"Middle School Blues" by Lou Kassem - A Teacher's Reflection
In Middle School Blues, Lou Kassem tells the story of Cindy Cunningham, a young girl experiencing her first year of middle school. Cindy’s story is full of the trials and tribulations that so many young people face as they grow up. In fact, Kassem could have been telling my story or yours. This young adult novel points out and reminds one that middle school students are experiencing a time of great change about which the adults in their lives, such as teachers and parents, need to be mindful.
From the first sentence of the novel, I was transported back to a chapter in my life which I had closed and stored on the back shelf. As I read through the pages of the novel, I thought about what life was like when I was in middle school. Many of the incidents that occurred in Cindy’s life were similar to my own. I too experienced my first funeral in my first year of middle school. I think Kassem relays an important message from the start by telling the story of Cindy’s first funeral. Suddenly she is old enough to attend the funeral of a close relative that has died. However, she is not quite old enough to choose the way she grieves. Just as I did, Cindy truly feels ‘stuck in the middle between being a little kid and a grown up.’
Kassem beautifully illustrates the ordeal of changing friendships that so many middle school students face. Cindy’s rule no. 5 which states “friends are like the weather – changeable,” sums it up nicely (67). Delicate cliques begin to form, casting one into the realm of popular or unpopular. Friendships arise through common interests when students join clubs, activities, and sports teams. Best friendships are often weakened or dissolved when the once inseparable companions land in separate circles. On top of all of that, boys and girls are no longer allowed to be friends without the suspicion that they are ‘going out.’
Besides one’s friends, the only other people that one can assume a middle school student has to rely upon are parents and teachers. However, as Cindy points out with rule no. 3, one should not make assumptions. Cindy’s rule no. 3 states, “Beware when parents say they know what’s best for you. It’s usually what’s best for them!” This rule shows that when children are entering middle school, they are also entering the teenage years of rebellion against one’s parents. However, they are still little kids at heart who love their parents and never want their relationship to change, even when everything else is changing.
Students Define "Good Teacher"
"Good" vs. "Bad" Teachers
Sometimes, by process of elimination, the only reliable person in a middle school student’s life may be a teacher. Kassem also illustrates this point in her novel. There are only a few teachers in Cindy’s packed day that are exemplified. These teachers can be categorized into the ’good' teachers and the ‘bad’ teachers. These categories may have absolutely nothing to do with their qualifications or ability to teach their subject matter. The ‘bad’ teachers, such as the physical education teacher and the math teacher, are portrayed as scary, domineering, inflexible, not understanding, and unfair. The ‘good’ teachers, such as the English teacher and the band teacher, are portrayed as caring, understanding, patient, supportive and fair. For me, there are several middle school teachers that stick out in my memory, even after many years have passed. All fall into one category or the other, as defined by the novel. My music and choir teacher from sixth through twelfth grade was a ‘good’ teacher who has turned into a friend today. She always listened, had encouraging words to share, and let me cry on her shoulder when I needed to. On the other hand, my middle school social studies teacher, was a ‘bad’ teacher. In a time when I often felt awkward enough (who didn’t in middle school?!), he made cruel jokes about the part of the school district where I lived. I have no idea how well he taught social studies, but I am disgusted by memories of his cruel jokes, spit foaming mouth, and smelly feet which were exposed when he took off his shoes to scratch his feet in front of the whole class.
Reading Middle School Blues forced me to look back on a part of my life that I would just as soon forget. As an educator, however, I realize that it is important to remember that time. It is important to remember that middle and high school students are in a time of great change. All at once they are bombarded with changing bodies, a different, often less supportive environment, and more responsibility. These students need ‘good’ teachers to help them through the experience and trauma of their secondary school years. In order to teach students, such as Cindy, one needs to be flexible, understanding, supportive, patient, fair and consistent. Most importantly, one needs to continue to remember what it was like to live through the middle school blues.
Written by Donna Hilbrandt, 2012.
© 2012 Donna Hilbrandt