Suzanne Tobias

January 12, 2012

Middle school madness: Breathe in, breathe out

I live with two middle-schoolers.

I live with two middle-schoolers.

Two silly, sullen, funny, frantic, awkward and amazing little people — though truthfully not so little anymore, as my teenaged daughter is a scant inch shorter than I — remind me each day of that World War II slogan intended to boost British morale amid the constant threat of enemy invasion:

Keep calm and carry on.

(I actually prefer the modern, Harry Potter-inspired variation: Keep calm and conjure a Patronus charm. But I’m a nerd.)

Either way, deep breaths continue to be the most useful trick in my parenting toolbox. When frustrated or flummoxed, anxious or angry, I think, “Breathe in, breathe out” and carry on. Or try to.

When Jack remembers he has a huge Spanish test — “Tengo una gran prueba de espanol!” — but forgets to bring the study sheet home.

Breathe in.

When Hannah tells me a boy “asked her out” but rolls her eyes when I inquire about the destination, snorting, “No place specific. This isn’t the Eighties!”

Breathe out.

When one of them suddenly declares, despite all previous evidence to the contrary, that he hates lasagna or loves fried shrimp or can’t wait to go to school the next day or can’t bear the thought of another morning.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Expecto Patronum! Carry on.

A recent episode of Public Radio International’s “This American Life” explored the strange world of middle school and early adolescence.

One portion offered an odd sort of comfort to me, so I thought I’d share it with other parents of middle-schoolers or soon-to-be middle-schoolers. (You parents and grandparents who’ve survived this madness can sit back and laugh. You earned it.)

Alex Blumberg, one of the show’s producers and a former middle school science teacher, shared his theory about middle-schoolers:

“I don’t know if they learn anything,” Blumberg said. “They are so consumed with learning all these other lessons — where they fit into the social order and how their bodies are now working and who they’re attracted to and who they’re going to be — that facts and figures and geography and all the other stuff you teach in school, it just doesn’t even penetrate.”

So what’s the alternative? host Ira Glass asked. Forget about school and put them to work in a factory for a few years? Have them work the land?

“Yes,” Blumberg answered.

He wasn’t joking.

Turns out, famed educator Maria Montessori floated a similar idea back in 1920. Montessori believed the demands of puberty warranted a holiday from traditional, lecture-based instruction, so she proposed Erdkinder, a school in a country setting where 12- to 15-year-olds would grow their own food, live close to nature and just concentrate on becoming adults.

I’m not advocating ditching school altogether. I just think it’s worth noting — and again, comforting — that respected and respectable adults across history have found adolescence a minefield.

They, like us, have loved and been mystified by teenagers. They’ve wondered what to do. They’ve grumbled, sighed, shaken their heads. They’ve prayed for patience or raised their wands to summon reinforcements.

They’ve kept calm and carried on. So I suppose we can, too.

Expecto Patronum.

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