Inspired by my eighth grade students and Cheryl Strayed’s letter to her twenty-something self.
Author’s Note: Identity is a central tenant in my classroom teaching. This year, after introducing Kimberlé Crenshaw’s identity intersectionality framework to my students, I could tell the class was intellectually interested, but the heart of the lesson seemed to be missing. In this piece, I reconnect with the topics and struggles that mattered most to me as a middle schooler. In doing so, I aim to bring a little bit of softness back into our identity analysis.
P.S. You can read more about how we approach identity here.
Middle school is hard. It will be one of the hardest, goofiest, and most interesting times of your life. You will struggle with almost everything—friends, “dating,” school, figuring out the hobbies you like to do—figuring out who you are.
Know it gets better. Being popular doesn’t matter; it isn’t what makes you happy. Having good friends is. You have good friends. Treasure them.
At ski club, when your super-smart-friend-who-has-been-acting-kind-of-weird-lately asks you to ride the ski lift with her, say yes. When your other friends ignore her and exclude her, ride with her again, and again, and again. You don’t know it yet, but her parents are going through a divorce, and next year, she will move to a different school. You won’t learn this until it’s too late, but you don’t need to know this in order to be a good friend.
Start a book club. The school librarian will love you for this. You’ll get the school to buy new books, and you’ll get to hang out with your friends in the library during lunch.
Play the flute, and enjoy every moment of it, especially when you play duets with your best friend and your mom. There is a special type of bonding that happens with music, and when you quit playing later because you start doing other things, you will miss this.
Go to summer camp. It’s worth going away for two-weeks or four-weeks at a time. Weeks hiking and canoeing in nature will mean more to you than soccer camp or band camp ever can.
When you make eye contact with that girl in your seventh grade math class and get butterflies in your stomach, honor the fact that those were real butterflies. When you ask your mom later if you could be a lesbian and she says no, you can believe her—you have always liked boys—but also know she can’t determine your sexual orientation, only you can. Know you can have crushes on boys and girls. There’s a name for that: you can call yourself “bi” if gender is important to you, or “pan” if it’s not.
That one time you try to sneak out of the lunchroom early, don’t look furtively around you like you’re guilty. Walk upright with confidence and purpose, and I bet no one will even notice you are breaking the rules.
Know your true friends are the ones you don’t have try around. When you are attempting to figure out which lunch table to sit at, sit at the lunch table where you feel like people see you. Sit at the lunch table where you find the conversation interesting, and you laugh a lot at things that are genuinely funny and not mean. Pay attention to this laughter. This, more than most things, is a sign of real friendship.
When you think you’re middle class, know, you’re not. You may be in the middle of what people have at your school, but realize, what people have at your school is more than most. Be thankful for what you have and question why life is unfair. Grow up, and work to change this.
Read. Read as many books as possible. And when you finish the reading the last Harry Potter book, don’t spend years griping about how you can’t find anything else as good—pick up something different. Discover nonfiction. Read the news. You’ve learned all about a magical world. Now, learn about the real one.
One afternoon, in the parking lot, there will be a time when your guy-friend from elementary school asks you out, in sign language, through a bus window. You will think this is romantic, but, say no. Tell him you like him as a friend, and that’s all you want. It takes more courage to say this, than it does to say yes, avoid him at the school dance later that night, and then break up with him one week later.
Run for student council president. However, come up with your own speech topic—don’t use the same topic as the girl who won student council last year. Everyone will know you copied her, including her. When you lose the election (probably because you plagiarized your speech), and when your friend wins (because he is capable and confident and probably wrote his own speech), be happy for him. Also, recognize that it is super awesome your class voted for a president who is in a wheelchair. How many presidents in wheelchairs do you know? When you are offered the consolation position of class secretary, take it, and work with him. You will learn a lot.
Finally, recognize the difference between good grades and true learning. You can get good grades and learn almost nothing, and you can get bad grades, and learn more than you ever thought possible. Focus on the learning—it is this, not the grade—that will stay with you far-past middle school.
Be kind, make mistakes, and pick yourself up when you fall. Middle school is hard, but as you grow up, you’ll realize the rest of life is too. For whatever difficult, challenging, dysfunctional thing you are going through, know there are people around you who are going through, or have gone through, the same or similar thing. Lean on them. Trust them. Be there for them.
The reason things get better even though life stays hard is because middle school is a place where you will start building resiliency that will help you bounce back from challenges and difficulties for the rest of your life. Take advantage of this time. As your mom says, learn to bounce.
Believe in yourself. Listen to yourself. Trust yourself. Stand up straight; open your heart, and know, you’ve got this.
You cannot fail at being yourself.
Follow-Up: My passion project this year is having students create well-developed, intellectual, and reflective Reader’s and Writer’s Notebooks. Today, I shared my letter as a sample a notebook entry with students, in a lesson on what it means to take risks as a writer and how to design your own journal prompts.
Before I introduced the piece, we talked about what taking risks means—what it feels like in our bodies and our minds. Then, I set a purpose for reading by challenging students to look for the risks I took as a writer. I read the piece aloud, and afterwards, we had a conversation. Students first discussed their thoughts with a partner, and then we came together as a large group in which students shared their noticings, asked questions, and began a dialogue with each other.
At the very end of the conversation, one student asked me if I had come out to my parents and if they were supportive.
“Yes,” I replied. “It’s a journey, and we are in a good place. I told them, because I think they deserve the opportunity to know me. And I think you do too.”
The year is just beginning, but I can’t wait to see where our Notebook projects lead. In our class, it’s through reading, writing, and reflection, that we aim to open our hearts and our minds.