Lessons from the tweenage wasteland

October 16, 2008

Until yesterday morning, I hadn’t interacted with anyone under 18 since the semester began.

In an attempt to make a dent in my insurmountable midterm obligations, I passed by Rose Hardy Middle School on 35th and T Street in a desperate 7 a.m. search for caffeine. In case you’ve forgotten, the eleven to fourteen year-old crowd is an imposing one. I heard them before I could see them. The roar of the tangled mass of khaki and navy, punching, kicking, chasing, yelling, slipping and falling, and getting back up, jolted me out of my early morning numbness. In preparation for eight hours of being stuck sitting down, they let off steam in the chilly sunshine with energy I hardly remember having. Professionals waiting at the bus stop nearby scowled disapprovingly and clutched somber briefcases as defense. An old woman, seeing no alternative to inching her way through the thrashing throng, sighed and leaned heavily on her cane. The navy-and-khaki blob took little notice of her, and kept on shoving, tripping, cackling, and heckling. Generations brushed shoulders but did not meet.

On the edge of the scene, I sympathized with the intimidated professionals and the weary grandmother, but part of me envied the energetic horde—social anxiety, overactive hormones, and all. Watching from the outside, I noticed the loss of my connection with their age group and I felt old. Unlike members of that raucous mob, I am no longer engaged in the exuberant assertion of my newly-discovered individuality. To wake up, I require two or more shots of espresso. I cannot imagine the preemptive wasting of energy on the doorstep of academia at the beginning of a day. I doubt any of the frightened, drowsy suits at the bus stop could either.

There’s more to the generation chasm opening up between me and the brawling mass outside Rose Hardy Middle School than our differences in age. Being a middle-schooler has changed a lot since my time, in part because American capitalism invented a whole new category of consumer to target—the tweenager. Today’s tweens are hyperaware of the social currency of cool sold to them by eager advertisers. They have more social access; they have cell phones; they explore, discover, and utilize the limitless possibilities of anonymous Internet communication, from Myspace to Instant Messenger with the appetite of kids, but without the maturity of teenagers. Cyberbullying as a phenomenon didn’t exist in my day, and I would be lying if I said I had any concept of my power as a consumer while I straddled the boundary between childhood and teenagerdom.

I asked my friends what they know about the contemporary tween. The consensus? Nothing. Hannah Montana came to mind. One thought he had heard that more of them are smoking, having sex, and committing suicide than ever before: a grim picture of what many people already consider the hardest period of life.

The more I think about the incredible discomfort of middle school, the more I admire this social set, whom I rarely ever get to see anymore. I respect the unconscious tenacity with which they confront each potentially angst-filled day. The ability to let go of self-awareness long enough to let loose and play, or to call it like it is, doesn’t come as easily by the time we cross the threshold of high school.

College students could learn a lot from the energy and fearlessness of tweenagers. And surely, we could all use a refresher on the rules of wall ball.

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