Tag Archives: middle school

You Get What You Get: Helping Our Teens (and Ourselves) Take The High Road

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The-popsicle-was-invented-by-an-11-year-old

You get what you get and you don’t get upset.

We teach this jingle to preschoolers to eliminate envy or any suspicions of favoritism.   A blue Popsicle/crayon/Lego/paper triangle is just as good as a yellow one.  It takes practice and reminders, but eventually this little lesson sinks in and makes life easier for kids and the adults in their lives.

By the teenage years, kids don’t care so much about their Popsicle color, but they do care about circumstances that they think could thwart their success and happiness. And parents care, too.

Sometimes, you get what you get and you don’t get upset seems hard to swallow.

Like when they get the teacher who clearly is more interested in retiring than teaching. Or when the coach is unreasonably critical and short on praise.  Or when they find themselves always sitting on the bench rather than on the field or the ice.  Maybe they never made the team at all.

But I’ve come to realize that no matter what disappointing situation a person finds himself in, if he reacts in mature ways rather than quitting or begrudging others, he can move on and thrive.

I wasn’t always so level-headed about this.

I remember cringing (or was it seething?) when my freshman casually reported that every day, one or two students in her math class would be kicked out of class for talking.  Her seasoned teacher would point to the door and bellow “Get out!” – even if the student was asking to borrow a pencil.  This practice would inevitably make everyone chuckle, even the teacher himself.

That year I lost a lot of sleep wondering how my daughter would learn those important math concepts that weren’t coming easily to her.  I also worried she wouldn’t take school seriously if she continued to be placed in classes reminiscent of Welcome Back Kotter and the sweat hogs..

She recovered.

The next year, her math teacher took the time to review concepts before moving on to a different kind of math. It was a very productive year. Is my child a math whiz now?  No.  Math may never be her area of strength.  But one “off year” (or should I say “off teacher”?) did not ruin her.  In fact, it was good preparation for the real world.

Adults have to deal with challenging people and situations every day.  They may have difficult co-workers or bosses. They may not get the job or the pay raise they hoped for.  Perhaps they didn’t receive credit for a project they worked hard on.  They may have long hours of commuting that take time away from their families.  Maybe they’re laid off.

You get what you get and you don’t get upset. But you can switch gears.

You can stay for extra help.

You can get a tutor.

You can practice more.

You can try something different or new.

You can look for options and make a plan.

You can refuse to quit or point fingers or whine.

You can count all the blessings in your life and focus on the good stuff.

You can be happy for those who succeed and learn to be compassionate toward others who are struggling, because everyone will, sooner or later.

Wonder is Wonderful

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I miss my mother/daughter book club.   It quietly dispersed when our then sixth grade daughters got busy with activities.  Now that the girls are entering eighth grade — the second year of middle school in our town — I wish our group could meet one more time to talk about a book I absolutely love – Wonder, by R.J. Palacio.

This book should be required reading for kids entering middle school.  Its characters and situations are realistic. But the book is ideal for anyone, really, because it invites the reader to question how he or she would react to the main character, August “Auggie” Pullman and the various scenarios he finds himself in.  Auggie was born with severe abnormalities to his face, so people are generally taken aback when they see him for the first time.

Auggie’s mom has home-schooled him since he was born since he has needed numerous surgeries to address his medical concerns.  But she believes he is ready for more of an academic challenge and he is accepted into Beecher Prep School.  Mrs. Pullman believes the timing is ideal, since fifth graders from all over will be starting there for the first time and Auggie won’t be the only nervous kid. Auggie is very perceptive and he gives the reader a detailed analysis of the ways people react to him. Auggie dreads the idea of going to school and leaving his comfort zone provided at home.  It’s clear to the reader this is a highly intelligent kid who wants more than anything for others to look past his physical differences and see him for who he really is.

R.J. Palacio does a superb job of creating complex, believable characters.  Kids can be cruel – in this case, even one of the “role model” students the administrator chooses to help introduce Auggie Pullman to his new school.  But most kids, even those who feel the tug of peer pressure to hang with and act like the cool kids, feel compassion.  What they lack is the courage and ability to express it.

