Not all sluts and playas

A surprising new book finds that despite their R-rated vocabulary and hormonally induced moodiness, most middle schoolers are pretty innocent -- if a little sex-obsessed.

Published October 3, 2003 5:00PM (EDT)

Breasts are my most vivid memory of middle school. I had them; most of my friends didn't. By the logic of a 12-year-old, those protrusions jutting out from my chest were therefore a singular curse.

The only other clear recollection I can dredge up from those dismal years -- now cheerily recast by copywriters as the 'tweens -- is the droning of Mr. Turner, a social studies teacher whose idea of stimulating young minds was to force us to memorize a list of bodies of water, a litany that started with ocean and ended, inexplicably, with swimming pool.

"Why me?" I whined incessantly to my father about the utter tedium of the classroom, about the girls who snubbed me in the morning only to invite me over in the afternoon and the boys who pawed and slobbered and boinged off the walls. Never one to sugarcoat acrid truths, one day he silently handed me a copy of "Lord of the Flies" and declared flatly, "Adolescents are savages."

Despite a decade of tolerance education, self-esteem training and workshops on sexual harassment, they are savages still, although of the most banal order. Or so they emerge on the pages of Linda Perlstein's new book, "Not Much Just Chillin': The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers."

An education reporter at the Washington Post, Perlstein spent the 2001-02 school year embedded at Wilde Lake , a socioeconomically and racially mixed middle school in suburban Columbia, Md. Seeking clues about what actually goes through the minds of the gaggles of early teens whose behavior seems to mystify adults, she spent months hanging out in the lunchroom, sitting in on classes, cheering from the bleachers at soccer games and trampoline meets. After school, she watched cartoons with the girls and admired the boys' fumbling rollerblade prowess. With the patience and fascination of an anthropologist sussing out tribal rituals, she bantered about clothes with nascent fashion victims, spied on the ever-changing landscape of friendships and documented the alternating sultry silence and explosive fury that drive parents into therapy.

What she found wasn't all that surprising: Today's kids aren't very different from the budding teen Perlstein had been when she was a student almost two decades ago at Maple Dale Middle School near Milwaukee. Sure, the packaging has changed: Obsessive instant messaging has replaced obsessive telephone chatting -- to the relief of many parents who can now stay in touch with their own friends. The sexual seething is overt. And one of the hot topics of the moment is oral sex.

But the girls still spend Friday nights fantasizing imaginary romances. After school, they still pore over Seventeen magazine or its more recent competitors. Striking the wrong fashion note still lands you in 7th grade purgatory, the boys won't sit still, parents continue to be disgustingly goopy, and the educational environment is a screeching bore.

In Perlstein's universe, there aren't even enough drugs, sex or alcohol to justify a community meeting.

In fact, the kids who drive Perlstein's narrative emerge as sweet, even innocent, despite their R-rated vocabulary and the moodiness induced by raging hormones unmitigated by much adult intervention. They might seem mean, but they're not fundamentally vicious -- even when they drive their classmates to tears. Behind a façade of independence, they long for their teachers' approval. And although they never admit to it, they still crave their mothers' protective arms, or at least their specially packed lunches.

The portrait is more upbeat -- more reassuring to parents -- than what I found four years ago while wandering the halls of Prior Lake High School in suburban Minneapolis for my own book, "Another Planet." The high school students I befriended had described their middle school years as a haze of drugs and alcohol. Had they been sweet, at the core? "We were animals," one girl told me. "Not just on the surface. What you saw was pretty much what we were."

I talked to Perlstein by phone about the cheery portrait that runs counter to so many adult stereotypes and so much that I'd learned.

Early in the book, you quote the principal of Wilde Lake as saying of middle school, "If anyone gets through unscathed, I don't know them." Were you scathed?

