I was twenty-one when I started teaching middle school. No more than nine years separated me from my students.
My first seventh grade class turned fifty-three last year. One of my best friends turned fifty-three.
So, basically, my middle school students and I were the same age.
When I returned to middle school as a counselor, I was forty-six. Smack in the middle of midlife.
Seventeen years and almost 17,000 students later, I concluded that my middle school students and I were still the same age.
Midlife is a lot like middle school. Both are journeys of self-discovery. @Marcia_Smalley (Click to Tweet!)
At fourteen or fifty, fear can overtake us. Sometimes nothing fits. Our world can be confusing. In both life stages, we dance with our thoughts about this.
We’re pretty grown up, but not fully grown. We curtsy to the BIG C, CHANGE. We battle our changing bodies, scratch our heads over friendships, welcome resilience.
Of all the lessons I learned from my students, these continue to serve as valuable reminders.
1. There’s no such thing as “Everybody.”
My conversation with eighth grader Aubrey started with her declaring, “Everybody’s talking about me! All the girls were staring at me on the way to class.”
Her worst fear: she’s not fitting in, and everybody knows it.
The Everybody. The super powerful “All” whose purpose is to gang up against us, talk about us behind our backs, and otherwise make our lives miserable.
At no time is Everybody more controlling than in middle school. I was paid to dispel the mythical powers of Everybody. To take contracts out on Everybody, like an assassin.
So my response to Aubrey was, “Everybody? Is that true? We have over 900 students and fifty adults on this campus. Are ALL of them really talking about (your hair/your clothes/how you spent your weekend…)?”
That was enough to momentarily stop her tears. Of course, her answer was NO. But it sure felt like YES! Everybody!
The meaning placed on what “everyone” may think or how they could react is what stops the middle schooler in her tracks. It breaks her heart and sends her running to the counselor’s office.
So Aubrey and I work her thoughts until her tears subside. Everybody goes back to their respective corners as she goes back to class.
But Everybody’s still lurking. And they’ll show up again. Maybe as soon as Fifth Period. Definitely during midlife.
I consider myself a reasonable adult who’s lived a relatively long time. But concerns about what Everybody will think never seem to go away. And we often let that concern run our show.
This happens in midlife when we embark on new adventures, take detours from the pack, or otherwise live our authentic lives.
We say to ourselves: Don’t make waves! Try to make Everybody happy.
I would ask all the Aubreys a simple follow-up question: “So who IS your everybody?”
Aubrey could narrow her Everybody down to her cousin and her cousin’s friend. And maybe the girl they sit with at lunch.
It turns out her cousin’s opinion was important; the friend’s didn’t matter so much. And she didn’t even know that one girl’s name.
Putting faces on our Everybody loosens their hold over us. According to Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic, when you set out to live a creative life, NOBODY really cares. At least not much or for very long.
That’s even better and a huge relief.
2. We deserve self-compassion.
Picture Thanksgiving. Noah’s family is gathering to celebrate. Aunt Linda can’t resist commenting on how tall Noah’s getting…every year, before she even takes off her coat.
Flash forward forty years. You see yourself in a recent photo. You’re startled. You thought you looked so cute when that picture was taken! Who’s this schlumpy woman who doesn’t stand up straight and looks pregnant in that shirt?
Life hands us periods of drastic, sometimes chaotic, physical change. For no one is this truer than eighth grade boys and fifty-year-old women.
Eighth-grade boys in particular would grow before my eyes, as if a time-lapse photographer was snapping pictures of them as they walked to class.
Hormones are raging. There’s a lot of stumbling over your own feet going on.
In middle school you struggle to just keep up with yourself.
But you eventually get that figured out. And the reward? It all rolls around again in midlife.
Hormones are raging. Once again, your body doesn’t feel like your own.
Now it’s not time-lapse photography at work so much as CGI effects. We set off in search of our waistlines. Or our chins. Nora Ephron’s not the only one who feels bad about her neck.
In midlife you struggle to just catch up with yourself.
In middle school and in midlife our bodies are beacons, signaling major changes we’re undergoing for all to see. And in both life stages, our bodies deserve our support, kindness, patience. Compassion.
Throw in a little humor and a light heart, and we just might make it through the transformation in tact.
