When I was in the seventh grade, it was a fairly traumatic time for me. The company my father had worked for during the previous decade was in the process of shutting down its local plant. Some of the men and women who worked there would be transferred to another location, but most of them would be out of a job. Our family started to making “what if” plans that included my father returning to school to become a veterinarian. Near the end of the third marking period, my mother showed up with my brother and a smile on her face. Dad was being transferred to the plan in Ohio – YAY! Which meant moving and starting a new school – BOO!
To a 13-year-old a life-changing experience like moving seems just plain cruel. However, most kids come out the other side just fine. It took me a while to get used to the move, but Ohio is home to me and has been ever since we got there. Seventh grade in general is a rough time for most kids. When the girls were in seventh grade, I remember Jordan coming home nearly in tears. Someone mentioned nose rings in class, and Jordan said that she thought they looked dumb. Innocent, right? To a rational adult, it’s a perfectly innocent conversation (if not a bit ironic now since she and her sister and her mother all have nose rings). But in the seventh grade, rational is pretty murky word. Another girl overheard the conversation and reported it to a friend. Who had a nose ring. And she interpreted it like this: Jordan thinks you look dumb. Every adult who was once a seventh grader knows that them are fightin’ words, right? Jordan was nearly beside herself once she heard that this girl now wanted to beat her up, and Shelby decided that no one was going to do that to her sister (because that’s what sisters are for, correct?) and stated she’d fight the girl if it came to that. So, as the mother of two girls, I did what any rational adult would do. I flipped the hell out . . . big time. “You never said that. Why would she fight you? Why would your sister, of all people, say that? What is wrong with this picture?” The walk we were on consisted of question after question after question. And the best part? There were no bloody answers. None. Not a single answer.
Personally, I thought it might just be an anomaly with my children, but after teaching seventh grade for one week, I quickly learned it wasn’t. Seventh grade is like this. One day, this person is your best friend. The next . . . they act like you have never seen them before. Words get thrown around like gasoline and sometimes, one look is the match that sets the whole place on fire. Girls, in particular, can be especially brutal. Wrong color socks on the arbitrary “funny sock” day can bump you down five pegs. Liking last month’s “it” band can cause a whole lunch table to go completely silent for days and days. But boys dish it out, too. Some boys enjoy Minecraft while others prefer first-person shooter video games . . . see the two camps forming here? And god forbid you insist on continuing to root for last year’s winning Superbowl team.
So what do you do? Part of it takes the form of ignoring (and here’s where I really do like Taylor Swift’s message in “Shake It Off,” cultural appropriation notwithstanding) because often times, if you ignore the snide remarks, they do tend to take care of themselves. But if that doesn’t work, what then? Before it escalates to bullying – because I truly think that the occasional name calling, the “You look dumb in that shirt” comments, the bump when passing in a crowded hallway is not bullying – bring it to the attention of someone else. Have daily conversations with your kids. Tell them to talk to a teacher, like really really talk to the teacher. Call the teacher yourself. Check out Facebook (or better yet, don’t let your child have Facebook or social media until you set some firm, rock solid ground rules). And have more conversations with your kids.
In a lot of ways, seventh grade really blows. Kids can be mean to each other. They start to smell a bit funkier every day. The eye rolls get so dramatic that you begin to fear they might have to walk around with just the whites showing for the rest of their lives. But seventh grade can also rock your socks off. My students melt my heart on a near daily basis with their generosity. They come up with the most amazing insights. Sometimes, their eyes even twinkle a bit when they discover something, which gives their whites a nice break from the sun. Do they still say mean things to each other? Do adults? Absolutely. Seventh grade doesn’t have to be traumatic for girls (and boys . . . I know that they can be just as mean to each other). At most of the elementary schools in our district, Girls on the Run have a program in place to “unleash confidence through accomplishment while establishing a lifetime appreciation of health and fitness,” and this school year, my school is starting a Girls on Track program for our middle school girls. To say that I’m excited is an understatement. And to say that I’m nervous is an understatement, too. Why? Because I’m the coach. Not because I’m a stellar runner. But because I remember what it’s like to hear the whispers and not know what to do or say or how to act. And I’d like our girls to know better.
“Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift