Apr 25, 2008

Middle School Blues

Sixth graders: more frightening than a barrel of serial killers.

I volunteered as a tutor for the first time this week at 826Seattle, and it was an interesting character study of how Snotty regresses when surrounded by annoying pre-teens. I arrived at 3 P.M. to observe how everything works, and by 3:45 P.M. (that fast?), I was twelve again. 826Seattle was a fun place to volunteer, but being twelve again sucked.

The program lead, Toffer, asked me to sit with a group of girls who supposedly needed help with their homework. There was no homework, just goofing off and the flinging of things at boys with soprano voices. There were three of them, so I felt like they had safety in numbers (meaning I was unsafe), and they were sixth graders: two were eleven and one was twelve. Toffer introduced me to them, and I sat down, wary. There was a lot of eye-rolling, a lot of whispering behind hands, and loud, explosive giggling--the 'look at me having so much fun' laugh, tra-la-la. They were three very distinct characters, although fairly stereotypical.

One was a big-eyed blonde, the short and pert variety--she'll be the 'cute' one in high school, and probably a cheerleader (the kind that puts out, not the kind that's on the honor roll). Later on in life, I imagine she'll be sturdy and compact, cheeks ruddied, hair colored a brassy blonde--and to keep Father Time from creeping up on her, she will always laugh like she does now, which is a practiced, simpering Japanese giggle that comes from behind a demure hand. Her real laugh was a shout and a shriek and a cackle all at once; that's the one I liked. My favorite thing she said, while tossing her hair from side to side and standing like a pre-teen model, was this: (shoving Twix into her mouth too hard) "Don't you hate it when you put something in your mouth and it hits the back of your throat over and over again?" I got the innuendo, she did not; I had to excuse myself to go run to the bathroom and die from shame laughter. Talk about seeing into the future.

Another girl was African-American, and she possessed the attitude of four seasoned drag queens, two gladiators, Marilyn Manson, and her formidable momma--who, she calmly explained to me, was a powerful, man-hating attorney that could sue the pants off of me and all of my friends. It wasn't hard to figure out who this little one worshiped. She also bossed everyone around, and let people know how inferior they were to her; I was surprised at how much ease she had in doling out her judgments. "These two are going to (waves hand dismissively) public school--I'm going to private. I'd like to see them get into my private school--that would make me laugh." She reminded me of that hateful girl in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Veruca-dahling. She's a future attorney, for sure, just like her mom.

The last girl was just unfortunate in every way. She just ... she was beaten with The Stick, you know? It was kind of sad. She had an asymmetrical face somehow--I know we're all lopsided in some way or another, but she was really bringing Picasso back. And you know how if someone has a really great personality, their looks improve because they're just so awesome? Yeah, not the case here at all. She had that deep, nerdy "hu-hu-hu-hu-hu-hu-hu-huh" laugh, and British teeth (like me!...only she had "teef", which is a whole 'nother thing), and a heart, but not one of gold. She was mean. She was mean to others in the same way I imagine the Unabomber's family was mean to him, and look what happened there. Her Granpaw and Meemaw were probably brother and sister in the Adirondacks, and drank out of clay jugs on their porch together; if I was related to them, it would make me angry, too.

Point being, I didn't do well in middle school, just like everybody else--but I didn't want to re-live those feverish, awful years in my thirties, either. I kind of went back to being an overgrown, uncomfortable dork with no allies. When the little black girl said to me, "So this is the Cool Table here, and you're gonna want to be on our good side", I went INWARD. I thought, do these tiny bitches have actual power, or is their power an illusion? I remember the girls in my middle school seeming to be all-powerful: they skipped class, talked shit about teachers, made out in the bathroom with real live boys, and wore G-strings like common whores. They were untouchable.

It was around then that Toffer said to me, "I try to not base my self-esteem on what sixth graders think of me--it's hard at first, but you have to try." I laughed, grateful for the reminder. He was right: I don't need approval from a girl with a powerful mother and a chipped shoulder, or some snot-nosed future ho. I came here to tutor kids who need help in school, not babysit brats who have nothing better to do. I felt much better after Toffer's advice and my internal pep talk.

At the end of the day, the girls came up to say goodbye; I had earned their trust by accidentally saying the phrase "cheap ass" when describing my phone, which they thought was hilarious, and for not telling Toffer that they didn't have homework. All three approached me as though we were co-conspirators, and one whispered to me: "If you come here on Tuesdays and Thursdays, you can totally sit with us, since you're cool--but don't invite anyone else, okay?" I was sitting with Cameron, an immature, Star Trek-loving computer geek, trying to help him with geography--and although I flushed with pleasure at the thought of these girls thinking I was cool (because I have the self-esteem of a 12-year old), I was ready to stick to my principles.

I pointed at Cameron and said, "Only if he can join us once in a while--oh, and that kid over there (pointing to a painfully thin, painfully shy Indian kid)--he's pretty cool, too." They looked at me like I was crazy, and the future lawyer stalked off, tossing her hair dismissively. The blonde looked at both boys dubiously and said, "I mean, I guess ... not, like, permanently, but if they have to ... sure, alright." The boys turned bright red, grinning from ear to ear; Cameron had that awestruck look on his face, as though the Starship Enterprise had just landed in his backyard. The Indian kid looked pleased, but frightened. "Don't worry," I told him, "I'll sit with you guys, too. It'll be fun--and if it isn't, we'll move to our own table and start a freak show." One laughed, one looked relieved.

Finally. Finally I get the acceptance I'd been craving back in middle school, from none other than my middle school counterparts, 25 years later. But it wasn't enough to receive the unwarranted acceptance--I had to pass it on. So that's what I did: I gave those two a chance to sit with the cool kids and see what it's like. I loaned them my free pass. I also gave them an out, because they're smart enough to see that the Cool Kids' Table is made up of screechy bitches and stupid little boys; if I had to choose between the cool table and the freak table today, I'd definitely go with the freaks. Way smarter, way more interesting, and very little Abercrombie & Fitch. That's my kind of sixth grader.


FreNeTic said...

Great read; this takes me back to my coop months at the defunct Fairmount Park. I got to work with 4th & 5th graders. And I totally GET it.

You want to reason with them. You want to be accepted by them. You think you can straddle the fence between authority figure and cooler, older sibling. And good luck with that!

It wasn't 'til I was called Mr. Cracker by a little african american girl that I recognized how NOT relatable I am to these kids...

Snotty McSnotterson said...

Forget "frenetic"--Mr. Cracker is your name from now on. Crackerasscracker.

Anonymous said...

Good times. I only like literate children that can wipe their own asses, and be polite, not act all over spoiled and shit. Kudos for you. My friend did this for a while and wrote a blog about it. ---jenny