I expected 8th grade to be as emotionally turbulent as I’d remembered it, with kids constantly eye-rolling, scoffing, teasing, and just generally being too cool to talk to you. I admit to being one of the worst offenders. The current 8th graders at Altimira are nice. Let me repeat that: They’re nice! The ones I’ve encountered smile at me and each other; they chat with their classmates, even the ones they’re not close with; and they genuinely seem to care about each other. It’s not just for my benefit as a grown-up, either — the kids confirm that they think the school has a culture of tolerance this year.
In fact, most of the kids I’ve met and observed at Altimira right now act this way. I say “at Altimira right now,” because not all modern middle schoolers are like this. Having worked closely with other 6th-8th graders recently, I can confirm that some are the cruel little buggers that you may remember from your own middle school days: the stuck-up popular “mean girls” that have gotten so much press recently, or the kid who makes himself look good by calling attention to people’s weaknesses. Those I’ve talked to say that there were more kids like this at Altimira over the last couple of years, but they’ve either gone onto the high school or have transferred to the school for struggling students. My 8th grade buddy, whom I’ll call Janessy, says, “The popular kids act totally different when they’re in class than they are with their friends. They sometimes try to make their friends laugh by picking on people.” But for the most part, the kids agree that while there’s a known popular group in each grade, “the populars” aren’t that snobby or mean, and it’s not a huge deal if you’re not in the in-crowd. People do their own thing, and that’s fine.
Obviously, luck is one of the main reasons why this group of kids is more caring than they were when I was at the school. The kids this year happen to be nice, whereas there were a few more bullies in the two previous classes. However, I have a few very non-scientific theories about general trends toward a caring school culture now, in contrast to the early 90s:
1. More awareness about, and less tolerance for, bullying. Books like Queen Bees and Wannabes, and the movies they inspire, like Mean Girls, have publicized the serious impact that teasing can have on kids. The kids and teachers participate in regular bullying training, and the school educates parents on how to help kids deal with bullies.
2. Kids mature a lot faster. By watching reality TV and palatable news (like in The Daily Show and movies like An Inconvenient Truth), they grow up more quickly than they did when I was their age. I’d argue that for all of the “bad role models” on reality TV and talk shows, there are also more examples of how positive adults relate to each other — even on shows like Top Chef or The Amazing Race. The current Altimira students also know much more about world issues than my classmates and I did, and this seems to contribute to a concern for bigger dramas (global warming) in addition to mini ones (gossip).
3. The school is a lot smaller. I don’t remember how many kids attended the school when I was there, but there were many more than the current 500. A few years back, a new middle school opened in Sonoma, splitting the population. (Interestingly enough, the preteen population in Sonoma is on the decline, so there’s apparently talk of merging the schools again.) The small school size lets everyone keep better tabs on each other.
4. More Latino kids attend the school. Of course this is a generalization, but it isn’t far off, based on my experience. Many Latino kids in northern California are from immigrant families and take on adult responsibilities at a young age, and they may care for younger siblings and translate for their parents. I’ve alluded to observing a situation in third grade that made me start thinking about this trend. Jaime is a student in Ms. Alessio’s third grade class who had recently immigrated from Mexico and could speak only Spanish.
In the middle of a math activity yesterday, Jaime burst into tears. Ms. Alessio asked the other kids to find out what was wrong, so several bilingual kids gathered around him, concern on their faces. One girl took charge of the situation, caressing his hair as if he were her little brother, saying in a soothing voice, “¿Qué te pasa? No llores.” (What’s wrong? Don’t cry.) She found out that because of the early dismissal, he wasn’t sure about his bus route. A boy in the class approached and told Jaime reassuringly in Spanish, “I take that bus, too. Don’t worry, I’ll take you.”
I was floored. In my third grade days, if a boy had cried in class, at least a couple of boys would have made crybaby noises and teased him at recess. There would have been awkward staring and giggles bubbling up from around the room. As I glanced around the room, I saw nothing but compassion on the kids’ faces. They assured him that they’d take care of him, and he calmed down.
As I said, I don’t have evidence other than my intuition and observation to back up these ideas, but as someone who studied psychology, I find these things fascinating to analyze. I’m interested to hear whether the teachers and kids agree with my assessments and have additional theories of their own.