Saturday, June 28, 2014

I Love Eighth Grade Boys

The following is running on Huffington Post -- you can comment or share it directly from the site by clicking here.

When I used to work with kids on their writing, my favorites were always the eighth grade boys. They didn't even pretend to like to write. "I'm a terrible writer," each would say. Even though that was rarely ever true.

Eighth grade boys would sit at my dining room table and do almost anything to avoid writing. They'd stretch their long limbs. They'd take apart pens. They'd wage bets. One boy always wanted to bet on word meanings. He knew he could kill extra time by offering to get the dictionary from the next room and then feign difficulty looking it up.

Eighth grade boys often make words up, using a logic and understanding of language that was never evident in their horrendous seventh grade selves.

Is there anyone more hubrant than an eighth grade boy?

That's the type of sentence they'd write.

Hubrant?" I'd say.

"Yeah. It means: a person who has a lot of hubris."

Not even, "I think it means..." During this small moment of their lives, eighth grade boys are absolutely sure about everything.

I love eighth grade boys. (Although not in a creepy way.)

Because they are at once impossibly full of themselves and catastrophically insecure. Because you can finally start to see the young men they'll eventually become. Because they're quick and irreverent. But mostly because they are usually very, very funny.

A friend once forwarded me this email, written by her eighth grade son to his science teacher:

"Here is my frankly extraordinary project. Filled not only with fantastic revelations of elements but also how, in an ecclesiastical way, [they] correlate to our humble beginnings as stated in the Judeo-Christian book of prayer. This is an epiphany I realized only after trawling though thousands of gigabytes of information as well as after participating in a confirmation retreat, which explains the slight tardiness. But the quality obviously makes up for the time. Did Italy ask Michelangelo, "Why haven't you finished the Sistine Chapel? I told you to do it Monday!" This is because Italy knew that with quality comes deep soul searching that cannot be bound by social or time constraints. So considering this project is pretty much the scientific equivalent of the Sistine Chapel and it was emailed to you by the correct date, I think that it is superfluous for you to read it and much more economical and health conscious just to give me 100 percent. I say health conscious because I am worried about the long-term effects when this paper on Boron trifluoride blows your mind. Furthermore, I have a clay model of Boron trifluoride that you will see on your desk before first period starts. And if you consider the diagram technically late, remember that in Italy it would basically be the day before, so in Italy, the home country, this paper is on time."

His mother pointed out, "It's full of inaccuracies, such as the fact that Italy is ahead of us time-wise, not behind us, and Michelangelo was constantly pestered to get the Sistine chapel done. Luckily his teacher seems to have a sense of humor."

Eighth grade boys can see most of what's ludicrous about the world and when they put those notions through their middle school meat grinder of a brain, brilliance comes out the other end.

One boy used to come in and plunk down a five-page literary analysis that was due the following day.

"Is this bad?" he'd say as he pushed his paper toward me across the dark oak table.

I'd pick it up and start to read.

"Is it bad?" he'd ask again.

"I'm not even through the first paragraph."

"I know, but is it bad?"

And then, a moment later, he'd grab the pages back from me, flip to the end and announce, "I feel a bit of genius coming on," as he'd start to scribble a new conclusion.

The other night I was trying to finalize the title of the book I was editing, helping the author choose between three decent options. I decided to take it to my son and his friends, curious how a roomful of eighth grade boys would approach the decision. I briefly explained the idea and content of the book, what it was apparently about and what it was more deeply about. Then I gave them the title choices, explaining that one title (the author's favorite) also already happened to be the title of a different book.

"That doesn't seem to matter though," I told them.

"You're saying it's okay to give the book a title that's already being used by another book?" asked one eighth grade boy.

"Yes, different books can have the same title," I said.

"Then I would just call the book Harry Potter," he said.

What must it be like inside that eighth-grade head?

I imagine it as that magical middle school moment of being the biggest ... the oldest ... the top of the heap, when your wit and intellect suddenly converge and you become one part boy and three parts awesome. Maybe the sweetness is due to how fleeting that moment is. How, once you step out of middle school, you land in that vat of social and academic muck called high school, a stew that you need to wade through for years before finding your balance again. Maybe it's because you don't see that pure, unadulterated self-possession in young men until after they've survived something -- something worse than middle school, that is. 

My son graduated eighth grade last night, and although I feel completely done with middle school, I'm a little sad. Because there truly is no one as hubrant as an eighth grade boy.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Best Night of The Year

Last night was our town’s high school graduation. After the ceremony the kids get on buses and are driven throughout the town for maybe an hour before they are shepherded away to a secret location to spend all night together. My neighbors throw a lawn party for the event and when night falls and the buses pass by, a hundred of us line the streets banging on pots and pans, standing on top of parked cars screaming and clapping and waving to the newly minted high school graduates. Sometimes someone hauls a drum set to the curb. One boy plays the bagpipes. The procession is led by a flashing police car and fire truck and lasts no more than 10 minutes, but the joy is palpable and it’s incredibly moving. And while it was happening I was thinking that I would give anything – anything -- to be celebrated like that just one time in my life.

I turned to my friend and said, “Maybe we should have this kind of procession for women who’ve been married 20 years. We could all pile into buses, be driven through town and people could cheer for us.” Not because 20 years of marriage is especially hard, but, like high school, it’s a long haul and often fraught with bullshit. Then, tired and depleted, we would all spend an unspeakably long time together at some gaming arcade. The sun would come up and we’d be ferried back home, never so happy to crawl back into our own beds.