Sunday, March 5, 2006
In the course of my visit to a nice, suburban middle school, I spoke with a table of smarty-pantses gathered from each of the three grades for me to interview. I started the conversation by asking what the biggest difference was between elementary and middle school.
Without skipping a beat, a seventh-grade girl said: bullying. Nodding and wincing slightly, the others, both boys and girls, agreed. Middle school was rough.
Mind you, this was the sort of school in which kids and teachers smiled at you as you passed in the halls. And these kids were the likely-to-succeed types — well-spoken, good-looking and high-achieving. Even they experienced aggression, but, as the seventh grader explained, “The kids who were kind-of picked on in elementary school were toast here.” The murmured agreement echoed the word “toast.”
Wait a second, you guys, you seem confident, why don’t you step in and stop it?
Rolling their eyes at the pathetic cluelessness of such a question, they explained that such heroics would inevitably invite trouble. For everyone’s good, they would take a pass. No one is exempt.
Secondary-school kids talk about bullying wherever I go.
In another school, where I was hanging out in the lunchroom, a sixth-grade boy powered into the empty seat by my side. “Can I sit here?” Sure, I said. Are you okay? “My mother is doing everything she can to get me out of this school, but it hasn’t worked. She has so little time. If I sit here, they’ll leave me alone.” Who? “Them. Never mind.” At which point the loquacious boy began interviewing me. He would say he was scared, and that people were mean, but not who they were.
Soon a tiny girl sat across from us. “Can I sit here?” Her eyes darted all over. Then came another and another. I had four kids sitting with me willing to talk about anything. They had bullying stories, but frankly, every one of them was wearing a neon sign that said “kick me.” Either they took offense way too easily and were easy goats to get, or they were lambs-to-slaughter, expecting trouble and accepting it passively when it happened. The tiny girl got jostled repeatedly as she tried to make her way up to the lunch line, and hung her head as though that would help her disappear, when it really made her stand out as a target.
Unattractive though it is, early adolescents’ impulse to bully is an understandable aspect of their developmental phase. Right around the sixth grade, the brain makes what the psychologists call “the cognitive leap,” which is a development of the capacity for abstraction.
This gives the kid the ability — the curse and the gift — to grasp big concepts like infinity, but also to see himself in the abstract, as if through the eyes of someone else. It’s a rude awakening. And this brain development comes at roughly the same time as a child’s feelings are flooded by hormonal fluctuations which are a normal part of the extended process of going through puberty.
So, using her new and as-yet untrained intellectual powers, the pubescent anxiously assesses differences among the kids her age. She aches to have her own differences either ignored — my hair, nose, skin sucks — or appreciated — I can sew, shoot hoops, or I’m allowed to have friends over a lot. The painful self-consciousness of being able to see myself for the first time can lead to all sorts of odd behavior, from bullying to unceasing mortification. Suddenly friends are not just the pals who happen to be around you, but the arbiters of taste, behavior and cool. Standards of cool are established by the more confident kids, and they can easily get a little drunk and high-handed with their power.
But all middle-school kids have these huge defensive impulses, which often morph into aggression. Being young, confused and filled with unfamiliar feelings, they can get very, very mean with one another. When they’re feeling energetic, they might be the one pushing others around. On an off day, the whole world is out to get them. The objective case is actually less important than how they feel, since bullying or being bullied — among other sensations — will completely distract them from their studies.
Though pubescents suddenly have the ability to comprehend larger arcs of history and the concepts behind algebra, they often become consumed instead by what we think of as absurd obsessions about fuzzy pens, the right jeans, games or Brittany Spears (she’s probably way pass