The Thing About Middle School

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    Tell me about middle school. As the parent of three kids, who on the surface at least, appear to have made it through middle school relatively unscathed – or at least without any visible scars – I should be able to do that.

    Middle school is hard. Hard on a lot of kids, and even harder – most likely – on their parents. At sixteen, eighteen, and twenty-one, my women-children (as my husband aptly designated our three daughters years ago) are well past middle school, but I can remember bits and pieces. If you haven’t had a child go through middle school yet, you might think that’s kind of a crazy thing to say. But for the record, one of the best things about middle school is that it’s over – and fast.

    Where elementary school is a 5-course meal to be savored, middle school is a Hot Pocket that gets super-mushy in the microwave because you didn’t put that little sleeve thingy on it properly.

    For parents (and I’m sure kids, too), one of the biggest adjustments about middle school is the number of classes and teachers your child has. In the early years of elementary school, there’s typically one main teacher and a few other resource teachers, like art, music, and PE. Showing some love to these teachers at Christmastime or during teacher appreciation week in the spring isn’t too much of a challenge.

    In middle school, that changes. There are teachers for every class (or block), coaches, club moderators, and if you’re really lucky, a regular bus driver your child actually likes. When my oldest woman-child started middle school, I initiated a policy regarding gifts for these people who I readily admitted were important, but were becoming impossible to keep track of. This was the policy: My child had to care enough about the adult to handwrite a personal, customized thank-you note. If she could do this, I would chip in a gift card to go with the note.

    When my medium-sized daughter was in seventh grade (the most exasperating year of middle school), she had identified one teacher as note-worthy by Christmas. Mrs. Kenzer taught American history; it was Robin’s favorite class. That was all I knew about her to be honest. That year, Robin wrote Mrs. Kenzer a very long thank-you note. A few weeks later, over winter break, Robin received a thank-you note for her thank-you note that was almost as long. I can’t recall if the teacher thanked her for the gift card. It didn’t matter. Robin beamed as she read the note aloud to me. How cool was it that a teacher had taken the time to mail a thank-you note to a student’s home over winter break?

    The year went on with all its seventh-grade angst, and history continued to be Robin’s favorite class. No surprise there. By the time teacher appreciation week rolled around in the spring, she had even found a few more teachers to send thank-you notes, so the year was turning out better than originally anticipated – in the classroom anyway.

    The next year, Robin started eighth grade. A week into classes, she went looking for Mrs. Kenzer and discovered she was out on medical leave battling cancer. Six weeks later, we were at her memorial service.

    How we treasured that thank-you note! And you know which one I’m talking about, right? The day Robin came home from school and told me her teacher had died, I was able to say: You told her exactly how you felt! You told her what a special teacher she was – and how she was making a difference. She loved that note! She loved that note! We choked out the phrase in between sobs.

    So it’s true what I was saying about having a spotty memory of middle school. Of three daughters enduring three years each of middle school, this is the only anecdote I feel compelled to share. And the reality is, inspiring Robin to write the note, and later, helping a 13-year-old process her grief, was probably the most important thing that happened.

    I think most families and their kids would count themselves blessed if they had at least one memory like this one seared on their souls. Maybe it will be different for you, who knows. But maybe that’s how middle school works: You move on to high school, thankful you had one awesome teacher who made a difference. And even more thankful you got your act together and told her.

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    Karen Schwartzkopf
    Karen Schwartzkopf has her dream job as managing editor of RFM. Wife, mother, arts and sports lover, she lives and works in the West End with her family: husband Scott, who not coincidentally is RFM’s creative director, and their daughters—Sam, Robin, and Lindsey. You can read Karen’s take on parenting in the Editor’s Voice.