How Teaching 8th Grade Helped Me Through Divorce
“I don’t get it,” one of my coworkers said to me the other day, “All of a sudden I have a bunch of kids failing that have always been A or B students!”
“That’s normal this time of year,” I explained, “As high school looms ever closer, some of them express their fear through self-sabotage. Others regress and become more immature. Some become clingy, like preschoolers holding tight to a parent’s leg. It’s a big transition and they’re scared. But only a few are ready to articulate it, face it and step up responsibility. It’s our job to help them all get there.”
Teaching 8th grade is like tending to hundreds of metamorphizing pupa. With attitude. Sometimes LOTS of attitude. It can get messy and yet the end results make it all worth it.
The year is all about transition. From child to adult. From parent’s control to self-control. From being told what to do to making decisions. From being shielded to facing consequences. From passing off liability to shouldering responsibility.
And transition is always hard.
Not just for teenagers.
For all of us.
I’ve been in a unique position to observe thousands of young people undergo transitions over my career. It allows me to interpolate trends and analyze patterns.
Patterns that hold true for anyone undergoing transition.
Transition is Messy
I used to have a snake, a small Kenyan sand boa. He was generally docile except when he was preparing to shed his skin to account for his expanding body. For several days a few time a year, he became irritable. Short-tempered. He would demand food and then turn his nose up at the offerings. Once his old skin was peeled off like a soiled tube sock left on the floor, he would again return to his amicable self. Until the next growth spurt.
Transition is messy. Dirty. Often ugly. It’s rarely a smooth process and never a linear one. The movies make it seem like it’s easy to go from ugly duckling to sensational swan in a few challenging moments and a short montage set to great music. The movies lie. The reality is much longer and more difficult than many of us realize.
And those undergoing transition can be difficult to live with (especially if it’s yourself!).
They’re irritable. Short-tempered. Demanding.
But that’s only because they’re confused. Scared. Uncomfortable.
Because transition is hard.
It can be scary to reach for new heights. And sometimes it’s easier to act as though you couldn’t do it rather than try and risk failing. It’s common for people in transition to hamstring themselves, to make decisions and act on impulses that are in opposition to their stated goals. It’s a way of staying comfortable.
It’s the student refusing to turn in assignments. It’s the recovering alcoholic taking a job at a nightclub. The woman trying to save her marriage flirting with her coworker. The newly divorced constantly complaining about the ex. The newly dating turning all of their energy towards work and wondering why new relationships continue to falter.
In order to make a life transition, you have to first let go of your former life. It’s an act of great courage and great faith. And before many are ready to take that leap, they respond to the idea of letting go by holding on ever-tighter.
Sometimes the grasping may latch onto something or someone in the present that is a stand-in for something or someone from the past. This can be a flash-in-the-pan rebound relationship or the sudden and overwhelming attachment to a new hobby or habit.
Periods of growth are often preceded by periods of retraction, as the increased vulnerability of change prompts a desire to be taken care of and protected. Many people who have two or children are familiar with this tendency as they watched their toddler revert to diapers or preschooler beg for the bottle upon the birth of a new baby. It’s a lot of responsibility to be the “big one” and sometimes we all just want somebody to take care of everything.
It’s okay to need and seek extra help during times of transition. In fact, that’s completely normal and healthy. Be careful not to become too dependent for too long; however, or you risk giving up control of your life.
Transition is a time when you’re neither here nor there. It’s a time of changing boundaries and it’s natural to explore where those boundaries now lie. When nothing is certain, everything feels possible and it’s exciting to explore a world where limitations don’t seem to exist.
Risks still have consequences. It’s great to explore. But please, take your brain with you!
Acceptance of Past
This is one conversation I wish I never had to have with a student again. And yet, every year, I have to have it with several. Some of my kids have had the misfortune to have absent parents. Or abusive ones. Or they’ve just had way too much happen to them at a young age. And I have the frank conversation with those kids that they are coming up on the age where they have to decide if that’s going to hold them back or if they’re going to succeed in spite of it.
And that’s a huge part of transition – accepting the parts you cannot control and taking responsibility for those you can.
Transition often starts with “I can’t.” Because you can see where you’ve been and you struggle to imagine where you’re going. But with every step taken with courage and faith, confidence is built.
My favorite part of watching people in transition is seeing the growth in confidence. I love observing “I can’t” morph into “Look what I did!” and “I got this!”
Transition is Temporary
When my former students visit or write and I get to see the results of those difficult days, it makes it all worth it. Transition is temporary. It doesn’t last. You outlast it. Emerging bruised and battered. And also better.