Thursday, March 14, 2013

Middle school and the neurosis of narcissism

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 But today, that view seems out of date.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.

I'm 29, and so the last of the pre-enlightened generation. Though born smack in the middle of the milieu that now does this, I was not helicopter-parented. I took the public bus alone starting at 10, the subway at 14. I hung around with friends after school in the pre-smartphone era, thank goodness. My cohort's first unsupervised parties, first romantic entanglements, remain - by contemporary standards - virtually undocumented. And - and this I'm not so nostalgic about - we were horrible to one another. Not in high school - either we were already too old, or I went to a weird high school - but middle school was the worst. The worst!

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.

In the spirit of delving into the dark ages, I tried my best to remember those years, and failed to recall any bullying - of or by me, of or by anyone else. I spent those years in or dramatically excluded from then re-included in a clique of the sort that, if I passed such girls on the street today, I'd feel vaguely intimidated. (Think that commercial - possibly for car insurance? - where a pudgy middle-aged dude is followed around by "the popular girls from the local middle school," who shame him into eating less.) I was middle-schoolishly narcissistic and felt it was all about whether everyone liked me, not realizing that everyone else was wondering the same thing.

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.


Petey said...

"And much of the cruelty of middle school is simply a first glimpse at life's unfairnesses ... Note that this post has two levels - the reliving of middle-school neurosis, and the current almost-done-isn't-done dissertation panic."

You can kill two birds with one stone here:

Write an Atlantic piece extending Bazelon into the rampant bullying culture in grad school; gives you a unique angle, plus provides more relevant procrastination material...

(And, of course, everyone is silently criticizing your lack of semi-colon usage.)

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes, this is all true. I now think that if you ever want to home-school your kids, middle school is THE time to go for it, b/c you can be sure that they'll not be missing ANYTHING in regular school. There is zero academic growth, and social pressure is at its peak. (Ironically, to deal with this imbalance, my middle school made us take "academic" courses on social pressure.) I was a horrible person in middle school, and other people were horrible to me, and even now, when I see these people living perfectly decent, non-cruel lives via Facebook, I can't quite believe that they've really outgrown their horrible middle school selves and reached this level of decency, but then I recall that I (mostly) have as well, and growing up is a real thing. This is also why I am skeptical about imposing very long-term punishments on those deemed "bullies" at this age - they will mostly grow out of it, but if we make a big public effort to disrupt their lives at 12, we may interfere with this process.

I also think you're right to point out how intense female friendships become at this point, which I think is also partly what accounts for the utter tragedy of people hanging out without you - these people are supposed to be you best friends forever - how could they neglect to invite you to their pool party? As this intensity subsides in high school when your friendships increase in number and incorporate boys (who do not friend in the same way as girls), the searing pain of exclusion also diminishes b/c you get a more realistic view of social life, but you also do lose out on that intensity.

I have two suggestions for making middle school less terrible: 1) re-incorporating it into high school as in the "junior high" days when there were K-6 schools, 7-10 schools, and 11-12 schools in some places. This is a minor point, but it may help to have direct contact w/ older adolescents who are slightly better objects of emulation than the most popular eighth grader. 2) Increase the academic rigor of middle school to distract kids from their own vicious narcissism. Practically the only serious academic class I took in my own middle school was algebra, and that was only b/c it was a high-school level course so that we could start in geometry as freshmen. Everything else was either hardly taught or unapologetic mush - peer pressure studies, Holocaust studies, STD studies, cooking, sewing, photography, woodworking (seriously). It was as if the school had concluded that we were all too hormone-crazed to learn anything substantive, so they would just not bother teaching. And this freed up even more time and energy for social cruelty.

PS: Are you interested in a suggestion about your hair?

Phoebe said...


I like the idea of reshuffling grades, but am not optimistic. The horrible era began, as I recall, in fourth or fifth grade, and the school itself was K-12. As for upping the academics, maybe? Despite having gone to a fancy school in those years, I remember having learned zilch. I mean, I don't remember school at that age, really, but do remember getting to high school and realizing that kids from the better public schools had actually had, like, math class. Did these kids have a better time of it in middle school? I'd bet yes.

Re: my hair, ha! I'd prefer re: my weight, but if commenters could specifically hone in on how I look in a bathing suit, that would be ideal.

Anonymous said...

You are being very self-conscious - you really don't need to worry about every little comment made about your writing by random people on the internet! The more you write and the more your writing is read, the more of these you will receive.

I must say I enjoy your writing style and your blog is always full of fresh ideas.

caryatis said...

The sense of proportion you mention is, I think, what I learned from middle school. I spent half my time thinking I was the fattest girl in the world and would never be able to date because I was too ugly, and the other half thinking I was legitimately beautiful. (Someone once flatteringly told my mother I should be a model _and I believed it._) I now realize that both of these beliefs are ridiculous. Similarly when I oscillated between getting all As and getting kicked out of school. I think going from one school to another, realizing that the way you are seen very largely depends on your environment, is a lot of what teaches that lesson.

caryatis said...

You can always count on me to be impolite. This advice is not going to help with the dissertation at all, write like an academic. Understandably. In other words, fairly subtle and nuanced, and you don’t make it obvious what side you’re on, because you’re not writing a polemic, you’re writing an analysis. This is not a bad thing, but it lays you open to being misunderstood when writing for a generalist blog audience. It’s not that you’re necessarily writing about things that are difficult to understand, but that getting what you’re saying sometimes requires more effort than we are used to putting it into blog posts. Bloggers generally make it very easy for readers.

