We were recently thinking about our bad middle school experience, and realized we started reading the MIT blogs when we were still in the thick of it. We think it would have helped middle school Allan and Danny to read a story that let them know they were not alone. So that’s the story we want to write today.
It started when we moved from Brooklyn, New York to Miami, Florida when we were 10. We started 5th grade in Miami at a public elementary school, lets call it school A. In school A, we made friends fairly easily, just as we did in Brooklyn. We liked making our peers laugh, and formed a small group of friends, who we’d sit with at lunch. During this time, we were on a waitlist for a charter elementary school, school B, that our mom wanted us to go to more because she heard a lot of great things about it in her “Russian Moms of Miami” facebook group and it was only around a 3 minute drive away from where we lived.
Around November of that year, we got accepted off school B’s lottery, so we transferred. But the transition was not very smooth. This time we were not just students who had just moved states, we were also the “new kids” trying to fit our way into already established friend groups and social dynamics. And that added challenge was something we just really did not know how to navigate.
The first two weeks at school B, we stayed mostly reserved. We didn’t really talk to anyone except each other, and just observed other people to figure out which friend groups we could try to join.
Despite this, we were very enthusiastic to speak up in class when we knew an answer. Our fourth grade math curriculum in New York happened to almost equate to the fifth grade math curriculum in Florida, so we especially spoke up in math class.
A couple weeks of speaking out in class, and mostly not talking to anyone outside of class, gave us the reputation of the “quiet, smart kids.” Gaining this reputation in those first few weeks of being at school B is what sparked our social downfall.
We do not understand why, but once we realized that our peers saw us this way, we were both scared and even averse to the idea of our reputation changing. We were afraid that our peers would make a big deal out of any sudden change in our personas, and we really did not like the idea of that potentially making us the center of attention. This was especially the case because we were oftentimes made the center of attention anyways because we just physically stood out as two very similar looking, very short, and baby faced kids.
Over time we both adopted a lot of strange behaviors to keep up with that persona we felt we had established. We began to cover our mouths with the palms of our hands whenever we felt a smile or laugh creeping up, because we didn’t want people to see us smiling.
Writing this out, it sounds ridiculous, but this was our mindset for four years, from fifth to eighth grade.
Initially this behavior was self-inflicted, but a couple months into it, we started getting bullied. This only tightened the grip of the behaviors we trapped ourselves in. The same group of middle school boys would regularly come up to our table during lunch to try to tease us. A tag team of two girls would stare at us in science class until we looked back at them. And as soon as our eyes met theirs, they burst out laughing. And when we were not looking, they would blow the papers off our desk repeatedly. One boy in our art elective class would purposefully make us uncomfortable by invading our personal space. People mockingly talked about us as though we were not in the room.
It was this vicious cycle where we were trying to go under the radar by hiding in our shells, but this only made us stand out more. We were scared that people would antagonize us even worse if we suddenly changed the way we acted. So we continued maintaining these facades, and we continued getting bullied.
Fast forward to November of eighth grade, and nothing changed. Still no friends in school. Still bullied. We were applying to high schools around this time. One that we applied to was a combined middle and high school with a focus on the arts. They were just in their 3rd year of opening and were trying to mass enroll students, so they offered us a spot right after our piano auditions. If we accepted, we had the option of starting in ninth grade or to transfer after Thanksgiving break, and finish eighth grade there.
This was one of the easiest decisions we’ve made in our lives. Not only were we itching to leave school B to escape our bullies, but we also had a very unlucky assortment of teachers that year .01 Our teacher for eighth grade U.S. History in School B happened to be the teacher that we left the gifted program specifically to avoid, after we had her for a class in 6th grade The universe was pointing us in the direction to switch schools. So, we did.
This also turned out to be one of the best decisions we made in our lives. While we faced a slew of other issues02 We have considered writing a blog post titled “We were the secretaries of our high school’s music department” if that says anything. in this new school, our time there truly and finally let us flourish socially.
Initially, our habits stayed with us. They weren’t going to magically go away by transferring schools. But there was one key difference. No. One. Bullied. Us. The atmosphere of this school was different. Everyone just felt nicer.
The warmth we felt from our peers in this school started thawing away the habits we acquired over years. And then, with a simple question, one person from that school made a world of difference .
Our English teacher.
She had straight orange hair down to her knees, wore flowing, colorful, patterned skirts, and had rainbow painted nails. Also, all the keys in her laptop were painted to form a beautiful landscape!
We touched on the positive influence this teacher had on us here, but that barely scratched the surface.
For every essay we wrote in her class, she encouraged us to be creative! She told us to use sensory writing, to add similes and metaphors, and to have fun! During in-class writing assignments, we were allowed to come up to her to ask for feedback, and without fail, she would say something to make you feel good. She constructively criticized your work, and pointed out its flaws, but always made a point to underline what you did well.
We barely smiled in school those four years. It was pretty manageable to do, since those years were, well, miserable. By far it was most difficult not to smile in her class.
One day as we were exiting the class, she stopped us. She was sitting on one of the empty desks by the door. She said “Danny, Allan.” We stopped and looked at her, and she asked, without a judgement in her voice, pure and simple, “Why do you cover your mouths when you’re about to smile?”
We were both so caught off guard and flustered. No one, in the past four years, ever asked us so genuinely before. After a couple seconds that felt like minutes, one of us responded “It’s a force of habit.”
She responded, “You guys have such nice smiles, you shouldn’t cover them up!” We most likely responded something brief like “Okay, we’ll try” and then left, in shock.
When the summer before 9th grade started, we thought about what our English teacher asked us. We reflected on how, while bullies kept us in this situation, we were the ones who put ourselves there. We decided we wanted to take ourselves out.
Lunch is where people make friends right? So, we made a plan to sit with people we thought we could be friends with on our first day of 9th grade. The cafeteria in this school was outside in the blazing Miami sun, but that’s not why sweat beaded on our foreheads.
After an excruciating couple minutes playing Where’s Waldo, lunches in hand and heavy backpacks on shoulders, we finally found a table with a couple people we recognized from the previous year.
We sat down, some people said hi to us, we tried smiling at them, and then began eating. We were quiet, focused on our food, and noticed someone in front of us. She was sitting at the table but not really part of the table, just like we weren’t.
Until her plastic fork broke, and she chuckled a little out of embarrassment. By pure coincidence, one of us accidentally grabbed an extra fork when getting food, so we offered it to her. It was a very underwhelming interaction honestly. But it was the first step in escaping our social isolation.
After the fork donation, we didn’t look away or down at our food. We pushed ourselves to say something, anything, or ask something, or smile, or laugh. Little by little, day by day, we started talking more with her at lunch, and talking more with others, in the hallways and during our scheduled free computer lab periods. We started learning how to make friends again.
We soon found ourselves not only having conversations, but also forming inside jokes, fangirling about shows or books, cry-laughing for no reason, complaining about unfair teachers or lengthy assignments, and passionately debating ketchup’s place in mac ‘n cheese. We finally had friends. We got out of our rut.
We’d like to leave off with a small note.
Bad situations, as permanent as they may seem, are not. People change, circumstances change, you change. If things feel stagnant, focus on the good things you have, maybe that English teacher or that friend you gave a fork to. But know you have the power to define, or re-define or change, yourself. On your terms. How and when you want to. You might not be ready for a while — we weren’t for four years — but once you are, nothing can stop you.
- Our teacher for eighth grade U.S. History in School B happened to be the teacher that we left the gifted program specifically to avoid, after we had her for a class in 6th grade back to text ↑
- We have considered writing a blog post titled “We were the secretaries of our high school’s music department” if that says anything. back to text ↑