By: Chelsea Montes de Oca
I truly believe middle school is probably the most awkward period anyone will have in their life. Whether you are reading this article four years out of middle school or 40, I think we all sometimes forget that — and with good reason too. I made it a point in my adult life to block out the embarrassing moments of that time. That time when my crush told me my jacket was ugly in front of all of our friends and I cried in the bathroom for an entire period. Or avoiding the sixth grade stairwell for over a month because I somehow managed to fall going UP the stairs in front of the “cool” group of kids. Okay, clearly I was clumsy, but don’t act like you haven’t done it at least once too.
When I met the students that would inevitably drive my next two years of service, one of the first thoughts I had was “wow, these kids are so dramatic.” One of my students spent the entire hour of our school’s dance crying in the back of the gym because her boyfriend couldn’t come. Another student’s toy ball was stolen, which then rendered him so angry that he stormed out of the class and would not attempt his class work that day. My initial approach to all this was, in a nice way, to basically tell the kids to get over it. That there were much more important things to worry about and they couldn’t let the small stuff debilitate them. I kept this outlook until one day, an event forced me to change my perspective. It was the day that a threat of gun violence on school grounds tested the community our team was trying so hard to build for our students.
I walked the halls the next day expecting outward displays of anger, sadness and fear. The reality was a quiet form of internal chaos. The most disturbing interactions were ones with students who claimed events like these as normal. These did not look like the same kids I saw getting frustrated over their stolen pencils just the day prior. It brought me back to my over-dramatic, middle-school self. I had been gifted with good influences in my childhood who taught me how to cope and who were there to guide me through those challenging events I was too young to understand. I realized some of my students may not have been afforded that luxury.
I learned that day, more than ever, that “Getting over it” is not coping. It is a way to bury an issue until it creates so much pressure that you explode. I had good intentions but I realized I hadn’t been teaching my students how to cope. I had been teaching them how to bury. I became so focused on getting them caught up academically that I unintentionally disregarded a just as important piece of classroom success: life skills. My attitude shifted and so did my conversations with students. We talked about tactics for talking yourself down from frustrations. We talked about ways to be even a little productive in spite of having a really bad day. I never understood just how much weight all the small stuff can add up to. So I started sweating the small stuff with my students and it has made all the difference in my service.