and disdain that creeps across their face will send chills down your spine.

During curriculum night, I used to ask a simple question: How many of you sitting here tonight enjoyed seventh grade?

Typically one or two hands would shyly go up, but the vast majority of the audience would snicker to themselves. The point being, seventh grade is not usually a high point during an average life, and yet, maybe that stigma deserves a makeover.

A couple of years ago, I decided to take my class of 24 seventh-graders on a walking field trip to a local playground. They were a dynamic group, and I wanted to reward them for their focus and concentration. So we bundled up and began our trek. 

Upon arriving at the park, they looked at me for a few seconds, clearly confused. Unsure. Were they too old to play? I just stared back, my eyes asking, What are you guys waiting for? Go! 

Sure enough, a small group bounded up the steps to the slide, others walked casually to the swings, and a couple even folded themselves inside pretend, miniature cars. Before long, they were laughing, running, chasing and eventually screaming with joy.

Walkers passing by looked on with curiosity; the vast majority smiled in a show of support. One woman even yelled from her car window: I love to see big kids playing; good for them! 

But the comment I remember the most was not as positive.

It came from a woman who sat with her young son at the park; he may have been around 2 years old. He dug in the sandbox, completely oblivious to the bigger kids, while his mom scowled at my students. I continued watching her, curious. Then her son decided he’d like to play on the equipment.

“No, not today,” she told him loudly. “These kids aren’t being very careful; they’re too big for this playground and aren’t going to pay attention to you. You could get hurt.” 

My eyes widened. If none of my students had heard her, I would have let her comment go. But a couple of younger ears overheard, and so I figured I couldn’t let this one lie. 

I turned to face her, “He can play too; they’ll be careful.” 

She huffed.

“Well honestly, these kids are too big for this playground, and my son deserves to play here, too.”

I took a breath.

“I understand,” I said, “but honestly, this is a public park, and these are children, and this is their park as much as your son’s.” The girls closest to me gave each other incredulous looks and tried not to smile.

Needless to say, the woman did not like my response, and she and her young son left shortly after. But the whole experience left me buzzing and a little rattled.

I understood the nervousness surrounding her little boy playing at a park with bigger kids, but she didn’t even give my students a chance to do the right thing and watch out for the younger one. And why would she say that these kids were too big for the playground? Shouldn’t 12-year-olds get to play? Afterall, weren’t they just kids, too? 

Middle school is hard enough. Between the raging hormones, the abrupt growth spurts, the cracking voices and swinging moods; sometimes, due to all of this growth and uncomfortable change, it is easy to forget that at their core, middle-school students are just big kids. They can be ornery, confused and, sure, unpredictable, but they’re also deeply introspective, highly observant and incredibly sensitive. 

Plenty of assumptions are made about teenagers and pre-teens, most of them based on fear and unfamiliarity. On some level, perhaps this mother wasn’t thrilled with the idea of her son being exposed to the seventh-grade version of herself, which is often a version we’d all rather forget.

But seventh grade, for better or for worse, is a part of life. We all went through it, and we’re stronger for it. My colleagues and I are proud to work with middle-schoolers. We see and accept these kids for all that they are. They’re no longer young children, but they’re barely teenagers.

The pre-teenage years are their own entity. Let’s strive to appreciate and celebrate this age group: the good, bad and the ugly: The very middle of the middle.

Simone Larson and the RoundTable hope to hear from this community. Is there a District 65 teacher who changed you or your child’s life? Are you a teacher who is doing something in your classroom that you’d like covered in this column? Please reach out!

Let’s spread some joy and positivity this fall. Please email your column ideas and inquiries to news@evanstonroundtable.com.

Simone Larson

Simone Larson is a third generation teacher. She lives in Skokie-Evanston with her husband, two young children and a dog.

Join the Conversation

2 Comments

The RoundTable will try to post comments within a few hours, but there may be a longer delay at times. Comments containing mean-spirited, libelous or ad hominem attacks will not be posted. Your full name and email is required. We do not post anonymous comments. Your e-mail will not be posted.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Thanks Simone for your thoughtful essay and reflections on middle school. And thanks for your hard work as an Evanston educator. We are grateful for your dedication. Fyi, there is an interesting group being organized out of University of Virginia to examine and redesign middle school to better take advantage of the strengths of this age group. Take a look if you have time.
    https://education.virginia.edu/faculty-research/centers-labs-projects/youth-nex/remaking-middle-school/about-remaking-middle-school