It's always interesting to be present when former students meet current members of my class. It most often happens for me at swim meets. In between their events, sixth, seventh and eighth graders have the chance to compare notes about what it was like to have me as their teacher. I don't mean to be egotistical, these conversations are fleeting, and typically go something like, "Oh my god! She made you do that, too?" But they are often affectionate and even a little nostalgic, too. (I think they appreciate that I cheer for their swimming.) It's warm fuzzies all around.
This year they have a high school senior, who was also in my class in sixth grade, helping to coach the team, and so when I arrived at the first meet of the season this afternoon, I was pleased to have a chance to catch up with her. As we stood next to the pool chatting, a group of middle school kids gathered around us, eager to join our conversation. "You were on the Dolphins, too?" one asked her.
She rolled her eyes and made a sour face. "Don't remind me," she said, "sixth grade was horrible!" Their eyes widened, and I'm sure mine did too, although I knew exactly what she was talking about. She turned to me. "Do you even remember how many times you had to meet with my parents?"
"What did you do?" one of the younger kids asked.
"Nothing," I said, "she was bullied."
"A lot of kids were mean to me," she confirmed.
"What did they say to you?" a seventh grade girl wanted to know, but just then a cheer went up, and the events of the swim meet redirected our attention.
We never returned to the conversation, and in a way, I was relieved. The older girl had been a smart and serious child, both an engaged and engaging student, but also somewhat of a tomboy, and she had been harassed mercilessly throughout middle school about her sexuality. "How would you like to be surrounded by a group of girls in the locker room singing Ring Around the Lesbian?" she had asked me once.
Four years later, the pain of middle school is still fresh for her. I have to think that part of the problem is the way we approach sexuality for kids that age. "Gay" is one of the most common middle school epithets, and while we don't tolerate its use, we allow it to be a slur. By comparison, we condone and even guide students as they experiment socially with non-sexual heterosexual activity. It's not considered unusual at all for boys and girls to "like" each other, even in sixth grade, but any conversation of supporting kids who may be gay or bisexual usually meets opposition from adults who believe that they are too young to be "that." Unfortunately, the end result is that we send the message that there's something wrong with those kids, both to them and to their peers.