I’m fascinated by middle school right now.
My stepson is about to finish seventh grade, and my second-grade daughter is just beginning to grapple with the ruminations – popularity, crushes, lunchroom hierarchy – that germinate early and take over, like weeds, by junior high. So when “Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek” (Dutton) arrived on my desk, I dived in.
Maya Van Wagenen, now 15, wrote the book while attending eighth grade at a middle school in Brownsville, Texas.
“I fall into the social outcast group,” Maya writes. “The lowest level of people at school who aren’t paid to be there.” (Substitute teachers, she notes, are a tick less popular.)
When her lovely dad brings home a thrift store copy of 1951’s “Betty Cornell’s Teen-Age Popularity Guide,” Maya decides to follow the former teen model’s advice on hair, makeup and diet to see if she can elevate her standing.
It sounds superficial. It’s the opposite.
Maya learns that popularity, in addition to being a fuzzy, ever-shifting construct, is partly self-prescribed. The better she feels about herself, the more she extends herself to others who could use a pal. She creates her own following, of sorts.
“I am a changed person,” she writes toward the end. “As I walk the halls today, I notice how people look at me. Like I’m actually a human being, a friend even.
“But the biggest difference is the way I see them,” she continues. “I’m not scared of everybody else. For the first time in my life, I feel happy and safe at school.”
That last sentence stopped me in my tracks. It’s easy to forget, decades removed from our adolescence, how all-consuming and, often, terrifying school can be.
“All my life, I’ve been more than happy to go unnoticed,” Maya writes. “When mean people forget I exist, the world is a much more cheerful place.”
I called Maya at her home in Statesboro, Georgia, where her family moved at the end of eighth grade, to talk about her book, which has been optioned by DreamWorks.
“A lot of my friends really struggled in middle school,” Maya told me. “My little brother is going through it now. The story of struggle is kind of universal.”
Maya’s middle school was far from idyllic. School lockdown drills were commonplace. An eighth-grader at a neighboring school brought a gun to class one day and killed himself. The police occasionally interrupted her classes with drug-sniffing dogs.
But those weren’t the moments that scared her.
“I think the universal problems in middle school are the same as always,” Maya said. “Wanting to fit in and wanting to be liked and accepted; dealing with people who are unkind and lash out at you; trying to figure out who you are and what kind of person you want to develop into.”
Those are heavy subjects. Trying to master them in hostile, judgmental company is, as Maya writes, dreadful.
The further we get from our own middle school experiences, the more we lose sight of that once-familiar dread – thank goodness. Who wants to carry that around forever? But we should keep it in mind when we’re handling (gently, I hope) our own young teens. Imagine spending day after day surrounded by mean people. Imagine seven hours a day, five days a week at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Scary, right? Maya ends her book with a plea for her peers. “All the times I felt popular were because I had reached out to other people,” she writes. “We can bring about a lot of change on this planet (and in our schools) by digging deep, finding our best selves, and shining that light of compassion.”
It’s good advice for the grown-ups raising them too.