Wonder is easy to read.  It is divided into sections, each of which is told in the point of view of a main character.  Auggie, his sister Via, and a handful of his Beecher Prep peers are the storytellers, giving us an honest look at life in Auggie’s world from their perspective.

Auggie’s pretty sister Via, for example, shares with us that her brother has been the center of her parents’ universe since he was born. She “gets it” that he needs extra attention and protection.  She loves him so much, too.  Yet she’s secretly thrilled that at her new school she won’t immediately be known as the girl whose brother has a deformed face.   Via faces her own, typical adolescent issues but she stays strong.  I have a feeling it is Mr. and Mrs. Pullman’s unconditional love and encouragement that guides their two children to face adversity so graciously.

At times, the reader’s heart will break, but at times it will soar.  Kids will experience this, as will parents.  This is good.  We want our kids to feel compassion.  We want our kids to do the right thing even when it’s not the popular thing to do.

It’s common knowledge that the middle school years are all about kids forming friendships and that sometimes kids choose friends for the wrong reasons.  In the few short middle school years, looking and talking a certain way is, for most kids, more appealing than showing their true selves, including flaws and insecurities. Yet they all have flaws and, like Auggie, they all desperately want to feel loved and accepted by others.  If they could learn to appreciate each other despite their physical differences, imagine the possibilities…..

Wonder could open up much-needed discussions about acceptance and tolerance.  The winners in this story are the students who learned to look past Auggie’s physical differences.  They are the students who see the Auggie who is a good friend, a hard worker, and a funny kid.  I recommend this book to anyone who feels hopeful that some day soon bullying will be one of the few, truly unacceptable flaws.

 

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A Rare Kind of Popular

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Something happens to students upon entering middle school.  It was only 7 months ago that I watched fresh faced kids, including my own, in their best attire, smiling broadly as they received certificates for completing elementary school.  Now, as some of these same faces arrive for Monday night CCD class, it’s as if someone flipped a switch and they officially became teenagers who walk, talk and dress alike.

Clusters of girls in skinny jeans, wearing UGG’s and North Face jackets and sporting pony tails, walk in tight groups, practically tripping over each other.  They’re chatting and laughing excitedly, their eyes darting around the room, assessing the others. The boys sport their own “uniform” – mostly North Face jackets, jeans and sneakers or work boots.  More clustering and more scoping out the scene. Just one year ago as an assistant,  I would have received many more  hellos from these kids.  Now they barely register that I’m present.

Although the “look” is not unfamiliar to me, as I have two kids who have gone through this stage already, it’s still remarkable to watch it in action.  It’s no longer easy for me to pick my girl out in a crowd of seventh graders as she, too, has the “look.”  Occasionally our eyes meet and I am rewarded with a sweet, if not sympathetic, smile. (She still likes me).

Tonight’s topic is social justice and how God deeply loves everyone in the world, regardless of their appearance, achievements or possessions (or lack thereof) and how God expects us all to extend that same love to our neighbors.  We have a responsibility to love and to take care of each other, particularly those who are the poorest and neediest among us.

Close your eyes and imagine what this room would feel like if we all loved each other unconditionally, the same way God loves us.  How would it feel?

It’s a question that appears to have caught them off guard.  It’s clearly a moment of thinking outside the box for these middle school students, most of whom spend each day trying to dress right, feel good emotionally and physically, and fit in with their peers while projecting an image of having everything figured out. Love one’s peers?  Whoa.

“It would feel gooooood,” said one boy, fluttering his eyelashes and wrapping an arm around the shoulders of the boy next to him.

“Amazing!” shrieked another boy who likes to get a reaction (and he got one).

“Good,” replied my daughter, when I asked her later, in the privacy of our home. “’Cuz there’d be no meanness, no sarcasm… no bullying.”  Aha.  The original question at the group meeting was meant to elicit such a response but, alas, got none.  Not even from my daughter who apparently had the answer in her head.  I have a feeling others may have had it, too.  Confidence, peace, acceptance and cooperation were some of the ideas I had in my own mind.

