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A phenomenon called middle school appears with gusto

The Baltimore Sun

The doorbell rang the other day, and I answered it. (This has to be one of the most compelling openings ever written.) A group of my son's friends were at the door, so I let them in. (The excitement builds.)

Shortly thereafter, the volume control on our speaking voices boosted several decibels, and enthusiasm reverberated throughout our house. Nothing out of the ordinary was happening, and yet everything happening was out of the ordinary. The air crackled with an irrepressible static that would present a serious challenge to even the dryer sheet industry. Our dog, Moose, ran to and fro as if he were possessed. Of course, he generally runs to and fro as if possessed. But something was simmering below the surface of our sensibilities, whatever that means.

Were these students instigating paranormal activity? Were they forming a mystical study group following Maryland Mega Millions winner Elwood "Bunky" Bartlett?

No. They were just middle-school-age kids, hanging out.

I am used to it - the spectacular excitement level of the middle school student. I like it, the same way I like thunderstorms up-close and really spicy food.

So I showed my gratitude to these kids by inviting them to stay for dinner - after all, I always have a few zahs in my freezer. (Zah: short for pizza, courtesy Jack Black, from the pronunciation of the second syllable of the word.) And then I cooked the zah at 400 degrees for 15 minutes, without bothering to remove the supporting cardboard circle underneath.

Grammar school students would have been afraid. High school students would have been embarrassed. But not middle school students. They ate the cardboard zah with gusto. And to this day, they hail me with a "Mrs. Gilbert! When can we come over for another cardboard zah?" You have to admire their spirit.

For the past five years, I have worked as a parent volunteer with an after-school program at Mount View Middle School called "The Spirit Team." Indeed, that's what middle school students have an overabundance of - spirit. And it is our job to channel it away from the negative, mailbox-bashing activities that give this age a bad reputation and into service-type activities that give them a positive outlet for their rare brand of electricity.

I hear a lot of parents speak dismissively of this developmental stage, generally a variation on the theme of "getting them through it and into high school," and this makes me crazy. Or more accurately, crazier. I think they are missing out on a number of magical things. Pants that get shorter overnight. Chins that elongate and cheekbones that emerge, putting an adult overlay on an adolescent face. Talents that appear out of nowhere. Food that disappears a day after you unload it from the grocery bags. And the surprising hugs you suddenly no longer have to reach down for.

Maybe you need a little refresher course to see this age in the proper light. I just signed up for one - I was a chaperone on the eighth-grade field trip to the American Film Institute Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring. We experienced an educational screening and discussion of the 1931 film Frankenstein. But, honestly, that was nearly eclipsed by the half-hour bus ride to and from the theater.

Yes, bus No. 2 was kind of a magical mystery tour - we played all sorts of classic car-trip games and invented a few. Mount View English teacher Mr. Nnamma - whose name has been spelled backward for privacy and who just might want to keep it that way because it's pretty cool - was clearly superior in the embellish-a-story game. I challenge him to a rematch on the next field trip.

But until then, I would like to thank the middle school students on bus No. 2 for reminding me - and now everyone who reads this column - that you have so much to offer.

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