I wasn't scathed, but most of my friends were. A friend of mine remembers all her middle school stories like they were yesterday. She remembers going through the hall with her friends and the boys, as they walked by, were shouting out ratings of the girls. "So and so is an 8, so and so is a 9. They announced my friend as a 3, and she still remembers it. She was a 3. A 3.

So tell me about your typical week at Wilde Lake?

I wasn't there every hour of every school day, but I always tried to make it to lunch. I went outside with the kids at recess. I sat in their classes, although I didn't always stay for the full class. Fortunately, I had that privilege. I was with them on Saturdays, I was with them on Sunday mornings, and I was with them on Friday nights. I was with them as they sat at home and watched cartoons. A lot of that time was more valuable than some of their social studies classes.

Weren't the parents wary about letting a stranger, a reporter, get so close to their kids?

I didn't get the sense that anyone was wary, which was strange. None of the parents was anything but completely welcoming. The teachers all seemed to be happy to have me in their classes. There wasn't one time in the course of the year when anyone said, "You're not going to put this in the book, are you?" I sat in on meetings with the principal and naughty students. I sat in on staff meetings. I sat there as parents argued with their kids. They all trusted me.

How did the kids treat you? As a peer? An older sister? A weird adult?

I would have to say that the teachers treated me like one of them, the parents treated me like one of them, and the kids treated me like one of them. They knew I wasn't going to join in when they made themselves pass out on the playground as a prank. But they knew I wasn't going to say anything about it either.

They really liked having me around. They begged me to come to their classes. The girls, in particular, always commented on what I wore, on my purses. They were very attuned to me. A seventh-grader named Edith told me, "You're the most popular kid in school." Yippee! I was never that popular when I was in middle school.

What surprised you most about life at Wilde Lake?

I was surprised at the degree to which sexuality infused their lives. There were flashing incidents, there was a lot of sexual harassment that the girls were somewhat flattered by. There was freak dancing [with boys grinding girls from behind, his groin against her butt], there was constant talk about blow jobs among a good deal of the kids. I was surprised that this stuff went through their brains.

Sex was a major topic of conversation. It was very casual, too. That doesn't necessarily mean the kids wanted to have sex. A lot of them, if you gave them the opportunity, would run away in the other direction. But it's always there.

When I was in middle school, certainly I saw my older brother's Penthouses. I read my mother's Jackie Collins novels. I knew that this thing existed, this sex thing. But I had no idea it had anything to do with me. The way it's presented to kids now very much tells them that if it doesn't have anything to do with them now, it's going to have something to do with them really soon.

Who is this message presented by and in what fashion?

I hate to be a "blame the media person," but a lot of the shows that are marketed to them, a lot of the music that is marketed to them, a lot of the clothing that is marketed to them are sexual. Think about "Elimidate" -- with a girl licking a guy's chest on the first date, vs. "Love Connection" of 20 years ago. Or Lil' Kim's singing about her "magic clitoris." Or Delia's clothing catalog, for example, which sells underpants that say, "Made You Look" and "Make Me" on the butt, not to mention thongs or tight little T-shirts that say "Hottie" or "Too Sexy." The stuff that was marketed to us at that age, it wasn't like that.

Adults have some responsibility since we're much freer about the concept of sexuality. I'm going to sound so prudish, but a lot of these kids have mothers whose boyfriends are in and out, who sleep over, and are then on to the next boyfriend. That sends a certain message about relationships, about sex.

What about life inside the school, in the classroom? Any surprises there?

After sexuality, my greatest surprise was the overhead projector. If I were in charge, I'd throw it off a bridge. Those kids did so much copying down from the overhead. Copying, copying, copying. No matter your age, you don't want to sit there and copy stuff down.

Is that a metaphor for what you found at Wilde Lake in terms of education?

