Hateful cliques, falling grades, hair in strange places: It all comes with the territory when you’re morphing from child to teenager. But the rites of passage don’t always leave scars. “I actually liked middle school. That’s probably why I could go back,” laughs Linda Perlstein.
Go back she did: The Washington Post education reporter spent the 1999-2000 academic year documenting the lives of middle-schoolers, exploring everything from boy-craziness to newfound sloth. What began as a four-part newspaper series led to Perlstein’s first book, Not Much Just Chillin’: The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers. (In ‘tween text-message speak, “NMJC” is the preferred response to “Whassup?”)
“Middle school has been largely overlooked,” says Perlstein, now 32. “After infancy, the most physical and emotional growth happens during those years….It was once thought that by this age, kids’ brains were fully formed.” Now, though, the consensus is that they’re still developing. “Kids are learning to discern things they weren’t able to earlier, and they start to look for role models other than their parents,” Perlstein says. “They know enough to know that their parents aren’t perfect, but not enough to know that Heath Ledger isn’t.”
Perlstein’s Post series got an enthusiasticand gratefulresponse from parents. “I was surprised at what people didn’t know about their kids,” she says. “Parents often don’t remember [going through] those years, maybe by choice.” With the praise came encouragement to write a book on the subject.
So, in the summer of 2001, Perlstein sublet her D.C. apartment and moved to Columbia, Md., near Wilde Lake Middle School, the backdrop for Chillin’. There, she shadowed four middle-school students, talking to countless peers and teachers and compiling an often cringeworthy chronicle of lives in tumult.
Perlstein attended class and followed her subjects home from school, where she sat on the couch as the kids fought with their parents, downed junk food, avoided their homework. She was a fixture at roller rinks and sleepovers, swim meets and bat mitzvahs. “Kids act very differently depending on their surroundings, and I was fortunate to see them in many different surroundings,” says Perlstein.
Middle-schoolers tend to be self-absorbed, so it didn’t take long for her subjects to drop pretenses around the author. Reading the book eliminates any lingering suspicion that these kids were holding back: They cried and pouted, shared fiercely guarded hopes and fears, gave her access to hysterical dramas and poorly spelled, decidedly non-PG-13 e-mails.
With all of this disclosure, Perlstein grew close to the children and their parents. “‘You are like part of the family!’ they’d say to me. I’d have to remind them, ‘Your family doesn’t publish all of your private business.’”
“I really didn’t want this to be a vanity project. I wanted people to know that there are things they could do to understand their kids better and help them through [the middle-school] period.”
Indeed, Perlstein’s observations often led to concrete suggestions and critiques. On the ‘tween attraction to rhinestone sass: “A girl who wants a message to crawl across her chest? A mother can tell her which messages are too slutty and why, and let her choose from the others.” On middle schools’ increasing focus on standardized tests: “The group work, the ‘why’ questions, and exploration too often fall victim to the quest for content…instead of serving to make the content all the more learnable, and real.”
Though she’d like to write another book, Perlstein isn’t in a hurry. “I’m focusing on my job right now,” she says. (She resumed coverage of Montgomery County schools in February.) “Besides, the idea for a book really has to present itself.”
Still, she says the Chillin’ was entirely rewarding. “There was nothing negative about the experience: The kids were great; the teachers were great; the families were great. They went way beyond the call of duty.” Anne Marson