Stories from the stacks…
I have been a middle school librarian for thirteen years and before that taught in the middle school classroom for seven years. That’s two decades of my life spent with teenagers day in and day out. When people ask what I do, the first thing I usually get after I answer is, “you must really like to read” (true), and the second is that I must be crazy to want to work with middle schoolers (probably also a little true). At this point it is then followed up by a story or two about their own miserable middle school experience. And finally finished with a head shake and something like, “I don’t know how you deal with up teenagers all day every day.”
The fact is I love my job. And I love teenagers. They are so real. They have little to no tolerance for bullshit. They can see straight through you and sniff out your weaknesses in seconds. If I’m having a bad hair day, they tell me. If I haven’t slept the night before and look it, they notice. They keep me honest. They also live and feel life fully, whether that’s feeling like they are on cloud 9, or feeling as if the sky is literally falling on them. There isn’t much in between. I often chuckle (only to myself, of course) when they tell me they are having the worst day of their lives because I know by the next hour they may be having their best day ever. It is a roller coaster ride, and if you work with this age group you would be advised to buckle up.
When you work with middle school kids you see people at their worst. I mean who is really living their best life in middle school? The answer is no one. At best it is the purgatory before you get to go on to the promised land of high school. At worst it can feel like a hell you will never escape.
Some days I find myself wanting to pull my hair out and wishing I was a day drinker, while other times I find myself laughing so hard I almost pee my pants- and that can be all in the same hour. Teenagers are all over the board, and no day is the same as any other. I swear I have enough hilarious stories to fill an hour long stand-up comedy special, and that’s just material from this year. I want to start writing some of the funny things down, so others can enjoy my life as a middle school librarian. And also so I can remember the good times when it gets tough.
Because as fun and exciting as teaching teenagers can be, there are times when it is heartbreaking. Today was one of those times. Today we laid to rest one of our 8th graders. He had barely been 14 a week. He was funny and kind and had a brilliant mind and a beautiful soul. He felt and thought deeply about life. And unfortunately for all of us, he found something about life too hard to continue living it.
Today I am thinking of things I would like to tell this young man if it wasn’t too late. Our last conversation didn’t feel like our last. It felt like see you later; I didn’t know it would be goodbye. I want to share memories I have of him that I will always cherish, and things that, though they may not have made a difference to him, I still wish I would have had the chance to say.
- I always appreciated our discussions about the books we read. Do you remember The Outsiders and when Ponyboy was watching Johnny die, how Johnny said 16 years wasn’t long enough to live? That there were too many things he hadn’t seen and hadn’t done yet? But he also said that saving the kids had made it all worth it. And remember Shawn in Stuck in Neutral and our conversation about being known and being loved as going together (how it caused you to have an existential crisis)? Did you feel like no one knew you and therefore loved you? I know you thought deeply about the stories we shared together, and I will miss your insightful thoughts. It wasn’t the same together when I read to your class.
- I remember how you always came into the library and fixed the Rubik’s cubes that had been left unsolved and broken by the younger kids. We would lament together about how they didn’t take care of things like they should. I found myself staring at the mixed up cubes today with tears in my eyes.
- I loved how you got my sarcasm way earlier than most kids did (probably back in elementary), and even when I put on what I felt like was my best poker face in class you would always sense my inner eye roll and make a comment that would always make me laugh.
- I am grateful for the friendship you offered my youngest daughter. You always made her laugh, even at times when her laughter was hard to come by. I know she will miss you every day. You left a hole in her heart, and many hearts, that no one else can fill.
- I also wish I could have told you that life will get better. Middle school really is the worst. High school gets a little better, college even more so, and then you are an adult and can live life on your own terms. I wish I could tell you that if you would just hold on, this too will pass. Life is hard, but it is also beautiful, though we definitely lost some of the beauty in it when you left us.
Today was not my favorite day as a teacher, but I still believe teenagers are the best. And as I’m surrounded by many young people that are hurting and confused right now, I want to hold them a little tighter and remind them of how much the world needs them and how loved they really are.
So, if you have a teenager in your life, hug them and tell them they are amazing and that you love them. Remind them that yes, life is hard, but there is also beauty to be found all around them…in their classmates, their teachers, their imperfect families, the books that we read, and the art that we create. And if you have a middle school teacher in your life, buy them a beer, sit back, and listen to their stories. I guarantee they will have you laughing and/or crying by the end.