These Moments in the Middle

Liz Boykin

Liz Boykin

In my Parents’ Night talk (which I never actually finish), the ending slide is the final frames from the classic 80s movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. In the final scene, Ferris speaks directly to the audience, exhausted after a long day of adventure and misadventure, and says, “Life moves pretty fast.  If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” There are few words which apply better to the Middle School years…for boys, teachers, and parents.

IMG_9157 (1)There’s a certain clumsy magic to being an adult among kids during these years; the boys are not so young that they need teachers and parents to do things for them yet they are still young enough that they want to do things alongside us. The classroom is a more rigorous place, but not so rigorous that there’s no time for wildly tangential questions and the laughter that follows them. And yet, despite this, Middle School seems to be the time when expectations and fears about the future start to loom. Parents start to worry that there are things a boy will not achieve; boys begin to doubt as they compare themselves to their peers academically, athletically, and socially. After twenty years of teaching Middle School, I know so much of this apprehension is unnecessary. Instead, there are some truths I wish Middle School boys and their parents knew:

  • “Comparison is the thief of joy.” These words are attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, but they belong in every Middle School classroom in the world. Boys are competitive by nature.  Parents are even more so. There are certainly places where this is healthy, but there are many more where it isn’t.  Break the cycle of comparison. Another boy did better than you did on the math test.  So what?  Did you do your best? Your older sibling never loses his/her parallel reading book, and you can’t find the last three.  So what? How can you keep better track of things in the future?  You didn’t make any of  your free throws, but a teammate made all of his. So what? How can you develop a better shot? If a boy (or the adults in his life) compare his performance to that of anyone else, it robs him of the joy (or pain) of being himself at that moment.  If he did poorly on a test, let him look at what he did wrong. Let him feel it; let him learn from the mistakes. Ask what he can work on for the next time. Practice the free throws or the fastball. If, as a parent, your child seems to struggle where another succeeded (or where you succeeded when you were in school), stop for a moment before you point it out. It only lessens the joy of parenting this child, in this instant. This leads directly to my next point…
  • Colleges don’t call us.  Nope.  Never. When a boy is applying for his residency in neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, no one there picks up the phone and checks with his 8th grade science teacher to make sure he could balance a chemical equation on the May exam.  This is Middle School.  Yes, grades are important, but not in the way you might think.  Grades show a teacher how a boy is doing at that time.  They show us trends…they show us mastery of a concept…they can tell us if a boy is working outside of class in the way that he should…they reveal his weaknesses at one time in one course.   They do not doom him to a mediocre future. They do not limit his life choices. He will not be living in the basement at age forty because of his grade in 7th grade math. This idea that bad grades can (and will) happen means…
  • Sometimes it’s okay for things to be hard.  Middle School is a time when kids’ brains are changing. There is a point at which teachers are asking abstract questions. There may be boys who are still concrete thinkers.  Should teachers stop asking abstract questions? No. There are boys who have not hit their growth spurt yet.  Should the basketball coaches rotate everyone on the team at center? No. Not every boy makes Honor Roll. Should it be abolished? No. There is huge value in “not getting” an idea at first, not having the skill to play a position, having to struggle for a while, not being “the best”, having something to strive for.  The satisfaction that comes when a boy DOES succeed can’t be replicated if anyone other than he, himself, does the heavy lifting.  We teachers and coaches are here to make sure it happens, but a little frustration along the way makes the success that much sweeter. And, just because something is hard now does not mean it always will be, because…
  • Boys change. I ask every adult who reads this to be honest with himself.  Are you the same person you were in Middle School? Maybe some things at the core of “you” are the same, but did you freeze at age twelve or thirteen? No.  And neither do our boys. One of the most wonderful things about teaching at a JK-12 school is how we get to see this change.  A boy who had an unsuccessful and disorganized patch in one grade morphs into a more focused student.  A boy who struggled socially finds his niche.  A reluctant reader finds a book series that catches his interest. We teachers are blessed to see this over and over; we know, as cliche as it sounds, that it all turns out okay. Because I know that the problems we fret over today fade away, I urge anyone working with Middle School age boys to…
  • Find a way to laugh about what is frustrating you, within reason.  It’s so much easier to get your message across to a receptive audience.  Letting anger or frustration show may get a boy’s attention in the short term, but it may also close his ears to your message.  If you can find a way to say what you need to say in a way that’s funny rather than furious, it still gets the point across but has the added benefit of building camaraderie between you.  Saving your “serious voice” for the few things that are truly serious makes it much more powerful.
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So much is magical about these Middle School years. Boys this age are wonderfully unpredictable…funny one second, sarcastic another, kind an instant later. It’s a golden time for teachers and parents, somewhere between dependence and independence. Worrying about how things will turn out stops us from enjoying what’s here in this moment in the middle. It’s so easy to get caught up in how a boy is doing that we may not see who he is becoming. Three years in Middle School…they pass in the blink of an eye. Stop and look around once in a while. You don’t want to miss it.

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  • Becky Page says:

    What a great reminder. Thank you!

  • Dorothy Suskind says:

    Liz, this is fantastic and so true! You made my whole day. As a mom and a teacher, thank you for the reminders.

  • Sarah Maley says:

    Thank you !! What a great blog !! I am going to share your words of wisdom with my friends who have MS boys that do not attend St. Chris.

  • Debbie Brown says:

    So well written, Liz! These are such important ideas for all of us to remember. Thanks for using your humor to reach all of these middle school boys in the classroom!

  • Anne Martin says:

    Reason # 426 to send your son to St. Christopher’s….teachers like Mrs. Boykin!

  • Stephanie Jefferson says:

    Awesome article! I hope you don’t mind if I share it with a few people!

  • Micaiah Abts says:

    Thanks for the entertaining and insightful writing!

  • Jennifer Bencks says:

    Well said Liz. So glad you taught my son, we both benefited from it.

  • Kate O'Hagan says:

    … spot on! a wise and wonderful read. Thank you for teaching.

  • Jakie Bowles says:

    The St. Chris boys are so lucky to have teachers like you, Liz. Thank you for loving them, guiding them, and understanding them…. and us parents, too!

  • Kelley hettrick says:

    I loved reading this as a parent and as a teacher. Nice job!!

  • Caroline Smith says:

    Well said, Liz. Thank you for your insight. It has given me quite a bit to reflect on.

  • Jennifer Lamb says:

    Outstanding! You rock!

  • Sarah Innes says:

    What a wonderful reminder! Thank you.

  • Suzanne Williams says:

    Ms. Boykin,
    Wow! Your good words really touched me as a retired middle school teacher, grandmother of 2 boys at St. Chris. ” The Best is in the Middle “was our school mantra.
    Thank you for your energy, wisdom. Yes, you know boys!

  • Jessica Thompson says:

    Liz–Bravo!! All of it is true! As the mother of a now 11th grader at St. Chris who had you as his advisor in middle school–He really benefitted from these types of approaches from teachers like you, Phil Spears and all of the wonderful folks in the Middle school who helped to mold him into who he is today!