If we each could see only goodness in each other, the way God sees goodness in all of us, the lack of judgment and competition could free up individuals to completely and comfortably be themselves.  No one would feel the need to compare himself to others, but would just be somewhere along the path of his own journey.

But typically for teens (and for many adults), that’s not the way it works.   Survival of the fittest takes over, beginning in middle school, when it is of utmost importance to wear the right clothes and own certain gadgets.   They desperately want to be liked by others.  They want to fit in, to be smart, to make the right team, to look attractive, to make people laugh.  They want others to believe they have everything under control but in reality, underneath the “uniform” and the giggling and the silly responses to serious questions, they all have limitations that they try to hide from others.  Sensing they belong is sometimes more important than sensing the need to show compassion for someone else.

The same kid in this seventh grade CCD class who only a few years ago was shy and polite in class, tonight appears to be the ring leader among the guys, even showing no remorse for failing to save his long-time friend a seat with the group. I watch as the friend without a seat shrugs his shoulders, red faced, and searches for a free chair away from his peers. It’s similar to the second question posed tonight.  If you saw someone sitting alone at a table in the school lunchroom, would you sit with him or even ask him to join your table?

Many teens know the discomfort of sitting alone, if for no other reason than seats at a table are unavailable.  Regardless, sitting alone is not enjoyable for most teens.  Even self-assured teens don’t enjoy sitting alone.  Would you join the kid sitting alone?   It depends, they say.   How many teens would sit with a friend who was alone?  How many would sit with someone they didn’t know who was alone?  How many would sit with someone who had few friends?  God asks us to take care of each other.

Not long ago, another mom and I were talking about how fantastic the bonding is that typically takes place for the sixth grade students in our town at a week-long overnight camp.  This year, however, one student made the long trek home to sleep each night and returned in the morning.  When some of his cabin mates joked about the student’s need to go home, one student not only refused to join in but verbally questioned the integrity of the group for ridiculing this child and for doing so behind his back.  Speaking up takes tremendous courage for someone so young.   Even adults have trouble putting an end to idle gossip.  It’s much easier, although cowardly, to remain silent.

* * *

Teens might be surprised to know that everyone is more or less fighting some kind of battle.  Even those who seem to have everything going well for them oftentimes are struggling in some way.  Consider these situations:

  • The academically driven student who is secretly hurt when others criticize her for trying too hard.
  • The student who wants to succeed but just doesn’t have the passion and/or skills to do so and develops an attitude to mask his discouragement.
  • The rule-following student who doesn’t understand why the disrespectful behavior receives more approval by peers.
  • The kid who has lots of friends but feels enormous anxiety about the dysfunction happening at home.
  • The kid who will do anything to feel accepted in the “popular” crowd, even if it means severing old, established friendships
  • The kid whose family is struggling to make ends meet, and cannot afford fancy gadgets or brand name labels and feels inferior.

Things are not always what they seem.   Extending compassion and acceptance to others — regardless of how they look or act — could be habit-forming and could be life-changing for the giver as well as the recipient.  Be kind to enemies?  What is there to lose?

All teens have the potential to be popular.   By popular teen I mean those rare people who are genuinely kind to everyone with no expectation of kindness being returned.  These are the teens who smile and talk to everyone – the wallflowers, the know-it-alls, the athletes, the band geeks, the Queen Bees and even the rough-around-the-edge rebellious types.  Maybe some day, this kind of popular will be the norm.

* * *

I recently stopped at the local pizza parlor to pick up dinner.  While there, I was approached by a beautiful girl who goes to the same high school as my children.  Without hesitation, this girl approached me with a big smile, saying hello and asking me how I was.  She did not have to do anything other than wave at me from her seat yet she came over to me and showed genuine interest.  I am certain that if I were her age, I would not have the courage to do so.  I don’t know this girl well but she made me smile – and did so in front of her peers.  Now that is a wicked good teen.