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  • Jan Flynn

Do You Have the Integrity of a Thirteen-Year-Old?

Rediscovering hope in middle school

My day job involves managing the behavior program at a middle school. When I tell people what I do, their most often equates to better you than me. Middle school is assumed to be a jungle of hormones and chaos, a harrowing passage from childhood to adolescence.

It’s a time in life that few adults recall in the amber glow of nostalgia. Most of us remember it as bewildering and awkward, a period when our sense of self swirled in a maelstrom of developmental pressures we didn’t begin to understand.

I assure you, it hasn’t gotten any easier.

Especially when every schoolyard gaffe or personal rite of passage is liable to go viral on Snapchat. The social landscape of middle school, always challenging, is nowadays fraught with peril.

Still, the academic year progresses in recognizable touchpoints. By now the students have settled in; we’ve held Back To School night and the first round of state testing. We are currently in the midst of the campaign for student body president.

Three eighth-graders are running for the office: two girls and one boy, whose names are herein changed for obvious reasons: let’s call them Fred, Sally, and Sue.

All are students in good standing, and all have the courage and energy it takes to make posters and prepare platforms and prepare to get up in front of a whole-school assembly to give the speeches they’ve labored over.

It’s a tall order for any thirteen-year-old. Sue is athletic and bubbly; Sally is an idealist with straight A’s; Fred is a bright but quiet guy with admirable self-possession for his age.

They’ve all worked hard on their campaigns. Only one of them will win the top spot, but they all deserve to be proud of their efforts. It should be a challenging but positive experience for them.

But. This is middle school, and it is a middle school in the era of social media trolls and the hate-laced Twittersphere and an America threatening to come apart at the civic seams. We’re a small school in a small, bucolic town, but that grants us little protection from the toxins of popular culture. Our tweens may not fully understand our political climate, but they are as affected by it as adults.

When one of the girls’ posters was ripped from the wall by a misguided Fred supporter, we took action and meted out restorative justice (the culprit had to make another poster for her). It was, we hoped, an isolated incident.

But things escalated: hostile chanting followed Sally and Sue around campus and into the classroom. Sixth-graders, catching the dark spirit of the moment, ripped down a dozen posters in their section of the campus.

Someone circulated an image on Instagram: a sign that read, “Vote Fred, NOT Sally!” A crudely executed online poll, preloaded with dubious responses, metastasized from phone to phone. Things were becoming as nasty as they are sure to be in the “real” presidential campaign.

For Fred and Sue, the campaign had lost its appeal. Sally was so dispirited she was ready to drop out of the race. The principal, the school counselor and I were at a loss. Should the election be called off altogether?

Before taking that step, the three of us adults called in the three candidates. And here is when I learned that, despite the inescapable negativity we and our kids are all exposed to on a daily basis, there is hope for our future.

In fact, there is hope for our present.

Fred was sad and frustrated that some kids who thought they were supporting him were doing so by tearing down the girls who were his competitors. “I don’t want to win that way,” he said. “It wouldn’t mean anything.”

Sally said she’d spent hours on her speech but she didn’t want to be booed at the assembly. Sue said the whole election thing had stopped being fun. All three of them expressed respect for one another and wished this wasn’t happening.

Then Sue came up with an idea, one that the other two embraced. This year, we’re changing up the election protocol. The three candidates will appear at the assembly to explain how it’s going to work, and why. Then, they will sit down.

Each candidate’s speech will be given a number. The speeches will be read aloud by an adult. The students will then mark their ballot with the number of the speech they think is best. Names written in won’t count.

Whatever else happens at our school election, I have no doubt it will spark debate among the students for days if not weeks. That’s not a bad thing. And as for who wins, well, any of the three candidates would make a fine student body president.

Personally, I wish we could elevate all three of them to a council of three. They’ve shown more statesmanship, more integrity, and more honor than most of the folks in our national leadership.

Like I said, there’s hope.

Featured image:Photo by George Pagan III on Unsplash

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