45. In Betweenly

Tweenagers are funny people, part child/part pre-adult. As their brains grow into the abstract world, their bodies fall forward into puberty, and their minds awake to sexuality oozing out from hormonal sap rising in their veins. Tweenagers make great babysitters because they have one foot in soft skinned childhood still and one sort of touching the hard pavement of adult life. I worked with this age group for 23 years as a middle school teacher. They were something to behold, neither child nor adult. Sometimes the smallest, most kidlike seventh grader was the Bryan Wert who asked which I preferred: modern English translations of Chaucer or the Middle English. “Well, Bryan, I prefer the Middle English.”  “Me too”, he confided. And God help the girl who blossomed first and brought on adult attention when she was still playing with Barbies at home.  Bryan could have used a body, and the buxom girl could have used his brains. It rarely works out that someone gets both sides of the entire package at the same time.

It’s a hard transition for kids to go from the safe, motherly world of elementary school to the wilder, less safe world of middle school. The freedoms that come with going into the next phase of life need to be balanced by added responsibility. Most kids failed to get this added responsibility thing. They did not have the hovering elementary Mom-like teacher over them, so they tended to slack. Some kids had whacked out families that tended to explode while their child was in seventh grade. One girl I had in class was a reasonable performer, no trouble kid. One day she did not have her homework, which was unusual. She said, “My dad burned our house down last night. We had no place to go, so we slept in a doorway.” She smelled of kerosene and looked like she had indeed slept in a doorway the previous night. I told her I was sorry and  talked to the counselor about her plight. I think she moved away after a few weeks. Sad case. What a traumatic memory to carry for the rest of her life. I wish that this were the anomaly. It was not.

One day I recall a chilling experience. A former student had killed a local man during a robbery for the grand total of $6.00. I had talked with this boy for many hours over the couple of years he attended our school. Once, I recall, he stayed after school for hours voluntarily because he was sure a couple of boys were going to beat him up when he left. He likely had it coming. He was the kind of kid who talked a big story but failed to deliver the goods. I guess drugs, alcohol, and six more years of life helped him cross over to a guy who could kill a man with a knife for a few dollars. The irony is that this kid was a nice young man. He loved to help with any task you might have. I ran into him in prison many years later. (I was doing prison ministry in case you were wondering.) He was a trustee and functioned very well in the rigid prison system. It was the freedom beyond school and prison that he could not navigate, I suppose. It’s different from Johnny Cash’s  lyric “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”  Something is lost when you must say, “I knifed a helpless old man in Mont Alto for six bucks…and he died.”

Freedom/responsibility…if you want more of one, then you need more of the other for balance. Occasionally I had the workaholic perfectionist student who was overly responsible and rarely happy. One such girl eventually developed anorexia. No surprise. Before she was diagnosed and went in-patient at an ED clinic, she did not have her homework one day. It was as if time stopped. Every kid in the class gasped, “Jena doesn’t have her homework?” Woulld gravity still work? Did Jesus die for nothing? Had Armageddon begun? I paused and said, “Thank you.”

She looked at me puzzled. “Why are you thanking me?”  I said, “Because we can all feel normal now. Till now we felt like losers.” She smiled with some confusion as if I had welcomed her to the alliance of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered water buffalo rodeo riders of America. I think she relaxed after this norming experience and enjoyed being a kid for a while. I hope so.

Then there was Shawnya, who maybe single handedly changed my trajectory from teaching to counseling. One day she stopped by my room and sort of blocked the door. She was and still is very big and black. She said she needed to talk to me. I asked her why since we did not know one another. She replied, “Cuz I think I can trust you.” She then poured out her life’s pains and disappointments, hurts, hopes, dreams, etc. I sat and nodded and empathized and wondered what I should do. Apparently listening was good enough because she came back again and again over the years, eventually stopping by with her children. Just this past Father’s Day she sent me a touching text thanking me for being a father figure to her. I hate to text on my antique phone, but I struggled through a response to her. She means a lot to me also.

As I reflect on this topic, it seems to me that there are tweenagers of all ages– college freshmen, newlyweds, first time moms, prematurely promoted managers, idealistic pastors right out of seminary, and so on. Perhaps, Blogoiter, you are a tweeny bopper at this very moment, between that phase of life you just left but not yet where you hope to arrive. Like my hitchhiker saga…you are on the road and vulnerably  in between.

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