The 7th Grade Me

One of my favorite “perspective” stories that I like to share with students and parents is the one about my seventh grade year.  That was the year that the administration at my public school called my parents on a Friday in late fall to tell them that I could not return the following Monday.  I was being kicked out of public school.  Further, in their infinite wisdom, the admin shared their professional opinion that unless my parents placed me in military school, I would end up in jail- or worse. It is important to note that I was ADHD far before this term existed. I was “bad” mostly because of the artificial colors and flavors in my diet, so the theory went in those days.  That latter myth led to my being neglected to a great extent of the joys of soda and candy.  I digress. I was kicked out of public middle school, yet I am a person that students, parents and colleagues come to as an expert on this age group. Certainly this represents an archetypal example of irony. The point is that adolescence represents a time of making mistakes, of being raw, unfinished, experimenting, using poor judgement, lacking effort, showing weak executive functioning skills, feeling insecure about our hair, our dancing ability, and interaction with those to whom we are attracted.  It is the purpose of this stage in our development.  It is adulthood with a safety net. It is not only acceptable, but expected that we make mistakes- it is what follows those mistakes where the real emphasis needs to be placed by the adults in the lives of adolescents.  I always say that “Awareness is a magical thing”.   This statement applies to adults and adolescents.  For the adults, we must be aware (and empathetic as we all went through this difficult stage) of what adolescents are going through- and how to support them, correct them, praise them, punish them, model for them and have patience with them.  Each of these endeavors is tricky- especially when considering the incredible emotion associated with the parent-adolescent dynamic.  There is no manual on how to execute each element- other than to be aware.  Carol Dweck’s book Mindset presents very simple concepts and anecdotes- most people read the book and exclaim “it is so obvious”- which it is, but while the ideas are obvious, whether we are always aware of the obvious-ness of them is where the value of the book is found.  We need to remind ourselves to be aware and to follow the steps of supporting adolescents, even when emotion and other catalysts make doing so incredibly difficult.  One of the easiest steps I have found as an educator is to explain to adolescents that I am here to help them be more self-aware, and to help them understand the correction process as growth-oriented, not punitive.  Likewise, I have found that praise also needs to be genuine- adolescents can sense ingenuity oftentimes better than adults.  Dole it out appropriately, and make the adolescent aware of why the praise is given- he or she is more likely to imitate the process that led to the praise if there is substance behind the giving of it.  So what happened to the 7th grade me? My parents put me in a tiny school where there were only 6 other students in my entire grade.  They were all hard-working, bright and well-behaved.  The peer-pressure to align or have no friends was powerful.  In essence, they put me in the right place surrounded by the right people that led to immediate change for me.  It was easier to be aware of the good, the bad and the ugly of my actions with only 6 others around me.  My parents, well they supported me- yes, there were consequences, and no, I did not become Eddie Haskell overnight.  I still had struggles, but I also had patient, supportive adults in my life that helped me along the way.  To this day, it was my experience at Pennington School, where my teachers were my coaches, where my classmates were my teammates and we all were a family that supported each other that led me to want to be an educator.  The 7th grade me was lucky to have aware parents who got me in the right place, surrounded by the right adults who were aware and helped me become more self-aware.  I draw on these experiences every day.