Middle school is a time for an awkward transformation from a 11 year old elementary student to a 14 year old high school student. For the 6th grader, it is a bit of a culture shock. The year before, they were walking the halls with kids as young as 5 – kids who still had anxiety about leaving their moms all day. In 6th grade, they enter a school whose 8th grade girls look….a lot older than an 8th grade girl.

The middle school is just three short years. It is a place of physical, mental and emotional growth, where the girls are tall and the boys are short, where puberty and all the ugliness of it is a reality. The importance of friends challenges the closeness of your family. It is a time for first crushes and heartbreaks. A place where things are no longer fair. A glimpse of real life.

I have two daughters in middle school this year—one at the top of the heap and one at the bottom. Sixth grade is easier for my younger daughter, because her sister led the way. She can sit in the back of the bus before she has “earned her right”. She got a review of all the teachers before she met them—who gives more homework, who is strict about tardiness, etc. She knows a lot of the eighth graders because they are friends with her sister. She knew what was fashionable at the school long before she got there because she has been watching her sister for the last couple of years. Despite all of that, she is still a 6th grader who only knows a quarter of the other 6th graders. She still needs to learn a lot and grow up a little emotionally.

Last week, the middle school sponsored a Pride Day. They took a bus to a local church that could house a large crowd. They spent the day playing team building games and talking about anti-bullying in both large and small group settings. They learned, through these activities, respect for others and to understand the effects of bullying on others. They shared a little bit about themselves and kind words about another student. They also had the opportunity to open up about a time that they were bullied. It was a much deeper field trip than visiting a local museum.

The whole school went on this field trip, but they were divided up into grades and teams over a 5 day period. My 6th grader went on a Monday and my 8th grader went on a Friday. When my 6th grader came home on Monday, I asked her how it went. She said it was a long day—sad, boring at times, she was only with a couple friends in her group. When I asked the same of her friends, a lot of them had the same response. I asked if anyone got up to talk, but they said only a few did. My reaction to that was “money well spent”. By Thursday, some of the 8th graders had gone and reported back to their friends. They had a very emotional day. Many came back to school with red eyes because they spent most of the day crying. Those eighth graders told my daughter that it was a very sad field trip. She was anxious about going herself.

My eighth grader came home reporting the same thing that her friends did. It was an emotional day. She had learned a lot about people. Most of them got up to say something about their personal lives. One girl talked about how her parents were getting divorced. Another spoke of her father leaving them when she was young. One boy spoke of his thoughts of suicide. Many spoke of times they felt bullied. Each time one of the kids spoke, she said the other kids comforted them. She said it was a good field trip. I wasn’t as convinced. My 13-year-old daughter tends to thrive on drama.

Over the weekend, we were with other families with 8th graders that attended the field trip. I listened to both boys and girls talk about the field trip and how they felt it was sad, but it was necessary for them. One of the girls said that she was surprised at some of the people that she thought were “perfect” had the same problems that other kids had. It was hearing all of them talk that convinced me. It wasn’t drama, it was real.

I think the 8th graders got more from the trip than the 6th graders because they were old enough (but yet still young enough) to be open minded. They have known these other kids for a couple years. The 6th graders have only known their peers for a few weeks. They were afraid to speak. Afraid they would look stupid. Afraid what people would think. I can imagine it wouldn’t be much different if the parents of the middle schoolers attended this field trip. How many of us would be brave enough to speak and reveal those things about us and our lives that we try to hide from the world? How many of us would be willing to show weakness? How many of us can accept differences without putting a label on them? How many of us are willing to get to know someone without making prejudgments? I’m afraid that number is smaller than I would like to imagine. Thank you to the kids that got up to speak and those that listened without judgment. I hope that is something you will do for the rest of your life.