Sometimes crossing a field is more than crossing a field.
I walked across some squishy grass today with my 5th graders to visit their new middle school. It was a sunny day, but it had been raining a lot in the days before. The kids embraced the freedom and the weirdness of stepping out of their regular routine by ramping up the silly. It was fun, mostly because I wasn’t trying to teach them anything at the time. It’s the same with any field trip. Students released from the constraints of school immediately lighten way up. Evidence of which was abundant fart jokes as we walked. I was behind a couple of friends who were using the fresh air as an opportunity to release both hidden emissions and bad puns. I walked faster so that I could get in front of them. Geez, nothing like that experience to remind you that these are not yet adults. (Although who doesn’t love a fart joke?)
The task this morning was to be welcomed and oriented to the middle school, to take in the wonder of a larger, newer building and to practice containing their panic. I watch their faces as they mentally catalogue all of the things they will have to get used to in the fall. A lot to ask of a bunch of 11 year olds, but that’s why I came along, for moral support. The students are hovering somewhere between excitement, anticipation and sheer panic for the entire 45 minute visit. We enter through a side door of the building and immediately step through a tunnel of very animated middle school students, cheering and clapping and high- fiving like their lives depended on it. We turn a corner and on our right is the orchestra, oddly located in the cafeteria (or what they coolly refer to as the commons) The music swells into a crescendo and the conductor waves us past. Kind of weird, but whatever. We turn again and there is the drum section of the marching band playing us through the door to the gym. Here, we gather to listen to the principal speak about the wonders that await before we are dispatched on our tour. I am already completely overstimulated, so I can only imagine what my kids with sensory issues and anxiety must be feeling right now. Was this someone’s brilliant idea to ease 5th graders into the middle school experience? I would like to speak to the manager, please.
We settle in the bleachers and wait to hear what to do next. I keep giving supportive smiles to my students, the ones I know are probably having the most difficult time right now. They look terrified, but they attempt to smile back at me. I feel a deep pang of compassion. Is all of this necessary right now? My nerves are completely jangled after five minutes, and I don’t even have to go to this school. Okay, take a couple of deep breaths. Sit on the hard bench. Give this dude you have never met but are supposed to implicitly trust your full and rapt attention. The principal begins to talk about how wonderful and exciting it must be for all of us to be there. My internal monologue begins in earnest.
“Sir, that may be true for the academically shiny and socially popular students sitting here, but I represent the other ones. You know, the ones who go to resource Math and English? The ones with behavior charts (but not in middle school) break cards (but not in middle school) and social groups (but not in middle school) to help them cope with their high levels of anxiety and overthinking? Even the garden variety kids, the ones that seem “normal” (whatever that is) are petrified as you describe events and routines that sound impossibly complicated and socially risky. They do not need to hear your rah-rah speech. They need to know that when the shit hits their personal fan, your door will be open and you will have time for them. Can you promise them that? “
Of course, I do not say any of these things out loud. I sit and wait to be assigned to a tour group. I plan to go with the students I am currently sitting with, but as I walk toward the exit, my teaching partner waves me over.
“Hey, B is melting down in the group just before you.”
Change of plans. I quicken my pace to catch up with B’s group and see what’s what. His teacher is standing next to him with her hand on his shoulder. It’s a warm day, but B is wearing his winter coat all zipped up and a ski hat pulled down to his eyebrows. He is hanging back from the group with his back turned to the bubbly student tour guides. He is glowering and I can see that his anxiety monologue has already gained full steam. His teacher looks up and sees me and a look of relief passes over her face. I come stand on the other side of him, and urge him on to the next stop on our tour. He lingers, reluctant to follow the students. He is listing out loud all of the reasons that he doesn’t like this school, how he will never make friends here and will probably get kicked out in the first three days. I have learned to simply let him run down before I try to say anything. He is not listening. He may not even be able to listen until we get back to our classroom. That’s okay. I’m headed back there anyway. I start another monologue, this one external, to attempt to reassure my friend B.
“You know how there are adults in our building to help and support you at school? Well, this school has the same kind of people. You met your principal and your counselor, but you also have six teachers that will know you and care about you. You can ask any of them for help if you need to, or talk to them when you are worried about something. That’s what they’re here for. You know that, right?”
A noncommittal shrug under the ski cap. He is not going to give an inch on this topic. All is lost and I am an idiot if I can’t see that. I go back to being silently supportive as we see the art room, the band room and a chemistry classroom. They are fairly nondescript, without a lot of embellishment on the walls. A far cry from their 5th grade classrooms with coordinating colors and themes. It is indeed a whole new world. Before I know it, we make it to the last stop on the tour and rejoin the rest of our people in an outdoor courtyard. My friend has held it together long enough and quietly starts to cry. I walk next to him, not saying anything yet. There will be time to debrief and process when we get back. For now, there isn’t much to say.
This field trip has been a lot; a lot for me certainly, but much more for my 5th graders on the cusp of saying goodbye to elementary school. Experience from years past reminds me that they might come back to say hello, especially if they have a younger sibling in my building, but they don’t ever really come back. And I think they know that too. My friend’s tears are completely legitimate, no matter how much middle school fun and adventure he has been promised today. Right now, however, it has been really loud and overwhelming and I feel like I could use a good cry myself. Instead, I walk beside my friend as we head back to what is familiar and safe. Enough dragon slaying for today.