A long, long, long time ago, back when I was a very young girl and cars had running boards, there were no junior high schools or middle schools. The Catholic school I attended offered grades 1 through 8, and each of those grades had one teacher who taught everything, all in one room. In the latter half of my elementary years, the parish popped for a music teacher who happened to be a lay person; classroom teachers were Dominican nuns.
It is unclear to me why I was gifted with a memory for little details that occurred decades, nay eons ago, but I am able to remember with almost frightening clarity how it felt to be in those classrooms year after year. In a nutshell, I loved it.
As a first grader I thought the eighth grade students were practically grownups and I treated them with respect and awe. They seemed to like that a lot, when they weren’t teasing us or tousling our hair. I remember that from a purely aspirational point of view I was drawn to the idea of moving down the hallways through the series of grades until I was “older” and moved up to the second floor, where the big kids studied.
I wasn’t yet the little imp I turned out to be in adulthood , so I was one of those despicable children who tried to do everything right so I could be chosen to do special “honors” like taking notes to a nun in another classroom or passing out textbooks. My gregarious personality got me into trouble for talking too much sometimes – total silence was demanded at all times unless called upon by Sister – but when I kept a lid on it well enough, it wasn’t exactly unfair when classmates would call me a Brown-Nosed Teacher’s Pet.
By the time I was in eighth grade, I was sometimes asked to substitute for an absent teacher in the primary rooms for the entire day. Imagine how important, respected and trusted I felt when that happened. Those little children were now looking up to me as a near grownup and I would do nothing to disabuse them of that notion. Of course, in today’s fractious environment, those nuns would find themselves in the local clink, next to the drunk tank.
I’m not saying the upper-grade students were somehow spared the friskiness, the sudden heightened interest in the oppositely gendered (or the same gendered, for that matter, although I knew nothing about homosexuality until much later – like college!) The interest was there, but the eight years of behavioral training kept most of that in check.
What a contrast to the experience my son had when he briefly worked as a substitute teacher in Atlanta Public Schools. One of the girls in a sixth grade class actually propositioned him! And yes, I’m talking about a sexual proposition. He was so put off by it, he refused any future assignments in middle school or higher. But I digress.
By the time I had to suffer the rank humiliation of becoming a mere freshman at the huge public high school I opted to attend in lieu of the Catholic girls’ academy, I had negotiated my way through the startling changes my body was undergoing in an environment that was familiar and non-hostile. For the most part, I had spent all eight of those years with the same 20–25 children. The pecking orders were well established, the alliances were subject to frequent change but predictable and all the impressions had long been made. There was little need for the kind of posturing and preening that occurs when a child changes school buildings and locations.
Yes, I fell from my little perch and had to start from the bottom again, but I was far better prepared for that process than I would have been when entering sixth or seventh grade.
Somewhere between then and now, shapers of educational methodology decided there needed to be a step added to better prepare tweens for the blackboard jungle known as high school, and for some reason they believed that step needed to be taken in a separate building. Also, instead of being instructed by a single teacher, aside from an occasional music and/or art specialist, there would be a team of teachers teaching their respective subjects in a tandem manner, keeping each subject relevant to a larger, predetermined theme.
Sounds good, right? The idea concentrates all the attention and planning on a smaller age-span and allows the school to better tailor the curriculum to that age group’s needs. Except, I don’t think it really accomplishes that. In fact, I think the change has caused those tweens to lose more than they are gaining.
Surging hormone overload creates a highly charged atmosphere in the building, with no relief anywhere, comic or otherwise. There are no little children to “look after” for the more nurturing, sensitive types. Instead, they become prey for the aggressively inclined, and allow words like “lame” and “that’s so gay” to penetrate their fragile or yet-to-exist self-confidence. The youngest among them, instead of looking up to the seventh and eighth graders, live in fear of attracting their negative notice.
The junior high concept, confined to just seventh and eighth grades, was scary enough. I laugh whenever I remember the orientation meeting for my son’s first junior high year, in which the principal called junior high school a state of temporary insanity. Many of the children in sixth grade are clearly not yet ready for a plunge into the cuckoo’s nest.
Just as I believe it is a mistake for seniors to live in seniors-only environments, I believe it is an injustice to all concerned to separate the younger students from those older, temporarily insane ones. The world is not getting more homogeneous, it is decidedly less so every year. It is important to learn to not just survive but to thrive among people of all ages and all hormonal states. In my opinion, middle schools do very little to help that along.