I Dreamed of Middle School and Found Apathy
Now thinking back on it, I wonder if maybe they isolated us not only to protect little kids, but to protect us from the massive culture shock that is high school. Maybe they think that kids just hitting puberty can’t handle a schooling situation where the grades literally impact the rest of your life.
If you do poorly in high school, your life is over. That’s what they taught me.
If I do poorly in middle school, my life is over.
I gave way too many fucks in middle school. I realize this now.
I keep having dreams about waking up to go to school. I’m in 8th grade. I go to my bus stop, but sometimes I have to catch a city bus (I never took a city bus to school). In other dreams I have to drive myself. I get to school and am generally perplexed about where I’m supposed to go and what I’m supposed to do. I haven’t been to math class in quite a while, and I can’t even remember what we’ve been studying. They’re not particularly stressful or anxious dreams. Mostly they’re just sort of monotonous and lonely. I don’t especially care about the classes I don’t remember or the work I’m not doing. I just catch the bus, go to school, wander around doing nothing, talk to teachers, passively refuse to do any work, and then catch the bus home.
I almost never dream the terrifying college dreams where you have an exam and can’t remember anything. These 8th grade dreams are just sort of depressing and pointless. It’s sort of like I know that, really, all of the work I did for good grades those two years in middle school was really pointless. Middle school grades don’t go on college applications, so why did I worry? I gave way too many fucks in middle school.
We had to wear uniforms: White or dark green (school colors) polo shirts and blue pants. I think at some point we were allowed to wear jeans.
Middle school is the bastion of forced conformity. Why did they make us wear uniforms? It only reinforced those insane standards. Maybe they thought it would make it harder for kids to shame and abuse each other because they didn’t wear the right clothes. However, everyone still gave each other shit all the fucking time — especially if you were a girl.
I have no interest in bragging about how smart I was in middle school, so I say that I was a “smart kid” only to establish what kind of experience I had. On the very first day of 7th grade I went to history class. Two boys next to me were talking about the stock market for some inexplicable reason.
“What is the stock market?” a boy asked, I think rhetorically.
I answered, “It’s kind of like an imaginary market place where people buy and sell pieces of companies and stuff.”
Big eyes. Honestly, I have no idea why I even knew that at 12. Random facts, eh? Anyway, that statement pretty much doomed me forever. I was literally nicknamed “Stock Market.” Terribly clever, weren’t they? It lasted only a few months, but it really set the tone for the “character” assigned to me for the rest of my middle-school career (which I absorbed and performed).
Rockers and hip-hop kids. Fighting over the radio station on the school bus. 107.9 The End. Appropriate.
My best friend through 6th grade abandoned me to be cool in 7th. For the next two years I spent no time with classmates outside of class and school functions. I had a couple of generally geeky friends, but we never socialized outside of campus. One of them and another boy three-way called me (Remember that shit in 2000? That was like, the thing.) once for no particular reason and none did ever again. (I had five minutes of three-way!!!)
I pretended to like this attractive boy who was dating an 8th grader so people would stop screaming LESBIAN and FAGGOT at me. Can I call him a beard even though we never “went out”? And where did they “go out” to? All I ever saw was note-passing, hall-walking, mall-visiting, and constant anecdotes about various unappealing and unemotional sexual favors described lasciviously by people with limited vocabularies and imaginations.
I pretty much rejected sexuality because of how completely disgusting and unequal (slut) my peers made it seem. And it’s not like anyone was knocking on my vagina anyway. In 8th grade, the teacher adviser to student government had to invent a position for me because they wanted my obsessive dedication but knew that nobody would vote for me. I went to every school dance to set up decorations and take photos for the year book.
This is not an unusual experience of middle school. I don’t think anyone actually enjoys middle school. Or, at least, I’ve never met anyone who’d admit to enjoying it.
I was desperate for some kind of order, some kind of control. I was Wiccan for about three months in order to feel like I had some kind of power. I still had a pentagram on my drawing pad in 8th grade, which my English teacher defaced with a crucifix in bright blue ink. I found solace in a few teachers and staff, but was otherwise singular and regularly abused.
