By Mike Hixenbaugh
Jan. 15, 2012
The painted cinder-block walls of the boys’ school seemed to be closing in on him. Taunts and laughter echoed through the gymnasium. He glanced up at the fluorescent lights and rafters – both appeared to be spinning.
Over the summer, teachers had provided students with a list of supplies they would need to make it in sixth grade: notebooks, pencils, those folders with pockets and metal brads, three-ring binders. It didn’t say anything about underwear.
And now here he was – a prepubescent boy on the verge of becoming a teenager – standing red-faced on the first day of middle school while seemingly every kid in his class pointed and laughed at him. How was he supposed to know boys stopped wearing tighty whities after elementary school?
Carson Bieker’s voice popped in the microphone as he recounted the humiliation more than two years later. The teen embellished details as he spoke into the digital tape recorder but remained true to his assignment – “How did you survive the first two years of middle school?”
Gifted resource teacher Adrian Hayes at Kempsville Middle School in Virginia Beach wasn’t sure what to expect when she instructed her eighth-graders to record personal stories to answer that question.
Hayes and English teacher Mary Sutterluety had played several episodes of “This American Life” – the public radio news program known for its quirky, alternative storytelling – and asked the students to use the weekly show as a model.
The directive resulted in dozens of surprisingly frank testimonials, told from the unvarnished perspective of teenagers, with only the names of other students changed.
One girl said she finally found happiness after opening up about her sexuality. Others were self-reflective, like the student who talked about changing her hair color again and again in the hopes of reinventing her personality. Many, including Carson, acknowledged the pain of learning new social norms in an environment where it often pays to be mean.
Carson, in his recording, described the public shaming that came after a classmate noticed the white elastic band peeking above his pants line and his mother’s reaction that evening when he demanded that she take him to the store to buy boxer shorts.
Together, the stories open a rare window into a sometimes painful, usually confusing, always awkward world, where students are dying to be noticed, but most would do anything not to stand out.
The best way to survive “this horrid place,” one student said, is to “be yourself, but not be yourself.”
Hayes called it “a fascinating paradox.”
Her students call it middle school.
Act One: Forbidden friendship
Hannah Dougherty, like others in her class, tried to avoid Emelia.
The seventh-graders didn’t know what Emelia’s condition was called, but they knew she had special needs. She talked differently and moved with awkward, sometimes jerky mannerisms. She lacked basic social skills and repeatedly asked the same questions.
In a school full of kids just trying to fit in, Emelia stood out.
Hannah shared a gym class with her and cringed whenever the girl asked to join in a game of basketball or soccer. Emelia spent much of the class running alone on the track and would shout to classmates as she passed: “Am I fast? Am I fast?”
The students ignored her. Some mocked her.
“I always felt badly because I knew what these kids were doing was mean and totally uncalled for,” Hannah said, reading into a tape recorder.
One Friday afternoon, Emelia made a silly comment as she was packing her bookbag. The entire class burst into laughter, and Emelia laughed, too, unaware her classmates were making fun of her.
After she left the room, a teacher scolded the students.
“You should all be ashamed of yourselves,” Hannah remembers the teacher saying.
She was ashamed.
The following Monday, Emelia approached Hannah in gym class and asked if she could play basketball. This time, Hannah said “yes.”
She said “yes” again the next day and every day after. She grew to like Emelia and soon thought of her as a friend. They ran together on the track and talked about Justin Bieber and the trendy plastic wristbands they both collected.
After a few weeks, other kids started to notice.
“She’s so weird, doesn’t she annoy you?” they would ask.
Hannah could tell her friends weren’t happy with her new relationship, and they started avoiding her, too.
“I didn’t want to turn into an outcast, but I wasn’t about to start being mean or ignoring her,” she said.
Hannah stayed true to that commitment through the rest of the school year. Some days, Emelia exhausted her. Others, she wished she would find someone else to play with. But Hannah never asked her to go away.
On the last day of school, Hannah learned that Emelia would be attending a different school the following year. Emelia didn’t yet know she was moving.
“I’m embarrassed to say, the first thing I felt was relief,” Hannah said. “I wasn’t going to have to choose between her and my friends anymore. I wasn’t going to be ridiculed or questioned by my classmates.”
She met with Emelia at the end of the day.
“She asked me as I left if she would see me next year. Then I felt shame.
“I was ashamed that I was glad I would never see a friend again. I was ashamed that the first thing I thought of when I found out was how it would be easier for me. I was ashamed the last thing I said to Emelia was a lie: ‘Yeah, I’ll see you next year.’ ”
Hannah hugged her friend and said goodbye. She cried that night and thought about the lessons Emelia had taught her. A year later, Hannah often thinks of her old friend.
“I wonder if she misses me, and I hope she knows I miss her.”
Act Two: How to date a sixth-grader
It was a scene from a Hollywood red carpet, only with more acne.
A much-shorter-than-in-the-movies Brad Pitt stood by the punch table with LeBron James, who came wearing his jersey and gym shorts. Across the gymnasium, Lady Gaga whispered secrets and giggled with an even younger version of Miley Cyrus.
Billy Bingham was pleased that the first dance of sixth grade had allowed students to “dress like a celebrity.” He already felt like he was wearing a mask everyday at school, pretending to be a ladies man of sorts to impress his friends. The facade would be easier dressed like Justin Timberlake, he thought.
But the costume didn’t really help.