In spite of Aunt Linda or our necks.
3. Friends make all the difference.
Over the years, I spent hours consoling tearful 12-year-old boys who were convinced it’s really hard to make friends. They were sure they didn’t have any.
Being friends, keeping friends, understanding what the heck a friend is…all very confusing stuff when you’re in middle school.
I would explain that friendships are living things. They change because the people in them change. They may last a lifetime or a season. They may even die. Especially if we don’t take care of them.
The thing is, we don’t know what will happen when we enter into a friendship. We take our chances.
It’s risky, stepping out and asking someone to be your friend.
As adults we often find ourselves in new situations, feeling friend-less. A new job or neighborhood. Changing circumstances. The seventh grade feelings sneak up. Who (and where) are my friends?
I’m currently in the middle of several life shifts, so I’m bravely stepping out. Trying to be a friend so as to make a friend. Knowing friends make all the difference.
4. You cannot change what you refuse to confront.
My chat with Mike started something like this: “What do you do when you’re working on your math homework and it gets hard?”
“I just stop. (Translation: It takes too much time to ask questions. And I really don’t want to spend that kind of time or energy on something I don’t want to do in the first place. I mean, really, what’s the POINT?).”
Mike, allow me to introduce you to Resistance. Resistance, you remember Mike. You two have met on several occasions. Mike would like math to be easy. He forgets that not everything starts out that way.
Like taking his first steps, for instance. Or riding a bike. Tying his shoe. Those were once daunting tasks but are now muscle memories.
I won’t pretend to know how soulful a seventh grade math class is. But that lesson of how to stop resisting it will definitely make a difference to Mike’s soul.
Resistance is a form of self-sabotage. It holds us back, undercuts us, allows us to hide behind what we think is best, safest. If we can push through resistance, we’ll make progress.
It’s all about taking action. Action with a heavy dose of self-love.
Spending ten more minutes. Finishing one more page.
Getting feedback, asking for help.
I saw this lesson enacted in middle school every day. I’m re-learning it as a solo business owner who’s also building a house.
Just. Keep. Going.
5. Resilience is a blessed traveling companion.
I learned this lesson most poignantly from Ursula. I was introduced to her three days before school started. Her mother had died after a long illness a couple of weeks before.
She shook my hand with a smile and gave me a sweet Hello. I knew in that moment Ursula would be OK.
I meet up with her again until springtime.
That day I received a text from a counselor at the elementary school, asking me to check on Ursula. One of the teachers she’d been close with there had died suddenly the night before. Ursula had just heard the news from another student.
I called her in minutes later. She knew why. She cried her eyes out and poured her heart out.
I should know how to handle this! I go to group counseling because of my mom. But this is too much. THIS is too hard.
Ours was a long conversation. Ursula did most of the talking; I held a safe space for her.
She finally decided it would feel best to go back to class and to the rhythm of her regular day. I assured her I’d be there if things got out of sync.
She returned to my office at lunchtime. She didn’t want to be with friends and asked if she could eat with me. She explained she didn’t want any more tears, which would surely flow again when her friends asked her how she was doing.
We ate, we chatted, and she noticed my Buddha board. I explained how you paint on it with water. Whatever you draw evaporates, and you can start over.
A fleeting image—just like every feeling, any thought.
As she drew, giggles followed. We talked about Disney movies and birthday parties.
The bell rang, and we shared a hug. She told me to have a wonderful day… the very words she left behind on my Buddha board before she headed off to class.
As much as my heart broke when the youngsters faced life-changing challenges, I was equally grateful to know that their journeys through these things will serve them well. Not just on an ordinary Wednesday during lunch, but throughout their lives.
These same lessons come packaged for us in midlife and beyond.
Fractured families, broken hearts. Lost parents, ailing friends.
Despair over how we’re ever going to handle it. Knowing deep down that we will. We’ll flex our “resilience muscles” yet again.
What life lessons did you learn in middle school? What lessons have you learned from your children? Please share in the comments below!
Marcia Smalley is a certified life coach, teacher, and writer. She loves helping others in midlife navigate change and design the life their hearts desire. Her free eBook, Playful Wisdom: A Guide For Living Lightly, will be available this fall. Visit her page or follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
Image courtesy of Michal Jarmoluk.