I have wild hair. The aesthetic for girls was to have long hair in a very smooth ponytail with two perfect and stiff strands loose on either side of your face. Out of the abuse, I conformed. I had to paste my hair down with globs of cheap hair gel from the dollar store. I was actually grateful for the uniforms because I knew nothing about fashion and my mother had no interest in wasting money on the whims of my peers. And, really, I didn’t either, on an intellectual level. I was relieved to worry about one less thing, though.
Yet, still, I gave a lot of fucks those two years. I had some trouble in math (the looming threat of a B+) that made me feel utterly ashamed. Of course, the laughter and insults that followed any mistake I made did not help.
Again, these experiences are not unique.
I have two questions for you:
- Did you give a fuck?
- Did you abuse your peers?
We often have dreams about stressful periods in our schooling with an added bonus of surreal and terrible trauma: showing up naked, forgetting an exam, coming to an exam and not remembering anything, forgetting about a presentation, etc, etc.
In my community, among the people I know, these dreams surround college. It makes sense such that we’re taught that if you fuck up in college, you fuck up in life.
People who didn’t go to college I assume have the same dreams about high school. Whether or not you went to college, though, you fuck up in high school also means you fuck up in life.
Middle school, though. Why would you give a fuck about that? Why would I have dreams about middle school and not about college? Why, in addition to simply having these dreams, are they devoid of anxiety? I generally remember the classes I took, the teachers who taught them, the general lessons on algebra and world history (Mr. Woo, I’m sorry so many kids made fun of your name; it was crazy racist of them to say you sold “two dollah woos” behind the building). I also remember the intense anxiety and pride I experienced throughout those two years. I loathed the failure and basked in the successes. In a way, they defined me. My ability to do well in school was my entire identity. My entire identity.
My entire sense of self existed in my ability to maintain straight As. My entire sense of value was bound to my ability to know more than my peers. I had been indoctrinated early on with the moderately-true cliche that “knowledge is power.”
If I had knowledge, I had power. I had agency. I had superiority. To deal with the constant abuse at the mouths of my peers I turned to the one thing over which I had control, my ability to consume information.
You want to follow me through the halls hurling homophobic slurs and calling me every variation on the word “ugly” you can come up with? Fine. You’re still flunking English. Want to borrow my thesaurus?
In the end, though, none of those kids cared about how well-crafted and pithy my retorts were. It didn’t matter to them that I spent weeks trying to make sense out of a book by Steven Pinker that I found in the school library. They didn’t care that I wanted to be a writer. They didn’t care about any of my abilities. They gave no fucks.
The way they had power, agency, and a sense of superiority were in: being attractive, being fashionable, being aloof, and being the same.
There’s nothing particularly wrong in those aesthetics, but there was and is a sort of fetishism about the last bit: being the same. Fitting in. It’s such a tired and exhausted cliche, I kind of want to delete this entire post. But, as we’re constantly talking about bullying these days, I might as well take some time to reflect on why my tormentors tormented me, why I cared, why I didn’t care, what I did about it, and what I didn’t.
When I got to high school, I had a class with a former middle-school classmate. She and I had almost come to blows at one point because the intensity of her homophobic taunts were so venomous, loud, and constant that for about a minute, I didn’t care if I got expelled for breaking all of her bones. Here we were again, in 10th grade. We sat at the same table in Spanish II. I don’t remember the context. I don’t remember the overall conversation. I just remember this:
“Hey, I was really mean to you in Junior High. I don’t know why. I’m really sorry.”
I don’t know why.
This was amazing to me because I had both totally loathed and envied her. She was one of the few not abused. She was of the privileged caste. I had always wondered what it would be like to be cool, to be bad, to live as she did above it all. But there she was, not only admitting her cruelty, but admitting that she had no idea why she’d done it in the first place.
So… maybe it wasn’t even personal? Maybe it was a coping mechanism?
I think I like these middle-school dreams. I realize now that my ability in them to be completely unmoved by everything that had once made me so sick with anxiety that I embraced self injury and an eating disorder, is reflection of my growth.
That’s a nice feeling. I am a young person and still don’t understand Steven Pinker, but I do know that those who abused me gained nothing from it, the grades that I obsessed over were as valuable as the price of a scan-tron sheet, and that the concept of “cool” that so baffled me was really just a mask worn by people who felt alone, inferior, and lost. They don’t even have the vocabulary to analyze their own actions.
Middle school is bullshit. I never would’ve thought I’d find a catharsis in dreaming about catching the bus, going to class, and giving no fucks.