With each ballad, Billy and most other sixth-grade boys scattered from the dance floor. Meanwhile, the popular guys – the ones who seemed to defy nature and had started shaving over the summer – paired off with their girlfriends.
Billy wanted so badly to be like them.
“I wanted to date a girl,” he said, reminiscing into a microphone.
And not just any girl. He wanted to date Judy. She was smart and pretty – the total package.
He flirted with the idea for two months before building up the nerve to pop the question in the hallway – “Will you go with me?” He wasn’t even sure what that meant.
He was crushed when Judy said no.
“Her parents would not let her date because she was too young,” Billy said.
As the year progressed, Billy continued his pursuit of love.
Judy still was unavailable, but others were willing. Billy found a girl who liked him, and although he didn’t feel the same, he agreed to date her.
The relationship fizzled after a couple of months, and Billy repeated the cycle with a few other girls. With each new courtship and eventual breakup, he wished he was with Judy.
In March, she won the role of Hero in the class production of “Much Ado About Nothing.” Billy’s heart skipped as he read the script. Shakespeare must have had him in mind when he wrote the kiss scene between Hero and Claudio, he thought.
He lobbied the teacher to cast him opposite his lady, but instead he got the part of Benedick – the boisterous protagonist whose pursuit of Beatrice seems propelled more by a desire to entertain others than by true love.
Billy cringed through each rehearsal; he felt the sting of jealousy with each orchestrated kiss between Judy and her co-star. It went on like that for weeks.
The play felt more like a middle-school tragedy than a 16th century comedy, but, like any good Elizabethan tale, there was a twist.
After the final performance, Judy changed her mind and agreed to be his girlfriend.
They held hands in the hallway and talked about their feelings.
A few days into the relationship, Billy had a sudden change of heart.
This is what he had been longing for? This wasn’t fun. It wasn’t even comfortable. Judy was nice, but he had more fun hanging out as friends. She did, too.
“That’s when I realized I wasn’t being myself,” Billy said. “I wasn’t ready to date anyone. I was just trying to impress my friends.”
He and Judy broke up before summer break, and Billy has sworn off dating until high school. He’s learned a little bit about acting since then, too.
“In middle school, if you are completely honest and be yourself, kids might not accept you,” he said. “They might make fun of you or pick on you. So you change who you are and try to be who they want you to be….
“You try to fit in.”
Act Three: The year of the bully
Dec. 3, 2010
The other kids have been bullying me for more than a month now. They all think it’s just a joke, but I just want them to stop…. No one cares what I think.
Shannon Daniels read aloud the passage from her seventh-grade diary. She started all of her entries “Dear Grim” back then. She was in a dark place.
The school year had started like any other. She liked her teachers and enjoyed most of her classes.
Everything changed when a boy at her private school shouted to her from across the classroom, “Hey, Shaw.”
Her eyes widened. That was the nickname her family had given her as a toddler when she struggled to pronounce her own name. From her family, the term was endearing.
This was different. The boy laughed as he said it. Soon, other students joined in, laughing. “Hey, Shaw. How’s it going, Shaw?”
“They were saying the name as if both me and it were trash,” Shannon said, reading into a voice recorder.
She made a classic middle-school mistake – she told the boys that the name was special to her and asked them to stop. After that, they taunted her daily.
She cried every night.
Weeks passed, and the teasing didn’t let up. She resisted telling her teachers, fearing the taunts would only get worse. When a couple teachers did find out, they didn’t do much, Shannon said.
“I guess they want me gone, too,” she wrote in her diary on Jan. 21, 2011.
In February, other students posted her nickname on Facebook for the entire world to see. The same day, Shannon learned that two of her best friends had taken part in the teasing.
“I fell to my knees crying,” Shannon said, reading from a Feb. 26 diary entry. “That was the first time in my life I wished I was dead.”
More students started picking on her. A couple times, boys tripped her in the hallway.
By the spring, Shannon had made the decision to transfer to public school for eighth grade. The prospect of a new beginning helped her slog through the final weeks.
After the school year ended, Shannon agreed to attend a friend’s birthday party at a city park, even though she knew the bullies likely would be there. This would be a chance for closure, she thought.
Instead, the party delivered a final blow to her self-esteem.
As the children sang their version of “Happy Birthday,” they replaced the words “cha, cha, cha,” with “Shaw, Shaw, Shaw.”
Shannon ran away. She didn’t want them to see her cry. She ran for several minutes through the park and finally collapsed to the ground.
“I sat alone and cried, thinking I was worthless, that my family must hate me for being so weak, that I didn’t deserve to go on.”
That night, Shannon told her parents how she felt, and they worked through her feelings.
Everything is better this year at Kempsville Middle, she said. Her teachers are nice and her classmates have treated her like everyone else. She no longer writes “Dear Grim” at the start of diary entries and has made it her mission to look out for others who are being picked on.
“I learned you’ve got to find who your true friends are and confide in them. Tell them what you’re going through, and don’t keep it bottled up inside.”
If you let it, she said, middle school can destroy you.
This fall, Hayes, the students’ teacher, reached out to “This American Life” host Ira Glass, who shocked her when he agreed to record an introduction for the student podcasts and later played some of the recordings during his public lecture at Chrysler Hall in Norfolk.
The student’s efforts demonstrated the power of story-telling, Glass told the audience.
Hayes, who attended the performance, felt chills as Glass praised her students’ work.
“He recognized what I already knew, which is that these students each have their own meaningful story to tell,” she said later. “And if we give them the freedom to tell it their way, we might be surprised by what they have to say.“