School Climate & Safety

Competing Forces

By Jessica Portner — October 04, 2000 12 min read
Middle Grades: Feeling the Squeeze

Tyler Goark, 14, and Megan Skidmore, 13, are typical students at a fairly representative middle school in a middle-class suburb. For a week last spring, they offered themselves as guides into a territory that few adults can navigate alone—7th grade.

Twenty miles north of Seattle, the glass skyscrapers of the city are supplanted by the towering pines of Edmonds. Multiplexes and minimarts, the architectural signatures of suburbia, line the broad avenues. This morning, as every school day morning, yellow school buses and minivans peel off the road to deposit their crews of children at College Place Middle School. Bleary-eyed boys in baggy jeans and sweatshirts, donning black shades (though it’s raining), amble to class. Girls fix their eyeshadow, suck on water bottles like pacifiers, and cluck about the latest intrigue.

A few of the students hug their parents goodbye, but most just bolt out of the cars— as if to deny they ever had parents—into the teeming crowd.

Most of the lawn chat this morning is fraught with angst. Rumors of breakups abound. Cliques have congealed and then melted overnight.

“What’s up?” asks Megan Skidmore, lifting her hand in a languid high-five.

“Megan’s obsessed with Andrew,” Megan’s best friend, Emily Pruitt, says to the gathering group of girls.

“Shhh!” scolds Megan, looking around furiously to see who might have overheard. “That’s so last week.”

Middle school years are synonymous with change. More transformation occurs between the ages of 11 and 14 than in any period of a human’s life other than the first four years, experts say.

Sandwiched between elementary and high school, middle school students are in limbo between childhood and adolescence: They’re off kilter, out of place. Peers, not parents, are the predominant influence at the very time these early adolescents are becoming directly exposed to the influences of drugs, alcohol, and pop culture.

Emotionally, youngsters of middle school age are on a hormonal ride where moods swing so quickly it’s impossible sometimes for teachers or parents to anticipate the swells and dips.

They are fickle creatures, Vicki Clarke, one of College Place’s counselors, says as she scans the morning rush to class. “They are trying on new personas every day. Like, they want to be a vegetarian. It may last only six hours, but they are very passionate about it,” she says.

And just as academics starts to get complex, Clarke says, school is the last thing on their minds.

‘I need to go shopping, major. I’ve an urge to buy,” says 12-year-old Katie Blok, who is cruising the mall with Megan and a few other friends after school. The five 7th graders dart toward a CD store, put on headphones, and sway to the band Pink.

“I don’t like Britney Spears. She’s so full of herself,” declares Megan, flipping through CDs.

In the Gap, Katie tries on peasant blouses, and Megan puts on a green cowboy hat. In Abercrombie & Fitch, the girls blow air kisses to a poster of tanned, muscled men doing push-ups at the beach. “Meg used to hate Abercrombie in 6th grade,” says Nora Dean, as if revealing a deep confidence.

“But we are the preppies now,” Megan adds.

“They are slaves to brands,” Debra Skidmore, Megan’s mother, chimes in before she is banished to the food court.

“I like going to the mall ‘cause I can talk to my friends and not my mom ... and there’re boys here,” explains Megan. Just then, two burly high schoolers brush by. “Oh, he’s hot. It’s like, ‘Hello, I love you,’” Megan giggles.

“If it weren’t for boys, I’d quit school,” Emily declares.

“It’s fun to have a boyfriend ‘cause you have someone to talk to,” Megan adds. “People hold hands and hug each other on Valentine’s Day. They give you a present. It’s nice.”

For middle school girls, a conversation with a boy two days in a row is considered a serious romantic entanglement. For the most part, in 7th grade, it’s more about flirting than sex. But still, at College Place, counselors estimate that one in nine 7th graders is sexually active. Because public displays of affection can be offensive to some students, one of the school rules is no physical contact.

“I had two kids kissing recently in a full-body press, and I knew they were sexually active. I had to change their class schedule to separate them,” Clarke says.

When the romance sours, she hears about it. Relationship advice is the No. 1 reason middle school girls come to her cozy office to talk. Nos. 2 and 3 are problems with parents and family illness. Only occasionally does a visitor come to Clarke stressed about schoolwork.

When it comes to romance, middle school boys are clueless, Clarke says. “Girls are attacking boys, and the boys are shell-shocked because they’re aren’t developmentally ready for that,” she says.

Though many girls have crushes on Tyler Goark, his sole obsession is baseball. “My goal is to make high school ball,” Tyler says in the dugout on a school night while practicing his swing for the Tide, which is finally breaking its losing streak.

Tyler swears he has a girlfriend, but she never seems to be at his side.

