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The Middle School Roller Coaster

Friday, December 02, 2016 by Darby Evans - ACE 22, Fort Worth

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I love it when their eyes widen. That is my favorite part.

"You teach English? To middle schoolers?" people ask, incredulous, awed. "Oh man, I was the worst in middle school."

Darby Evans Middle School Roller Coaster"Yes, you probably were," I nod—a heavy sort of nod, the nod of an old wizard who has lived a thousand years. 

The small talk continues: "I mean, I was alright, but I could be so mean to my teachers, you know?"

"Oh, yes, I do,” I say, “ I really do.” I pause and stare off wistfully, as would a wise sage who sees all too clearly how cruel and cold are the hearts of men.

While perhaps, admittedly, I play up the melodrama in conversation, the truth is this: teaching middle school is not for the faint of heart. Middle schoolers come to a sudden, powerful, and sometimes fearsome realization during their time in our classrooms: they are individuals with the ability to choose how to act. They have their own brains, their own bodies, and they can, in fact, resist our control.  

You are no longer children, we tell them. You are young adults, we say.

Couple this newfound knowledge with the occasional firestorm of hormones, and my middle schoolers make for quite the study of human nature. Are people inherently good? Are people inherently bad? Visit my middle school classroom, and you may leave unsure of the answer.

Gearing up for a day with middle schoolers is the emotional equivalent of strapping into a rickety wooden roller coaster.

Gearing up for a day with middle schoolers is the emotional equivalent of strapping into a rickety wooden roller coaster. The smells alone that one encounters in a middle school classroom could be enough to deter even the strong-willed among us. Even if you are brave enough to battle through the heavy morning mist of recently applied AXE body spray, more danger this way lies.

Take, for example, a typical day of school this past week. In the morning, a student awed me with the poem she composed in blank verse, her carefully crafted words suffused with insight and maturity. My proverbial roller coaster cart started its hopeful, Little-Engine-That-Could climb toward the top of the track. Only an hour later, I found myself deeply concerned for the future of humanity when another student intentionally walked into a brick wall for no explainable reason. The cart slowed; the anxiety grew. But, another glimmer of hope broke through after lunch as a sixth grader FINALLY capitalized the letter "I" in his writing assignment, only to be quashed moments after prayer when another student told me I should “really do something about the dark circles” around my eyes.

Gravity won, and the cart hurtled downward.

Middle schoolers, like all of us, can be hurtful and short-sighted. Every day, many of them worry me. Every day, some of them disappoint me. Some of them have very legitimately hurt my feelings (I am currently taking suggestions for an effective undereye cream).

And yet, every day, without fail, my students amaze me. 

"Every day, more and more, I am convinced of the singular privilege to have been chosen to be my students’ teacher."

Every day, more and more, I am convinced of the singular privilege to have been chosen to be my students’ teacher. Every class, they share their opinions and their stories. They write about ideal societies in which benevolent Chicken Lords abolish homework and establish candy currency, and I glimpse a sillier, more magical world that I myself have forgotten how to dream. They also tell me of their very real realities—their families, their home lives, their insecurities, and bravely bare their barely formed selves. What an extraordinary honor it is to witness their strength and their capacity for grace and forgiveness.  

These smelly, contrary, emotionally unstable little humans make me laugh. They make me cry. They often demand more of my time and patience than I think I am capable of giving, but in the one and half years I have spent as their teacher, I have grown to love them with a ferocity that even I don’t fully understand.

And so, every day, I will continue to board this absurd roller coaster that is teaching middle school. I will trudge into my classroom, coffee mug in hand, crate of textbooks in tow. I will shake my head alongside other adults as we marvel at the mayhem these middle schoolers can create. I will choose to love my students, to expend all of myself planning and grading and managing. It is not easy, and that is precisely why my ACE experience is worthwhile. It is in this service, in this sacrifice of self, that I have been forged into a better person, and hopefully, by some small measure, forged my students into better people as well.

I will try to remember this next time I choke on their cologne. You must be this resilient to ride. My middle schoolers have taught me this lesson well.