By Maureen Cummings – We stood, fifty-seven strong, in the rays of what photographers refer to as golden hour in the quiet aftermath of a storm that left our study group to be the only visitors at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi in Greece, a place where thinkers like Socrates used to share their contemplations.
One of particular interest to me was an aphorism shared by our guide, “Value friendship.”
We sat, fifty-seven strong, that same evening in a restaurant resting on a hilltop in a room that was bright red, but dimly lit. It had tables and chairs and couches and candles. It had a wheel of local goat cheese for each person paired with wine that seemed endless.
While dinner carried on and new dishes appeared every ten minutes we talked for hours, each of the fifty-seven falling into one of about six tables that filled the entire venue. At our table conversations bounced from our favorite books to movies to the time Angelo sent himself to the principal’s office in first grade. We covered siblings and college involvement, and most who know me have already rightfully assumed I brought up the Christmas letter of 2007. We discussed majors and the suddenly all too real question of what each of us wants to do with our degree of that major.
At my turn, I spoke extensively of my excitement towards education and my love of middle school only in response to the table’s mutual cringe as each person considered what a creature he or she had been in that stage of life. I cracked my usual jokes of how middle school was my self-proclaimed peak, despite my 12- minute mile time and inability to make a fairly no-cut drama production, and how I just had to return to it.
While the joke was its usual hit being that self-deprecation nine times out ten kills, I then took a more serious take on explaining my excitement for the future. This began with a reflective acknowledgement of what I had been taught in this stage of my life.
In middle school I learned a lot. I learned about democracy and polynomials. I learned that it was weird to have swung a deal with the track and field coach so that I didn’t have run and could just throw the shot put. I soon after learned it was okay to not be involved in everything, which led to my immediate retirement from track and field.
I learned to be insecure and to resent the three to four inches I stood over the average boy my age. I later learned I didn’t need to be the prettiest one or even one of the prettier ones. After my braces were finally off, I also learned I wasn’t going to be one of the prettiest ones.
(I learned to make jokes instead, so no pity needed there.)
In English class, I learned I loved the underground language of literature that went beyond the surface-level story lines. I learned to relate to and fall in love with characters in books, a consequence of this being the afternoon I spent sitting in my room crying when characters’ dogs died. I learned how exciting the 20 new words introduced on Tuesday vocabulary days could be for my writing.
For the most part, I learned I loved school, which I am so obviously grateful for; however, of all things middle school taught me, I am most grateful for how these years showed me how to have and how to be a friend.
In middle school, I learned how to hold someone’s hand when her grandparent passed away. I learned how to help someone study to make the test less stressful. In the course of these years, I learned how to have expectations for how I wanted to be treated, and when these expectations weren’t met I learned how to forgive. I also learned that that was easier said than done.
These were new lessons because for the first time they were led by my own understanding of what I wanted friendship to look like in my life, more so than in my younger years when every decision was monitored and behavior required more reinforcement.
I grew to understand the importance of calling to see how someone’s day was and while doing so I learned how to listen– for hours.
I realized non-negotiable truths about the expectations I would have for myself in regards to being a friend. I saw how my closest friends loved me, and I promised myself I’d do the same back to them, for however long they would have me.
I learned that I would fail to uphold these all the time, so I also had to learn how to ask for forgiveness.
I would never deny that middle school was awkward. One year I accidentally wore my shirt backwards on picture day. In preparation for that very same picture day, I had my orthodontist switch out the rubber bands in my braces so that they would color coordinate to the outfit I had chosen, so it wasn’t even a lack of effort. I actually tried really hard.
All joking aside, I hoped to explain to the table, that this is the part of middle school that passes us. We grow out of it or, for some of us, we learn to embrace it. It’s those other moments that mattered. In grades six, seven, and eight the groundwork was being set for the first time for the type of person I wanted to intentionally choose to become. This was all a result of role models I was presented with and the lessons I observed based on the exposure I was given inside and outside the classroom.
Middle school is immature and loud. Middle school can be unkind and is undoubtedly filled with hormones, but middle school is also an opportunity often overlooked as we try to repress the darkness of some of our own memories.
So as I decompressed to the five others at my table this long list of reasons why teaching middle school English feels like my calling, I realize it’s much simpler than I’ve made it.
Earlier in the day when the six of us were part of the of fifty-seven standing strong, we were told the truth Socrates shared: value friendship.
In my few years into young adulthood I have come to know that there is nothing I appreciate more than the kind and selfless friends I am so fortunate to be surrounded and supported by. I have also come to know valuing friendship goes beyond cherishing people, but consists of respecting what it means to be a friend to someone else, which is something I began to learn in middle school.
Rather than the small speech I presented my table, I should have simply explained that I would love a job where I could talk about characters, words, and writing, but I would live for a career where I might be even a small part in setting someone’s foundation for how he or she plans to spend a lifetime valuing friendship.