And just like that, the number 69 is funny.
For the past 12 years I’ve been teaching 7th and 8th grade. This year I am teaching 6th graders. 6th graders (on the whole) are a lot more kid-like than young adult-like. 6th graders like to get up and dance when I have random disco dance breaks in the middle of class. 6th graders REALLY like to talk. They talk when I ask questions, and often when I don’t. 6th graders will tell you when it’s their dog’s birthday.
With 8th graders you’re lucky if you register a pulse before 11 am.
6th graders don’t think the number 69 is funny. At least until about 3 weeks ago. I can’t tell you how it happened but all of a sudden there’s a lot of whispering about locker 69, about page 69 in a book. And lots and lots of giggling. I’m fairly certain there’s no detailed understanding here, but they know they’ve stumbled upon something. Puberty. It’s got to start somewhere.
Back in September, I thought I had taken a job teaching fetuses. They were so small, and so incapable of punctuation. But the other day a few 8th graders wandered down to our wing and my jaw dropped. “Are you guys from the high school?” I stammered.
“No. We go to school here,” they said. (While undoubtedly rolling their eyes and thinking, whatever, weird lady.)
They looked like adults to me.
I shut my classroom door and retreated back amongst my small people. “Who wants to tell me about their pet? Anyone have a good Halloween costume this year?” 6th grade conversation starters that can keep a class going for hours. At least until someone’s voice cracks.
This year at the middle school I started a club called Safe Space. The mission of our club is promote diversity, tolerance, respect and understanding for all students and staff at the middle school. There is nothing about being gay in our mission statement, but our flyer features a rainbow triangle so for some students I hope the message is clear.
So far in our first few meetings we mostly just sit around and shoot the shit. And that’s how I envisioned it. There is a loneliness inherent in hiding a part of yourself away. This is true for students who have strong friendships and even more so for those who don’t. So combatting loneliness was a big part of why I’ve nudged for years to have a group like this one.
Over the weekend YA author Malinda Lo posted this moving reflection about what gay clubs meant to her growing up. And it got me thinking about spaces where we are safe. It is such a privilege to walk through the world feeling safe. One of the great privileges of my childhood was growing up in a safe family and a safe community. My family was safe because it was so unconditionally loving and accepting. My community was safe because it was tree-lined, wealthy and relatively crime-free. And yes, of course safe also means sheltered too. But that’s another post. The point is. I didn’t have to experience food insecurity, or abuse, or fear in walking down the street.
The community where I teach is a lot like the one I grew up in. That is why I think some students scoffed at the name of our club. Why do we need a safe space club? A few of them even showed up at the first meeting intent on being provocative or disruptive. That is their privilege. Hopefully one day they’ll go to a liberal arts college and figure it out. Or read an incredible book by someone without that privilege that shifts their understanding.
When I was in my early twenties I used to go dancing at the Man Ray club in Cambridge, MA. Gay, straight, Trans, gender-conforming or not. Everyone was accepted in that ecstatic world. That’s part of why I included a scene from that club in my upcoming book about boys in their senior year of high school struggling with identity. I loved dancing at the Man Ray. I did feel safe there. But I was so lucky because it wasn’t the only place where I was safe and free to be myself.
It is exhausting to walk through the world wondering if you are in danger just for being yourself. Physical danger, emotional danger, it is exhausting. So yes, kiddos, we do need safe spaces; in our schools, in our homes, in our communities. And when one of those spaces is tragically violated as it was this weekend in Orlando it is a good reminder to us all not to get lazy, not to assume everyone feels as safe as we do, and to do whatever we can to create spaces where they do.
I spent a lot of middle school and the early parts of high school trying to be normal. In WIRED MAN AND OTHER FREAKS OF NATURE my main character Ben is obsessed with the appearance of normalcy and doesn’t understand people like Ilona, the blue-haired skater girl, who reject it. (Who are these people I’m referencing? See last week’s post for character details.)
In order to write a whole book about something I have to connect to the material on a fundamental level. I distinctly remember experiences from elementary school, middle school and high school where I felt called out for being other than normal. In 4th grade I had friend ask the boy I liked what he thought of me. His response: “She’s pretty, but she’s kind of weird.” So for more years than I care to admit I tried really hard to be less weird. Something I understand now as a very typical part of adolescence -but what a waste!
As a middle school teacher I’m most in awe of those kids who seem to move through middle school with a strong sense of self firmly intact. Those kids who don’t try and be anyone but themselves. which in middle school this is not only an act of wisdom but one of bravery.
I have a weird name and weirder still -I made it up when I was 2. My family played the guitar and sang folks songs at Thanksgiving and went to nude beaches on summer vacation. I gave my stuffed animal monkey the name Harriet Irving because I couldn’t tell if it was male or female and I didn’t want to impose gender on it….I was nine. I was weird. And the only thing I regret about it is that I didn’t learn to embrace it sooner.
Next Wednesday I’ll be revealing the cover for WIRED MAN on the awesome YA Interrobang site -stay tuned!