I believe that people do the best they can with what they have, wherever they are in their lives.

This includes the surly, sullen or, in the next minute, joyful, endearing —  always infinitely fascinating Middle.  School.  Child.

I know they know the right things to do and yet — the opposite (da duh dom) lures them like they’ve been hooked with fishing line.  There’s that.  And there’s this bizarre thing with their lack of working short term memory.  You think your great grampa had a hard time of it?  He had nothing on a teenage brain!

Eighth grade: arguably the most challenging year of our lives.  A time when most people think we stop giving our best, probably because those same people, for so long, have been encouraging us to stay on the straight and narrow — and, for crying out loud sit up straight, watch out for your sister, do your homework, stay away from drugs, get to work planning your FUTURE and for the love of god stop looking at me in that tone of voice— and start living life with the brakes on, heels dug in, smirk on our face.

Don’t believe me?  Feeling nostalgic?  Take a ride down to your local teen center or pizza shop, where the beasts hang out in droves.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.

I won’t even say I told you so.

At this prickly age, for a thousand reasons, our best looks like a hodgepodge quilt stitched with unease, trepidation, turmoil and skepticism – with elation and despair flowing throughout.  It is around this time we try on a bunch of different personalities, see which ones feel right, see how far we can go and how much we can get away with, and whether we can live with ourselves if we do.

Middle school is a time for building thick, stony walls around ourselves, and hiding the tools for which they can easily be knocked down. We wish, so fervently, for those tools to be found, but we will not tell you where they are.

Look at any random teenager.  What you see is not the truth.  What you think you see is not the truth, either.  Only what you know is the truth.  And if you don’t know teenagers, don’t try to understand them by attaching what you think you know.  I mean it.  Just stand clear, we don’t want anyone getting hurt.

The most difficult thing for me about working with – and parenting -middle schoolers is that they have one personality as a group, and completely different personalities as individuals.  The group is often snarky, unkind, negative and completely dismissive of how their actions effect others.  I say dismissive, not unaware, because make NO mistake, they are aware.  In that big group, they simply don’t care.  Because in a group, they don’t have to care.  No one person is responsible for any hurt caused.  This is the way most people experience a middle school child.

Which is sad.

Because individual middle school kids can be the sweetest, most thoughtful, caring, earnest people, capable of any meeting challenge they decide to invest in, and most would never knowingly or willingly hurt another.  Don’t believe me?  Meet and spend time with any one of my students.  Or, meet my son, Garrett.

One of a kind.

He is patient, kind, thoughtful, endearing, funny and charismatic.  Also talented in many areas; among them athletics, math and music.  Get to know my son and you will never be bored, disappointed or underwhelmed.  He is pure gold.  He also forgets to change his underwear.

It’s a tough gig being 13.  It would do us all good to remember what those years were like for us, and then add to it the components of computers, mass media and an ever-evolving realm of expectations in school, in political correctness and in social graces that just didn’t exist 20 years ago.  Is it any wonder, I wonder, that these guys put the brakes on, dig in their heels and seem to blow off everything adults throw their way?  No, I think not.

They are completely aware – of three dozen things all at once, every split second of every single day. They hear every word we say.  They emulate everything we do.  It appears they aren’t listening, but have you ever noticed that if you lower your voice to talk about something private, like what you’re getting them for Christmas, or whether we should go out to dinner, they suddenly have the sharpest hearing on earth?  Yeah, me too.

They interpret every sigh, every silence, every pinched lip, every stoic stare.  Also every smile, every hug, every kind word, every genuine ounce of praise.  And what they take away from all of their encounters is, basically, this:  how did that person make me feel?  If the answer is loved, cared for, heard…well, you’re good.  Keep it up.  If the answer is demeaned, ashamed, stupid…well, I’m not here to lecture, so, goodluck with that.

I have discovered that a kid at thirteen is giving their best, which, with a hundred other things running through their minds all at once…is pretty amazing.  At no other time in our lives do we have so much coming at us, so fast and from so many directions.

Don’t believe me?  Come visit me at work.  Hang out with one kid for one whole day.  I guarantee you’ll have an accurate view of life in the 8th grade, and hopefully, a better appreciation, too.  You’ll suddenly remember what that time was like for you – and how grateful you are for the hormonal lack of memory that caused you to forget most of it in the first place.  Such is thirteen.