Middle schoolers haven't changed a bit: But the old man? Yes, indeed.
The other day I did my yearly stint as a visiting author at a middle school in Georgia. In response to questions from the students, I talked about what it is like to be a writer: How long it takes to write a book? Do I like being a writer? And of course, "Where to you get your ideas?"
But the real question of the day, a question that went unasked was, "What is it like to be a middle schooler?" My memories of that time in my life are not completely pleasant. I went to a pretty good, small, country school. I had an intact family and I was clean and well fed. But still, being eleven or twelve or thirteen years old is a peculiar misery. I had zits, I was hopelessly insecure, girls were from another planet, I hated math, I wasn't a great athlete or a great student; the usual middle school complaints.
So, the other day, when I was standing up there in front of thirty or forty kids, looking out on their presumably innocent young faces, I could sense their pain. There was girl with a bad complexion, there was a boy who parents were, I had been told, always battling; there was kid who lived in a trailer with a mixed "family" of live-in drunks and lovers and who claimed he shot deer out in his back yard every day: "I just like to kill things," he told me.
So, what do I teach them about writing--which is really all about life? Right now, as they come into their full awareness of who and what they are, they are learning all those things bitter and wonderful about what it means to be alive. These things will follow them the rest of their lives and maybe one or two of them will become writers and remember these years and mine the memories for great literature. I suspect, though, that most of them will simply grow up and somehow learn to deal with it all as they, too, muddle through.