Jazz historian, activist and author Nat Hentoff died January 7, 2016. Hentoff was an extraordinary chronicler of jazz and the men and women who created the music. He also wrote several novels, most notably two books for young adults, This School is Driving Me Crazy and Does This School Have Capital Punishment? They follow the misadventures of a fairly normal seventh grade boy and have the ring of authenticity about things like bullies, fitting in, and the inexplicable terrors of junior high. They’re not my favorite YA books – Hentoff is prone to preach from time to time – but they’re worth a read.
Hentoff’s passing, though, also put me in mind of the YA novels that have stuck with me through the decades– Sarah, Plain and Tall, A Chance Wild Apple, Tuck Everlasting, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Ramona Quimby, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMN, A Smart Kid Like You, The Secret Garden, Jacob I Have Loved, and so many others. So much so, the next day I Netflixed the Disney movie version of one of the best, A Bridge to Terabithia (2007). If you haven’t read the original by the great Katherine Paterson (a Newbery Prize-winner in 1978), the movie is pretty darn close. Treat yourself.
It’s the story of Jesse (played by Josh Hutcherson), a 5th grader with lots of problems: three bossy sisters, a brooding distant father (the great Robert Patrick), and a school full of bullies. Jesse escapes into his one love – art. Suddenly, there is a new kid in his class, Leslie (the heart-breakingly good AnnaSophia Robb), who has problems of her own (not the least of which is that she’s an outsider in this close-knit rural school). They become inseparable and, together, create the world of Terabithia.
No spoilers here, but you will love this little movie. It is full of magic and love and courage and – because the real world isn’t Terabithia – tragedy.
It also reminded me of the hardest time in my life and, from an informal poll of friends through the years, the hardest time in most people’s lives: junior high. From about 5th grade through 9th grade, nothing make sense. And your body and your emotions make the least sense of all. If you’re a guy, strange hormones are unexpectedly surging through your body. Girls become infinitely complex, unendingly mysterious alien life-forms. Teachers suddenly become authority figures. Someone has taken away recess. Mom and dad go from being your favorite people to slightly … embarrassing.
I would never, ever want to be 10 or 12 or 14 again. For the first time – I was experiencing adult emotions in a kid’s brain, and my kid’s body was turning into a teen-ager’s body. It was baffling. It was scary. And – geez louise – it’s just not fair! No one should have to endure all of that.
After watching A Bridge to Terabithia (and yes, I cried – but it was a manly sort of tears), I was swept for time back into my own junior high days. As a Military Brat, I went to different schools in my fifth, sixth and seventh grade years. It was a long time ago, but through the fog of hazy memory, I remember a mostly upbeat kid with Coke-bottle glasses, buck teeth, and a crew cut reading voraciously, dreaming of playing first baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals, and torturously finding my way through this scary new world.
I remember that the feelings I had at the time were as real to me then as they are now. First love! First loss! First bully! First argument with my parents! But because I was a kid, the adults in my life thought I was still feeling a kid’s emotions.
A Bridge to Terabithia reminded me, yet again, that junior high kids really do feel. The loss of a friend or loved one is no less real because you’re only 11. The crazy-quilt of emotions, including something like love or infatuation, that follow when you meet That First Girl or That First Guy are no less real to the junior high kid who experiences them the first time.
When our children went through those years, our emotions careened with theirs. During those days, they were a blur of long arms and longer legs, loveable one minute, infuriating the next. They couldn’t help it any more than I could have when I was that age. I wish I had been more understanding during my kids’ junior high years. Perhaps I will be when the grandkids turn that awful/wonderful age.
God bless those of you who teach junior high. You’re doing God’s work. You may never meet a more confusing, enduring group of people in your life. But those who teach junior high year after year tell me it is worth it.