I’ve written a lot about why I teach middle school students, and most of it is true. But I’ve always had trouble putting the real reason into words. Lots of people, including other teachers, tell me they could never, never teach seventh grade; too much drama. But I suppose drama is one word for the main reason I love it.
Glennon Melton, who blogs at momastery.com, says that there are two kinds of life. There’s lowercase life, which consists of the daily nitty gritty. Time spent grading papers, or talking on the phone to insurance companies, or making students go back to the room and line up again, “Quietly this time”…those things are all part of life. Then there’s Life, where the big stuff gets done. Sometimes it looks big, like weddings and birth and death. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s a moment when you’re lifted above the humdrum and aggravation of life and can see the big picture, even if only for a moment or two.
But that’s for adults. Adolescent kids lack all sense of perspective. Everything is a huge, life-altering decision. Everything is either the end of the world or the beginning. Their lives are a little bit Life-ier. When you’re twelve, finding out a friend failed to keep a secret is a betrayal worthy of the third act in a Shakespearean tragedy. Trying out for the soccer team requires the kind of courage that sends men into battle, because your self-worth is so fragile and so dependent on others for survival. As we grow up we learn to keep an even keel—hopefully—through triumphs and disappointments. But in adolescence, everything happens on a grand scale. There is no small stuff.
And yes, admittedly, this makes middle schoolers incredibly annoying. They’re emotionally volatile. They cry about stupid crap. Their emotions are often completely out of control, and their social life almost always takes priority over their academics. It’s the nature of the beast.
But teaching is a profession where it’s very easy to get bogged down in lowercase life; it’s easy for your day to become a slog of IEP meetings and standardized test prep and meaningless data analysis and repeating the words, “Stop flipping your water bottle” for eight straight hours. Teaching middle school, you get a glimpse into Life pretty much every day.
And this brings me to why I love the middle school talent show so much. It’s pretty much the Life-iest day of the year. Some kids get up there, and they’re great. And they know it. You can tell that they’ve practiced and practiced and practiced and they’re totally ready, even if they’ve never performed in front of a group before. That’s pretty awesome. And the eighth grade chorus always sings, and something about a bunch of big, burly, awkward eighth grade boys, who got stuck in that class through no choice of their own, belting out “Man in the Mirror” always gets me.
But the one that makes me ugly cry every year is the little sixth grade girl who always signs up for the talent show and then clearly regrets it. It’s a different kid every year, of course, but she’s always tiny, and looks like she won’t hit puberty for six more years. She has to get help adjusting the mic to her height, and you can see her hands shake, and she’s always singing a pop song that’s way out of her vocal range. They have to restart the music a time or two while she gathers her courage, this tiny little kid in front of an often-hostile audience of hundreds. When she finally manages to start, she’s totally off-key and sings barely above a whisper. After a few bars, she’ll inevitably lose the rhythm of the song and have no idea what she’s supposed to be singing. She’s close to tears, and looks desperately to her teachers for help.
And that’s when the magic happens. A few eighth graders down front will start clapping to the beat of the song, helping her find her place. Then a few more of them will start singing with her, shouting lyrics from their seats on the gym floor. Pretty soon, the kid’s got half the school singing along, and the rest of them are clapping or waving their hands in the air. When the song ends, those kids lose their minds, clapping and cheering like Adele just left the stage. It makes me want to take my shoes off, because that dirty, under-deodorized cafetorium full of weird, awkward kids is undeniably holy ground. And I get to see this happen every single year.
I wish I could hold onto that feeling of uplift and solidarity for longer, but I get caught up in lowercase life just as much as anybody else. I rush around to meetings, forget my copies, and yell at my kids for acting like morons, because that’s just part of the job. But every now and then something happens—like the talent show—that reminds me just how awe-inspiring and sacred our job is. And how lucky we are to do it every single day.