Think Your Day is Tough? Try Seventh Grade
I’m awash in projects.
All are in some insistent stage: the novel I’m trying to wrest into form; a collection of short stories; the middle-grade chapter book that has been complete for two years but has languished on my hard drive awaiting my time and attention. Plus writing for Medium and, oh yes, my full-time job at a middle school.
As I try to sip from the firehose I’ve aimed at myself, all the other elements of life intensify at this time of year: friends, family, my involvement with the horse rescue for which I volunteer. Not to mention things like impeachment hearings, climate crisis, and the world at large.
And the holidays that will be upon us in, what, ten minutes?
It’s kind of overwhelming.
This is when I remind myself that 99% of the stuff I have to do is because I choose to do it. You want to see real pressure? Real overwhelm?
Hang out with a class of seventh graders confronted with end-of-the-trimester projects, looming grades, and fall sports, all competing for attention with the intense drama, shifting allegiances, and hormonal chaos that is middle school.
Think about a 12-year-old kid’s working day. You’re in a job you never applied for, and your schedule amounts to a seven-hour series of mandatory meetings lasting anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes. Each meeting focuses on a different topic, each requires preparation and organization, and each has action items that have to be completed on a strict deadline.
Each meeting is presided over by a supervisor who is assessing your performance at all times. Your coworkers keep distracting you.
You get three minutes between meetings and maybe 40 minutes for lunch. Your computer use is heavily monitored. You can’t take phone calls and you need a hall pass to go to the restroom.
Some of the meetings are literal workouts and require you to change clothes before and afterwards.
At the end of the day, you face hours of practice and homework. Forget about cocktail hour; that’s years in the future. And if your home life includes anything like family dysfunction or economic disadvantage, all of this gets much, much harder.
For some kids, it’s truly grueling.
It’s impressive how many students seem able to handle the load with grace and goodwill. But there are kids for whom all or part of the day is a real struggle.
The kids that have the toughest time are those who just can’t seem to get their heads in the game. Who haven’t developed the self-reliance, the resourcefulness, or the perspective that enables their classmates to tackle each task as it comes at them, understanding that some will be easy, some actually enjoyable, and others must simply be gotten through.
My heart goes out to these students, even as I deploy every tool in my kit to get them to engage. I praise or otherwise reinforce every forward step, no matter how feeble. I doubt they would believe that I know exactly how they feel.
Because when I get to my lunch break, it’s writing time. I have thirty minutes in which I can block out everything else and focus on my chosen work. This is my time, painstakingly carved out of my day, to use creatively and productively.
Well, that’s the plan anyway.
I stare at the blank screen. The cursor blinks, taunting me. My brain uses what’s left of its energy to resist transition into yet another working mode. I dawdle. Things in the room catch my attention.
Maybe if I tidy my desk first. Or sharpen some pencils. My colleagues’ voices drift in through the window, talking about things I’m interested in. The clock on the wall ticks and tocks, each sound closing the shutter on my writing window by another degree. Maybe I should just check in with email. Or Twitter. Or Facebook.
I think of what I told the kid in the last period. He was the one who knew how to do the assignment but just couldn’t countenance the enormity of it. The one who kept putting his head down on his desk, hoping both the task and I would somehow disappear.
In no uncertain terms, I point out to myself, just as I did to that student, that neither is going to happen. And just like that kid, once I finally get underway, words begin to blossom in the previously arid white space of my screen.
And then the bell rings.
Three minutes to transition back into my job. Just like the kids are expected to, I drag myself out of one absorbing task and get my head ready for a completely different one.
At minute three, I’m observing students as they arrive at their next classes. Their teachers greet them and announce the expectations: they’re to go to their assigned seats, get out their materials, and get started on the work listed on the board by the time the bell rings.
By and large, most of them do exactly that, even though it’s the third or fourth such major shift they’ve confronted that day.
They can’t guess the depth of my admiration.
Check out my other posts this month as I explore radical gratitude, in a challenge to find the miraculous hidden in the everyday. If you feel inspired to join me, by all means, write on!