In the Atlantic article on weddings, I found myself searching for the takeaway message. And when I read the Israel post, I decided that you must think Israel should give up the attempt to be democratic. I had to read the post again, and with more attention than I typically give to blog posts, before I saw your statement below:

”Does it mean "Jewish" trumps "democratic"? Not necessarily. What it does mean is that "Jewish" isn't random chauvinism to be brushed aside effortlessly. It needs to be, if nothing else, addressed.”

...which is buried in the middle of the post but is essentially your conclusion. Maybe you could keep the nuanced and somewhat digressive analysis (which I love) while making the conclusions louder and easier to pin down.

caryatis said...

It is difficult to adapt your writing style to the circumstances. I do a lot of writing which is very bureaucratic and bloodless, in which I have to consciously avoid specific details, controversial statements, and even active verbs (I might replace “X thinks Y” with “It was suggested that some might think...”) Pretty sure it is destroying whatever ability to write interestingly I ever had.

Miss Self-Important said...

I'm not sure why academic hollowing happened in your school, which was at least in principle if not effect very different from mine, but my sense in middle school was that the staff had been clued in to the latest pop psychological wisdom about child development that claimed that the middle school years were a time of great emotional and social turmoil for children, and concluded that school should become "relevant" and address this crisis of adolescence directly instead of trying to ignore it by teaching academic material while our raging hormones made learning said material impossible. I once blogged about one incarnation of this at my school. But in fact, they are wrong and should do the exact opposite - ditch the classes on popularity and team-building, and teach ancient history and the basics of physics. I do think this academic hollowing is middle school-specific, and not just a general Decline of Academics or something. I remember traditional academics in grades 1-5, and then again in 9-12. But 6-8 is like a black hole of the school preaching warm fuzzies (literally - we had to present one another with yarn pieces from a yarn necklace we were each forced to wear, a project called "warm fuzzies") and the students practicing sadism on one another.

I don't think your writing is too academic, btw. But your swimsuit figure really needs work.

Britta said...

I am kind of of mixed feelings about these "I was a bully" pieces. They remind me a little bit of the trend about 10 years ago for white liberals to write "I'm a racist" pieces, writing about how, say, buying a cheap house in a bad neighborhood and then getting their lawn furniture stolen made them dislike their black neighbors. It's like, ok, you're willing to admit you are/were something socially unacceptable. Do you want a sticker? Ideally, the point of acknowledging something like that is to then move on and work against it, both internally and in the world at large, but if that step never happens, then just announcing that you're a bully/racist/whatever seems almost a step backwards, since it normalizes and makes it more socially acceptable to identify as such.

Joe said...

I don't think your writing is heavy handed. One of the reasons I read this blog is because of your thoughtful and nuanced approach... the easy to digest and pointedly one sided stuff I can find elsewhere.

Have you seen "Dirty Girls" --->

It's an interesting short doc about middle school aged rriot girls from 1996. Incredibly brave young ladies.

Having been home schooled until high school I was fortunate to skip the peer dynamics of middle school, but I did teach 7th & 8th graders for a couple of years and it was tough to watch. I'm not sure there's much to be done, but one thing I think is crucial is remembering to present alternate ways to think about what's normal in a non-threatening and casual way. Middle school social constructs (by staff & students) tend to be very narrow.

Phoebe said...


The vote has been cast, and my writing style shall be retained. For what it's worth, my academic writing is much more 'I argue' because it kind of has to be.


Yes, your too-brilliant-to-do-well-in-school post! We had a bit of that - my sense was that normally this is something specific not only to UMC white kids but also to boys, who can't be expected to concentrate regardless of intelligence, but who, if bored, well, this could mean secret genius. But because my school was all-girls, secret geniuses had to be female.

If my school wasn't so rigorous... maybe this also related to theories of child development? It might have crushed the self-esteem of the weaker students to have been challenged, so maybe classes were taught to their level? But we did have actual academic subjects. And tracking, in math and some other subject (don't recall which) beginning in middle school.


Re: liberals' racism confessions, I don't remember this as a trend, but I suppose I've seen individual instances of it, even if none spring to mind.

"Ideally, the point of acknowledging something like that is to then move on and work against it, both internally and in the world at large [...]"

This seems more difficult with middle-school nastiness, where, as MSI says, most everyone grows up to be decent. Testimonials from adults, not just of bullying but also of general, reciprocated nastiness could be worthwhile in their own right to those trying to figure out how to improve the situation. But I don't think it necessarily falls on individual former middle-schoolers (namely: adults) to either apologize to their old classmates for having been horrible, if everyone was, or to personally come up with how to reform middle-school education. I mean, I agree with you that just confessing to confess is pointless, but just explaining how middle school feels could be useful to those who might have some idea how to fix it.

Phoebe said...


I'll have to take a look at that video. And it's good to hear you think change is possible within middle-schools themselves!

Joe and MSI,

Homeschooling during those years does seem appealing, but I remember that kids who were homeschooled sometimes got to high school having not developed the thick skin middle school provides. Arguably it's a bad thing that such a thick skin must generally be developed at such a young age (and the homeschooled kids I'm thinking of have done fine socially and professionally as adults), but it seems like some of keeping kids out of school in middle school would just delay the inevitable. Some of, not all. I'm not sure, if I could redo it, that I'd opt to have been in school for those years.