In seventh grade, we read "The Diary of a Young Girl" by Anne Frank. Our teacher was gone for a couple days after we finished the book, so we had a substitute teacher tasked with rolling out the TV cart to play a film version of the story. My middle school was shaped like a giant “8” with the two middle portions containing courtyards. The classrooms all had windows that looked out into these courtyards, which housed some trees, shrubs, and for some reason, waterfowl. The substitute was obviously tired of watching the same depressing film hour after hour. Just as the family’s secret annex hiding place was about to be discovered, the sub pointed out that a goose in the courtyard was standing on a snowbank watching the film with us. The goose witnessed the SS take the Frank and Van Pels families into custody, and the entire class watched the goose.
This is one of my only memories of seventh grade. Looking back, I was obviously dealing with depression (I was jealous of Anne Frank for two reasons: She was a writer and she got to sleep all day). I remember feeling uncomfortable all the time. I hated my body and I hated how shy I was and I hated how the shifting tides of popularity were so unpredictable and never seemed to find me favorable. I was never bullied: just ignored. There’s a cringe-comedy series on Hulu called "PEN15" that chronicles two best friends in the year 2000 as they navigate middle school. It’s so true to life as I remember it: gel pens and butterfly clips and pale pink corduroy pants and the cruelty of being somewhere between childhood and adulthood. Sometimes I have to hide behind my hands when I watch it.
Last week I had my first experience as a substitute teacher for a seventh grade class. I have a lot of teachers in my family and while I am passionate about education, I’m more comfortable with public speaking as an entertainer than an instructor. The students were great. They did their work -- or were at least quiet about it if they were just pretending to work. And despite the changes in middle school since I was last a student -- each student has a laptop, everyone wore their face masks with no fuss, the curriculum is heavily app-based -- it was exactly like the seventh grade I remember.
It’s just as easy to see the hierarchy, the cool kids and the outcasts. The general sense of not-wanting-to-be-there is still heavy in the air (so is the smell of chicken nuggets). No one made eye contact with me. It was as if I was right back at Erik Ramstad. This time I did not have braces.
I remember adults telling me that it was just a phase. After all, puberty and maturity were inevitable. Some girls prefer Barbies to boyfriends, but eventually none of that matters -- we will all have to pay taxes and car insurance in the end. They weren’t wrong. But this year it seems like we’re all back in middle school or stuck in the annex, waiting for something to happen and expecting that thing to be bad.
Politically, we’re only allowed to sit at certain lunch tables. Economically, I’ll never be able to afford whatever metaphorical cool-sneakers are in fashion. There’s a sense that somewhere, an adult knows something you don’t and they won’t tell you what it is. The pandemic is a school dance, and some kids are slow-dancing and some kids are playing basketball and some are hiding in the computer lab playing Oregon Trail and you should try to join in somewhere, but it’s very overwhelming and you wish your mom would come and pick you up already.
Generally, I don’t mind gray areas because absolutes can be very restricting, but living in the liminal with no sense of direction, or end in sight, can be very exhausting. Even Anne, a 13-year-old, was able to admit, “I had an occasional flash of understanding, but then got selfishly wrapped up again in my own problems and pleasures.” However long this phase lasts, I hope we get by without having to look back with a sense of shame. Somewhere, a goose may be watching.
Kayla Schmidt is a freelance writer and creative collaborator with The Good Kids. She's a North Dakota boomerang: originally from Minot, she took a detour to study in England before settling in Bismarck.
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