Middle school students live in a nether land between childhood and adulthood and its inhabitants are functionally “Tweeners”. Teaching middle school students can be like working in a traveling circus. While Elementary students are mostly adorable, like bouncing puppies racing around each other in a precious family Dog Act, a Tweener classroom can resemble the wildly tricked out miniature car that smirking clowns keep climbing out of. Just how many clowns can fit into their impossibly small car? A lot, if you don’t prop your foot against their door!
Tweeners still show remnants of childhood in the same way that confetti has remnants of a New Year’s Eve party popper before it’s pulled. They are not yet Sword Swallowers, Flying Aerialists, Lion Tamers, or Carnies goading you to buy another chance at a rigged game of skill. They mainly practice being adult using boisterous voices and shameless bravado.
Tweeners can get giddy about having a Middle School Substitute Teacher without even looking at a TV commercial or advertisement promising them endless fun to come. Once the novelty and frozen politeness of your presence starts to melt, like a three scoop ice cream cone on a 90 degree day, it becomes increasingly difficult to control every drip. Subbing in the same classroom for several days in a row is like trying to camouflage your strategic position using a bright yellow tent. It can bring the wild-eyed hecklers out.
This was the situation I found myself in awhile ago. On Day Three, Linda’s restless nature emerged like a sloppy honk from a brassy bulb horn. She wore Harry Potter style glasses, had distinct strands of a pink and green in her brunette ‘Do, and wore a T shirt with an edgy slogan begging to be (LOUD SIGH) explained again. She groomed a quirky artistic vibe and seemed deliberately disinterested in almost anything except drawing cartoon animals on her arms and hands with colored pens. She didn’t worry if the ink would ever entirely wash off and, in fact, if it didn’t, that was even better.
“So, Mr. B. What year were YOU born”?, she casually asked loudly, presumably to me but simultaneously addressing the Second Ring that she and her clique occupied in the backland. Studious kids sit toward the front. Aspiring anarchists prefer the same geography as snipers, with nothing behind them but scattered gear and empty chow wrappers.
Although there was no confusion on my part about the willingness of the disenfranchised to pretend they were friendlies, I casually replied, “1954”.
Instantaneously, she mockingly blurted, “BOOM-ER!” She considered herself to be an expert Fencer and had whipped her Foil as swiftly as she could to sting me. She giggled like a Cop watching a thief curse a dead getaway junker.
I was aware that, “OK Boomer” had become Generation Z’s meme in response to the popular condescension of numerous smugly older people. But there’s an important distinction to be made between being an “Oldster” and an “Elder”, and while bragging about wisdom usually indicates that person lacks it, neither does it mean that experienced wisdom is a Star Wars fantasy.
“I don’t believe in labels,” I answered. “We hardly know each other and, even if we did, using labels would be disrespectful. People are too complex to fully describe.”
Linda mumbled a few more things but another student’s work assignment question to me drowned it out. There was a time, when I first started teaching, that Linda’s impertinence would have galled me like standing barefoot on top of a Fire Ant hill. She was probably just emulating another Label Master she admires. Conservative/Liberal, Republican/ Democrat, Rebel/Yankee, Rich/Poor, or Smart/Dumb. The world of handy, but essentially simplistic and derogatory, labels weaponizes communication. It’s so clumsy, any possibility of constructive dialogue collapses like a dynamited bridge into a rocky gorge far below us. Once the whoops and hollers finally cease, the chasm is too broad across to convey anything other than futile echoes to the other side. We may indignantly yell, “Who cares?”, and that,” it doesn’t matter”. Yet, human indignation is never eradicated by name calling. Labels are arrows that cruelly pierce, then shaft. Focusing on caricatures makes us just paint-stained graffiti artists. Comic book storyboards are terminally gonzo.