Well, I'm going to get myself in trouble here ... The teachers were completely caring and hardworking. They were far more enthusiastic about their jobs than I could ever imagine being in their situation. That said, I know why the kids were a little bored in class. Some teachers very clearly did not make much effort. For example, I was disappointed on Sept. 11 that more teachers didn't use that event to tie the kids to the world around them, which they're incredibly curious about. The social studies teachers ignored it. Some simply didn't know enough. One teacher thought bin Laden was the president of Afghanistan. Another teacher felt she was just too emotional about the issues. And there were teachers who felt they didn't have the time.

When I read your book, I was most taken by the quality of the kids' relationships with each other, or the lack of quality. They don't seem to have grown kinder and gentler over the years, even with all the sensitivity training they've received.

What I saw a lot of was bullying. You hear a lot about the bullying in the sense of the bully and the bullied, of the one mean bully who steals the lunch money. But the fact of the matter is that all the kids were bullies. Everyone bullied the kids below them on the social chain.

A lot of it is hard to see if you're the adult. You really have to be sitting in the back of the field trip bus. You really have to be in the middle of a group of girls who say, "No!" when a girl asks, "Can I be your friend?"

Did the adults intervene when they did see kids acting like bullies?

In my book, I tell the story of the health teacher who reacted when the kids made fun of a 6th grade boy everyone picked on. She sent the boy out of the room and told the kids very sternly that that wasn't going to be tolerated in her classroom. I was so impressed with that. I really thought, This is what people have to do. Take a stand. Make these kids feel horrible. But 10 minutes later in the library, they were treating the kid the same way.

The adult stereotype, reinforced by recent movies like "Thirteen," or books like "Odd Girl Out" or "Queen Bees and Wannabes," is that girls that age are much bitchier than boys. Is it true?

The girls are bitchier than the boys, though the boys can be pretty mean to each other too. I saw some pretty nasty talking going on among the boys. And the boys are more out there with it. With the girls it's more about gossip. Boys would come out and say, "You're fat and you stink." Most girls, when they want to be mean to each other, don't say, "You're fat and you stink." They say to another girl, "She's fat and she stinks." And it gets around. I think they're both mean, but in different ways.

Is it equally damaging?

I think so. I know a lot of boys who felt a lot of pain in middle school. And they don't have the tools to deal with it. They don't know from talking it out. They don't have quite the social skills the girls have. So I think they have a harder time dealing with things like that.

When they're rejected by a girl, they can't go in a corner and cry. They can't go into the bathroom with their friends and say, "Why doesn't she like me, who should I like now?" which is what the girls do. When it comes to that kind of stuff they're more isolated.

Adults reassure kids who feel like outsiders, like losers, that middle school losers will become adult winners. Do you think there's any truth to that bit of folklore?

I read a study that suggests that kids who are isolated in middle school actually become more well-adjusted adults. I think that some of the reasons that make you isolated in middle school are part of the recipe for a successful adult. Maybe you're erudite. Maybe you're not shallow. Maybe your focus is on learning. Maybe you're the person who corrected everyone's grammar, maybe your jokes are too sophisticated, maybe you don't buy the whole game.

Plus, on the purely physical level, good looks when you're 11 don't necessarily become good looks when you're 31. There are a lot of kids I thought were really good-looking who the girls thought were dorks. Their decision as to who is cute and who is not was totally mystifying to me.

Did you ever figure out their criteria?

In the end, they seemed to be the same standards they used to decide who was cool: one part nice clothes, one part a certain degree of naughtiness.

Is there a moral to your story for parents and other adults?

Don't underestimate the difference you can make, which is a pretty common mistake with 12-year-olds. A lot of people figure there's nothing you can do. They're a bundle of hormones. Middle school is going to be awful. I don't know what my role is. They don't seem to want me involved. They do want you to be involved even though they don't want to tell you.

By Elinor Burkett

Elinor Burkett is the chair of the Department of Journalism at the University of Alaska. Her new book, "So Many Enemies, So Little Time: An American Woman in All the Wrong Places," will be published in March by HarperCollins.

MORE FROM Elinor Burkett

Related Topics ------------------------------------------