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20160127_130118Found a donut flattened in a napkin in the supplies pouch of a seventh grader’s binder minutes after the bell.

Spent most of third period huddled against the west wall of my classroom with thirty students until admins were sure the man in the green puffy jacket who stumbled across our schoolyard with a gun meant us no harm.

By sixth period I was too low on patience to mediate a conflict with the co-ed quartet of Study Skills students poking each other with pencils with sparkly jelly grips and arguing over a glue stick.

I walked over and held out my hand.

The note in the glue container read, “TRUTH: If you HAD to French kiss Jason or Jesús, who would you pick and why?”

Middle school.

Except this is Salmon Bay, an alternative K-8 school in north Seattle where two of my seventh graders go by gender-neutral pronouns and attend lunchtime meetings for GLOW (Gay, Lesbian, Or Whatever). Fifth graders campaign for Meat-Free Mondays. Roxie tells me to turn off Carly Rae Jepsen and play Carly Simon. Or “Mr. Roboto.” Or “anything.” When asked how he would spend Mayor Ed Murray’s proposed $5.1 billion budget, Morris adjusted the ankle strap on his Crocs and said, “Expanded libraries for English teachers.” (Not to be outdone and appealing to an audience of her peers, Cleo snapped the waistband on her yoga pants and said, “Churro factory next to the Ferris wheel on the waterfront.”) One afternoon I mounted a poster outside my door declaring my 7th and 8th Grade English classes re-named “The Exploration of Very Fine Novels and the Composition of Exquisite Writing by the Amazing Young People of Contemporary Society.” The amazing young people looked at the poster, nodded, and moved on to Fused Glass, Coding, Marimba, Math Olympics, and three kinds of theater (Radio, Storybook, and Puppet).

“As a rule, people don’t celebrate the middle of things,” Nick Sullivan writes in a recent issue of “Esquire.” “They celebrate the edges, the beginnings and the ends: births, christenings, marriages, graduations. Even death carries with it a stronger sense of occasion than any bit in the middle.” Psychological research supports this notion: people remember the first and last items in a series more than the items in the middle. Plot graphs in literature courses reinforce it: people want rising and falling action, exposition and dénouement. Gladiators in Roman amphitheaters fight to the end.

This doesn’t have to be the case. The Subway sandwich menu advertises what goes inside the bread. We judge marching bands halfway through parades. We live for the twenty minutes at the company party when everyone’s present and no one’s ready to go. We can, and sometimes do, celebrate the middle.

My students wrote personal narratives a few months ago, and many of them submitted drafts with eddying anecdotes, meandering streams of consciousness, and entire pages undisturbed by paragraph indentations.

For every Cassidy who wrote, “You could say I was ‘bouncing off the walls,’ but I was actually bouncing between my bed and my sister’s bed continuously,” there was a Paisley who wrote, “All I remember was jumping, jumping into the consequence of my ‘great’ idea, and landing with a splash.”

For every Lennon who described an emotional release, admitting that “Beating up a soap dispenser is really satisfying actually,” there was a Phoenix worrying about global issues like the Syrian refugee crisis, saying, “We all live on the same planet. We have nowhere else to go. So if these people are in danger we need to help them.”

Some students highlighted their youth. “Judge me how you want for playing a videogame from 2010, but that’s where my story begins,” one student wrote. “All the hot people these days were born in 1999,” another wrote. Some students impressed me with their old-soul wisdom. “It was cold enough to see my own breath,” Ren recalled in a story about visiting his biological dad on his birthday, “tiny bursts of warm fog that, like people, never stayed long enough.”

At some point while reading their stories, I remembered a Billy Collins’ poem I fell in love with years ago, “Aristotle”: “This is the middle. / Things have had time to get complicated / messy, really. Nothing is simple anymore… / This is the sticky part where the plot congeals / where the action suddenly reverses / or swerves off in an outrageous direction…”

It’s not always about kickoffs and opening notes, dismounts and encores. Sometimes the story is about young people making it through the discounted and discomforting years of adolescence, the mess and the murk, the paradoxes emblematic of an enigmatic time of outrageous direction.

I might include myself in that statement. I’m midway through my first year working with a new age – what I’ve heard some people call “the armpit of education” – but tomorrow is Wednesday, and we’re going to celebrate students’ writing with Capri Suns.

Here’s to the quirky, the quaint, and the quintessentially human. Here’s to the boys and girls with speech impediments, activity limitations, spectrum abilities, and a variety of unlabeled pre-teen gifts. Here’s to Kaya staying after class to tell me about mixing an elixir in her backyard to kill an evil doctor rat and free the water fairies. Here’s to Logan comparing his upbringing by two loving mothers to a self-driving car: “weird, awesome, and just not popular yet.”

Here’s to my students. May you write about ceramic cats in little grass skirts whenever you want. May you say the moments of your life are like those campsite rocks that aren’t big enough to sit on and too big to move. May you read Jeff Kinney’s “The Diary of a Wimpy Kid” by the light of your phone during the lockdown. May you continue to mystify me, sometimes without knowing it, sometimes knowing it a little, and sometimes knowing it all.

Derek

Note: Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of students.

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