Walking into St. Vincent High School on Monday morning was like entering a time warp. Though I’d taken a tour recently during my 10-year high school reunion weekend, it had been on a Sunday morning, when the campus was nearly deserted. This week, seeing the school swarming with teenagers and squeezing my way through the crowded hallways has played tricks on my brain, transporting me back to the mid-90s when I was a high school student. This feeling has hit me at various times this week, as I sit in my old desks in classes taught by my old teachers, most of whom are still at the school. I’ve had more powerful memories at SV than I’ve had at my other schools, because I attended the school more recently and knew most of the 400 students by sight.
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.