Poems & Essays

15 Apr

Middle School Mama

General/Column No Response

The closer my oldest son got to sixth grade, the more I realized how young middle schoolers really are. I had been teaching middle school for years at this point, since before my son was born. I knew that my colleagues frequently described our students as “little kids in big kid bodies,” and I had even used the phrase myself. But I’m not sure that I got it.

The countless parallels between toddlers and middle school students – now that I got. I had experienced it on a daily basis for years as each of my three boys travelled through toddlerhood one after the other. Both the eleven year olds in my classroom and the one year olds in my house were engaged in epic struggles between dependence and independence. Both two year olds and twelve year olds are more cooperative when offered choices. Do you want apples or carrots for a snack? Do you want to do your assignment alone or with a partner? And there is nothing like a thirteen or three year old to teach you to pick your battles. You want to wear your Batman costume to the grocery store? Go for it.

My survival in both spheres – as a teacher and a mother – is rooted in the importance of setting clear expectations and following through with consistent consequences when those expectations aren’t met. It also helps to talk in short, direct phrases. Like you do with dogs. Sit down. Don’t touch each other. Stop talking now. It’s exhausting on both fronts, and my reality has fallen short of my rhetoric more times than I care to admit. What I wouldn’t give some days for the household equivalent of an in-school suspension room, where I could send my kids for a time out with another adult who would make them stay there until we’d both had time to cool down.

But to my younger-mother self, these parallels were humorous. After all, middle schoolers were so much older than toddlers. They could tie their own shoes (mostly). They could wipe their own butts and noses. (Thank God.) When they forgot things constantly and ran through the halls and never seemed to listen to directions or read directions or follow directions, well… that came down to poor choices, right? Surely, they knew better by now. They were just being naughty.

And then I became a middle school mama. My sixth grader, who had been taller than me since halfway through fifth grade, was by all accounts über-responsible for his age. He mostly kept track of his assignments and did his homework with minimal prodding. (Don’t worry. My second son, a current middle schooler, is much more typical. He’s taught me a lot.) But the key point here is that, for God’s sake, despite his height and his relative maturity, he was just a baby. And I knew that because I was his mom — and those eleven years since I had brought him home from the hospital 3 ½ weeks early and then had him re-admitted, a jaundiced orange pumpkin, to be put under the bili-lights while my milk dried up and I cried – those eleven years had just flown. And it hit me, I swear for the first time, that every single kid in my school was someone’s baby.

Probably, this should not have come as such a revelation. Probably, I had heard it said before. But again, I truly didn’t get it, until I was there in the middle school hallway with my own sixth-grade son, who was studiously avoiding eye contact with me out of fear that I might – what? Run down the hall after him and throw my arms around him? (Did I mention that my son was lucky enough to be a student at the school where I teach?)

Framing my school interactions in full embrace of the concept that every student I work with is someone’s baby has definitely influenced my teaching. I can ask myself, “What would I want to happen if this was my child?” and somehow the question is less hypothetical because I know what it’s like to have a gangly, smelly, video-game obsessed, sweet, awkward, moody boy-man living in my house. I can relate to the parents of my students so much better than I had before. I have so much more empathy for them. Our jobs are not easy.

I like to think that my parenting has also benefitted from my years of middle school experience, although I’ll be the first to admit that it’s one thing to see kids at school go through their various adolescent crises, and altogether another to watch those issues go down in your own living room. Missing homework. Changing friendships. Managing screen time. Balancing school and sports. Body image. First girlfriend. First break-up. My many years in the middle school have given me perspective, if nothing else. No matter how ugly it might sometimes get at home, I’m usually fairly certain that whatever is going on with my sons is well within the range of normal, and that a lot of families have way tougher situations to deal with.

I am fortunate that, as an ESL teacher, I often get to work with students all the way through middle school. I really get to know these kids. I meet them as fresh, shiny-faced sixth-graders and send them out the door at the end of eighth grade ready (I hope! Oh, I hope!) for the challenges of high school. That’s the crazy, almost magical thing about middle school. Those babies that arrive in sixth grade grow so much in three years. Literally, of course, but also in terms of their academic and socio-emotional growth.

And as they get closer and closer to high school, some of them also become more appreciative of the adults that have helped to guide them thus far. That might explain the morning in my oldest son’s eighth grade year when I was in the hallway before school, having stopped to chat with a small group of students, when I suddenly felt someone walk up behind me and wrap me up in a hug. In school. In front of everyone. My baby.



Jennifer Hernandez lives in the Minneapolis area where she teaches and writes. Her work has appeared recently in Gingerbread House, Mothers Always Write, Silver Birch Press, and The Good Mother Project. She has performed her poetry at a non-profit garage, a bike shop filled with taxidermy and in the kitchen for her three sons, who are probably her toughest audience.

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