A day in 8th grade

“Mr. Baker? Can I go to the bathroom?”, Marta pleaded with eyes and voice as she danced around the entrance to the classroom obviously in distress.

I paused just a moment, tempted to play the old standard joke of “I certainly hope you can by age 13.”, then I thought better of it and simply waved her on her way.

Less than a minute later, one of the boys, Mario, posed the same question. There was no visible perception of need, but then again boys tend to be less demonstrative. I waved him on and returned my attention to the rest of the class. In about a nanosecond, I realized the error of my actions. I continued talking to the class as I walked to the open door where I had a clear view down the hallway. There, I spied Marta and Mario casually holding hands about half-way to the bathroom. Mario happened to glance back and saw me. He gave me a sheepish grin as he realized that there would be no chance for a brief kiss. Their tryst interrupted, they exchanged only a smile and a brief hand squeeze before parting ways.

Spring had sprung.

It is a right of passage of course, one as old as the institution of adolescence. The sudden discovery that boys and girls are different and that they don’t have cooties anymore. Susie discovers that Josh really is “kinda cute” despite his greasy hair and spouting acne, and for some reason doesn’t smell as bad as he did yesterday. Josh realizes that Susie is so much more than the girl he used to torment by pulling her dog ears on the playground. These discoveries rock their world.

It’s not that this experience is unique to 8th graders. In truth, some 6th graders and pretty much all the 7th grade girls make this association as well. Thus, the girls from the lower grades swamp the boys from 8th causing the 8th girls to retaliate. Even though most of them only have eyes for H.S boys, the thought of a younger student invading “their domain” is unthinkable. As all this sexual tension swirls around like a cyclone picking up speed, their question remains, “What are we supposed to do about it?”

When the adolescent mind makes that switch from “uuuuugggghhhh” to “ohhhhhhhh” regarding the opposite sex, the resulting adjustment in his or her psyche is immense. To say they are confused is an understatement. Thus, the boys chase the girls, and the girls chase the boys, yet they have no idea what to do when he or she catches her or him. All they know for certain is that the chase must continue. It just feels right. The reason will have to wait for another time.

Regardless of the age the transition occurs, the result for the unawares classroom teacher is equally traumatic. No longer are they cute little children sitting obediently, expectantly in their desks. Bodies expand exponentially filling desks and popping buttons on blouses and shirts. Legs shoot out the end of pants looking very much like Jack’s proverbial beanstalk in length and speed, and – they smell. Often, as puberty erupts, the middle school classrooms and hallways have more a barnyard flavor than anything else. Every classroom, regardless of its original purpose becomes a petri dish of bacteria, AXE body spray, and hormonal pheromones. Bathroom humor in the form of bodily noises, abandoned at age 6 makes a dramatic comeback that has students rolling on the floor at the sound of a fart, be it real or faux. Teachers with easily stimulated olfactory senses should possibly reconsider their calling.

Amidst all this turmoil, our would-be-romantics must find their “balancing point” between what they want versus what the school will allow them to do. As many schools have rules against PDA (public display of affection), the job of the young lovers is to discover at what level the school’s administration will deliver the “hammer blow” of discipline upon them. They test these limits by incrementally increasing their daring with all the precision of a well-planned science experiment. It is possible, therefore, to discover two students sitting so close that they seem to occupy the same seat. Even though the teacher was unaware that this attraction was building, the students were gradually getting closer every day at lunch until they reached the “limit”. Of course, they will deny vehemently any feelings for each other as they separate – just a little – and go about the rest of the meal. Later, they and their friends will huddle together outside – even when its 80 degrees or higher, because they are “cold”. She wears his jacket. The scent of her perfume has a place in his aura.

It is in this science experiment on steroids that students learn so much about who they are, and it behooves the middle school teacher to help them on that journey. There needs to be a clear delineation between what is permissible and what is not, and the faculty and staff must be vigilant in their enforcement. Here, more than anywhere else, is where the student learns to respect themselves as well as others. Here is where boys learn that girls are not their playthings, and girls learn to demand respect and consideration from would be suiters. Here they become aware of what is acceptable in public and what is private and how to make that decision based on their own observations. One will not find this in any curriculum or study guide. In the laboratory of life, the young people live the lesson minute to minute and day by day not subject to subject.

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