“I’m busy,” he explains. “I probably won’t have a relationship till I get a job in the major leagues ... if I get that far,” he adds.

Up at bat, his teammates chant “Tyler, Tyler” as he hits a hard line drive down the middle of the wet green field for a double. The other players behind home plate spit sunflower seeds as they wait for their turns at bat.

Tyler likes school all right. But his main concern is making the grades he needs so his parents will let him keep playing baseball. “When I hear my team cheer me on, it feels good,” he says.

As Tyler glides into the school’s cramped cafeteria the next day, 150 7th graders are chomping on their Tater Tots and downing Cokes. The room’s acoustics amplify the already suffocating chatter. Even Andy Rogers, the school’s affable principal, looks overwhelmed as he towers over the 12- and 13- year-olds surging toward the food line.

“Supervising lunch is like herding cats,” Rogers says. “It’s like the Bermuda Triangle in here.”

But Rogers knows there is order in chaos. The cliquesthe preppies, jocks, druggies, and Gothicsare all at their self-assigned posts.

The Goths, in black garb, their hair dyed black, congregate like ravens in the cafeteria’s bleachers. The preps, recognizable by their Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts, populate the tables in “the bowl” at the bottom of the stairs. The jocks mix with the preppies. The druggies skulk at the fringe. One of the Goths has a T-shirt on that says “Kill the Preps.”

“These Goths, rockers, they annoy me,” says Tyler, standing in Prep Central. “They give you that look.”

Tyler says there hasn’t been a real Goth-prep brawl yet, but the atmosphere can get crazy. “We had three food fights this year,” he notes as a Tater Tot whizzes past his ear from the bleacher seats. “See?”

Things can get ugly in other ways. Over near the softdrink machines, Will, the class bully, taunts a student named Stephen, who is a dwarf. “Say hello, Stephen,” he says to the frazzled-seeming 7th grader, who is also deaf.

Boys and girls are mean in different ways in middle school, Clarke says. “Boys are up front in their nastiness. Girls are covert.”

Girls are so body-conscious at this age that many skip lunch or barely pick at their food.

“A lot of people just take a bite, and that’s it. It’s too fattening,” says Katie.

Clarke says eating disorders are a problem. “I hear about girls going to the bathroom and throwing up,” the counselor says. “Their friends come in and tell me their friends are anorexic.”

Because of their desperate desire to fit in, many kids in middle schools feel lonely, and more and more are using drugs to blunt their feelings of isolation.

Two years ago, teacher Alaine Davis confiscated a bag of marijuana and rolling papers from a student. “Kids talk about experimenting, and you know they are smoking,” she says. Nationally, marijuana use among middle-school-age children has more than doubled, to 22 percent, since the early 1990s.

Megan Skidmore’s 16-year-old brother, Eric, was such a heavy user when he was at College Place that he was thrown into drug treatment for eight weeks before high school. Lots of 7th graders were smoking pot, drinking, using Ecstasy, he says.

“Kids would skip school and go across the street to the woods and blatantly use,” Rogers, who became principal two years ago, recalls. Rogers has increased supervision to reduce loitering around the school.

“We have made significant progress,” says Rogers, who recently suspended three students for smoking marijuana.

All of these preoccupations are challenging for teachers whose job is to make sure students write well- constructed sentences and solve equations.

“Academically, they are not motivated. In elementary, they can slide because of their brains,” Clarke says. “Here, they are required to demonstrate knowledge, and that’s not important to many kids,” she says.

Michelle: Ali, I like _ _ _ _ and someone said he liked me too. Who is _ _ _ _? Ali: Jeff? M: True! A: So is he gonna dump Phoebe now that he knows you like him? M: He already dumped Phoebe and I don't know if he likes me 4-sure or if he knows I like him. I'm scared to tell him. What will he say!!!??? A: Do you want me to do it? I think he will be like "Oh OK," he will be speechless. When do you want me to? Next passing period, 7th period? M: Yeah, say "Jeff, Michelle told me that she likes you but don't tell her I told you. Do you like her?" A: OK, but remind me, because I know that I'll forget. —Note passed in reading class, 4th period.

“Everything is a big drama,” says Davis, who teaches 7th grade math. “Kids burst into tears when they get a bad test grade and then run out of the room. It’s hard to make things business as usual.”

Social studies teacher Teresa Cairns says going to students’ emotional rescue is a big part of her job. “There are kids who don’t come to my room if I don’t hug them,” she says. The teacher describes a situation in which an 8th grade girl got a note from a friend. The friend had accused the girl of ignoring her, and wrote that she wanted to kill herself. “I had them write down their feelings and process it, and it was better,” Cairns says.

