As I sit waiting for commenter Caryatis's mystery "suggestion about" my "writing style" (about which I'm of course extra-self-conscious as the dissertation deadline looms), I will risk inflicting it, in all its passive-voiced, parenthetical-filled, insufficiently-concise-unless-I've-read-it-over-and-if-it's-on-WWPD-chances-are-I-have-not glory (along with whichever mystery quality everyone but me is aware of but that all until Caryatis, including professional editors, have been too polite to point out, gah!!!) on you, my constructively-critical readers. If you wish to put this post into a word doc and return it to me with track changes, by all means. (Consider me 15% serious.)
Self-consciousness is really the right state of mind to be in for this post, which is about middle school.
So. The book of the moment is Emily Bazelon's much-publicized one on bullying. (Will I read it? Will I get around to seeing if anyone wants me to review it? Or - realistically - will I be too focused on wrapping up The Thing, by which I mean a certain bloated research project which, if I de-bloat it, could theoretically culminate in an advanced degree.*)
Bullying, of course, has been topic du jour since Dan Savage launched the It Gets Better Project. What began as a sudden awareness that the rate at which LGBT kids are bullied (at school and online, but also at home and at church) surely relates to the rate of suicide and self-destructive behavior in that population has, it seemed, morphed into a more general sense that the cruelty of childhood is not something we should just accept.
And it used to be more than just accepted. Some of what we now view as bullying would, in the past, have been seen as character-building. We might have pitied home-schooled kids precisely for not having gotten made fun of by their peers, an experience that thickens the skin and prepares one for adulthood. But today, that view seems out of date. We must not only remember that there's nothing wrong with being gender-non-conforming, but also that the annoying kid perhaps has a disorder of some kind. The idea that one's quirks should be lessened via socialization... persists, but has become controversial.
In conjunction with Bazelon's book, Slate, where she's an editor, is posting first-hand accounts of having been a bully. Thus far, all three have been accounts of middle-school cruelty. Middle school, especially for girls (?), is awful. Awful everywhere, not just in Manhattan, where it might be its own unique brand of awful. But is it awful because of bullying? Bazelon asks in her NYT op-ed that we not call all nasty behavior among kids bullying. And... thinking back to my own experience at that age, I remember immense nastiness, but not bullying. I remember what was effectively a class-wide low-grade eating disorder (and there's a "Seinfeld" reference about how this is the result of bullying among girls, as vs. wedgies for boys), but then again, this was the Upper East Side - those who didn't make it out are probably still removing the doughy part of their bagels and filling the shell with low-carb salad. I think that was just an initiation into a certain kind of adulthood. This was, after all, the same school Gwyneth no-carbs Paltrow went to.
These years weren't entirely awful. I made closer - well, perhaps not closer, but more intense - female friendships than I've had since. There were no boys at the school, and we were at any rate too young to be dating, so nearly all drama (yes, some girls like girls) centered on female friendships. And it was fun to kind of discover the world with peers, in a way you really can't once you're older and not as easily surprised. It was fun to finally emerge from the confines of my family and whichever parents'-friends'-kids were my 'friends' and actually make friends of my own, ones whose values might not be exactly the ones I was being raised with. But it was, for the most part, a miserable few years, with cruelty the norm. If it had been bullying, perhaps it might have been addressed. But it was just some combination of that age and a peculiar subculture. The school might have taught self-acceptance, for all I know (my memory of this time being thankfully largely repressed) they tried.
Did the nastiness build character? I'm not sure. I suppose I learned, in those years, about caring whether I was cool, and what I looked like... only to care exponentially less from high school on. My sense is that those who don't go through this at 12 or so end up facing it later in life, sometimes well into adulthood. I know it's supposed to be better to be a dork as a kid, and cool as an adult, but I think there's something to be said for not caring if you're hip, not worrying about being spectacularly good-looking, when you're 25, 45...
And much of the cruelty of middle school is simply a first glimpse at life's unfairnesses. Once you reach the age of making your own friends and not just playing with whomever, you're confronted with evidence that some people are better-looking and more likable than others, that some people you like won't reciprocate. But it's not just rejection. It's at this age that you first learn that people you don't especially like or give much thought to probably don't much like or think about you, either. This, when you first learn it, can be jarring.
Even if it isn't expressed particularly cruelly, dislike or apathy, when it's a new experience, stings in a way it never will moving forward. Not getting invited to a sleepover can, in the moment, feel like a tragedy. This makes middle-school students seem like horrible, neurotic people with no sense of proportion,** but if you look at as a developmental stage, you don't condemn the individual. And people do, as a rule, grow out of this. With age, certainly with Facebook, you realize that people are hanging out without you, that this doesn't mean these people hate you but rather that they give as little thought to you as you do to them unless prompted. You realize that the world does not end if you're not the most beautiful and most popular - that no one's attractive to everyone and liked by all. You will still have dates, friends. Maybe it's helpful to experience blunt rejection as a kid in order to be more easygoing later in life?
I am, you will notice, leaving this post with the essential unresolved: can/should middle school be non-horrible? I tend to think efforts in this area should be made, but am not sure a) that it's possible, and b) that a certain amount of pain - but not past whichever threshold - does indeed build character.
*Note that this post has two levels - the reliving of middle-school neurosis, and the current almost-done-isn't-done dissertation panic. I may not care (enough, alas) what I look like, but I sure do care what Chapter Seven does.
**This is one very important reason why I'm against parental overshare. Kids, till a certain age, lack perspective, and that's normal, but it's difficult to see that when reading an essay, and readers will come to associate that particular individual with vapid, selfish, massively neurotic behavior.