Rogers says his most successful teachers learn how to listen to adolescents’ emotional needs. In a survey Rogers conducted asking students to list their top concerns, “teachers in a bad mood” ranked at the top, followed by school safety or grade pressures. Middle school students don’t listen to teachers who are cranky with them, Rogers says. (The school’s least popular teacher is a stern disciplinarian who issues commands from her lectern.)

To lift students’ spirits, College Place Middle School holds a community-building retreat each fall for the 8th grade class. Students spend a night at a camp, take nature hikes, make up skits. The school also holds a student-of-the-month reception for those with the most academic improvement. More than 200 of College Place’s 625 students have received such an award.

“It’s a middle school thing. We see what we can do to make kids feel good about themselves and their accomplishments,” Principal Rogers says. Though it’s at the high school level that students physically drop out, Rogers observes, “this is the age when we lose kids mentally.”

“Sometimes I space out,” says Tyler, leaning back on his chair in math class. He looks cool in his standard white T-shirt and gelled- back blond hair. The teacher directs the class to open a textbook for a study period. Tyler fiddles with plastic blocks to calculate volume—something he’ll need to know for his final exam in two days.

A bright, good-natured student, Tyler pulls a B average, but is struggling for a B-minus in math. Still, he says, most classes are a breeze.

Tyler describes how in a health class students were given an assignment to draw a person under stress. They filled in the “points of stress” on a stick figure like “biting nails, cracked knuckles, sweat, shaking, bathroom troubles.”

“The teacher would just write down most of it, and we’d just copy it down.”

His homework assignments never keep him so busy that he can’t play baseball every night.

“School’s not really that hard,” Tyler says. “There’s no reason why you just can’t fly by.”

Megan slips into math class as the bell rings, flapping her powdered-pink eyelids toward the cute boys in the back. Megan earns A’s or B’s in most classes, and she likes many of her teachers. But she, too, struggles in math. It’s not that she’s incapable of understanding the concepts and solving the problems, says her teacher. Her focus is just not on calculating the area of a parallelogram. “It’s that the social thing is a huge distraction,” Davis says.

“Middle school is a joke,” says Megan’s brother Eric, who graduated from College Place Middle School in 1998. “I hung out with the badasses, and didn’t do anything in 7th grade. I got incompletes. I was a slacker, but I wasn’t held back.”

Rogers says policies have changed since Eric roamed these halls. Currently, 40 to 60 7th graders are failing. But those students are not promoted to the next grade; they are held back and placed in a special program to help them complete the work, the principal says.

Since coming here, Rogers has also replaced a third of the teaching staff, favoring employees who are able to keep students’ attention and help prepare them for the state’s new high- stakes, standards-based tests.

It’s hard to be a slacker in Heather Hiatt’s science class, for example. The wiry young teacher moves at the pace of a video game, snapping her fingers to direct traffic, making funny faces to get students’ attention. “You guys pick a topic to search for yet?” she asks two dazed students. “OK, go. Do it!”

Today, students are trying to gather as much information about an environmental issue as they can online. Tyler is cruising Web sites to find out about logging in the Pacific Northwest.

“I like Ms. Hiatt because she makes a game out of everything,” says 7th grader Michelle Sheehy. “We draw pictures and explore rather than just reading a book.”

Still, even Hiatt says it’s a challenge to keep students interested when you only have 50 minutes to teach. She’s shifting to longer periods this year. “They can do more than we are asking them to do. You can go deeper with kids if you have more time,” she says

Hiatt says another barrier is that girls tend to limit their academic aspirations so they can socialize more.

“I don’t want to be in honors. Honors is if you don’t have a life,” says Ali Anderson, an A student.

Haley Duffy, another A student, says she doesn’t like to speak up in class. “I know you get better grades if you ask a question. But I don’t like to raise my hand ‘cause I’m afraid people will think I’m dumb.”

It’s difficult for parents to come to their children’s aid because they are often the last people to know there’s a problem.

“Mothers call me and say, ‘What’s going on with my daughter? She used to snuggle with me, and now, she slams the door and doesn’t want to talk to me,’ ” Clarke says. “I say to them, ‘It’s healthy.’ Parents don’t realize that kids need boundaries.”

At home, Megan and best friend Emily’s secret chatter halts as soon as Megan’s mother, Debra, enters the room. “Parents, you see, are on a need-to-know basis,” her mother says.

The walls in Megan’s room are covered with pictures of friends and posters of Abercrombie models and her favorite band, Blink 182. “I’m obsessed with them,” she says as she strums “Wild Thing” on her electric guitar. As soon as her mother walks away, Megan shuts the door.

Her mother sighs. “I guess I’ll have her back in high school.”


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