I remember being in the 7th grade and someone pointing out a Roxy model in a Seventeen magazine. There was a group of us eating breakfast at Hardee’s before school… I think it was someone’s attempt to start a “Bible study” before school started, but I don’t remember it lasting past that one early morning. When the Bible study was over and the breakfast sandwiches had been eaten, one of the girls pulled out her Seventeen magazine. “Jennie, this looks like you when you get older,” she said. The girl she pointed at was a short-haired brunette who was clearly a tomboy. She didn’t look like the other models, but she was still a model and she was cute in a tomboy-kind-of-way. It was the first compliment I remember getting as a middle schooler. Like most middle schoolers, I was awkward and underdeveloped, but without the obvious potential that other girls had to be high-school heartthrobs.
For example, I didn’t make the cheerleading team, so I borrowed a cheerleading uniform from a girl who did and I had my mom take cheerleading photos in our front yard, as evidenced by the mud-pit behind me…
I was approached by boys, but only to talk to my friends for them. Advice to middle school boys, or boys in general who are interested in girls: talk to the girl yourself, it will score you mad points not only with the girl, but also her friends, who you will more than likely have to impress more than the girl.
That being said, in 7th grade I got my first compliment regarding my looks, or my potential looks… one day, just maybe one day, way after high-school, I might look like a 90s tomboy model.
I was excited at the thought and wondered how long I would have to wait. One of the boys who overheard the comment being made about my future self walked over and asked if he could see the picture. “Wow, yea, I could see that,” he said, and my excitement grew… until he kept talking, “if that’s true, call me then, but not before.”
Excitement dwindled and the reality of my present self came crashing down on my two-minute long dream of becoming a 90s tomboy model. Everyone laughed, so naturally I laughed too, because that’s what you do when you’re in middle school and you don’t want to let on that you’ve been hurt. Except that it’s not what you should do. Never on your behalf or the behalf of others should you silence your voice and laugh with the crowd for the sake of fitting in. But in middle school I didn’t know that, and truth be told, sometimes I still forget it… because it feels good to fit in, even when it hurts. While it was clear I wasn’t going to be “asked out” anytime soon, I made peace with it by falling in love with the brothers that are Hanson and swearing my love, life and devotion to them. I think most middle school girls devoted themselves to Hanson in the 90s, and those who didn’t were clearly delusional… or so I thought until much too late in life (ahem, last week).
I MMMBopped my way through ninth grade when my five-year relationship with braces ended. I remember the day I got my braces off. I couldn’t stop licking my teeth, they felt so slimy and perfect. It was the first time something on me ever felt perfect. I went to youth group that night and a boy pointed out that I had gotten my braces off. The sun was setting and there was a chill in the springtime air. Everyone was outside scattered on the field in front of the church for that week’s game of dodgeball. Huffing and puffing while trying to dodge a big red rubber ball, a boy ran up to me, “you… you… you got your braces off!” followed by deep breaths. “Yea,” I smiled, not moving so as not to mess up my smile or get slime on my mouth. “It looks good,” he said, followed by the loud smack of being hit in the head with a big red rubber ball. “YOU’RE OUT!” a kid yelled at the boy who was distracted by my smile, and I wanted to attack the kid for interrupting my first compliment from a boy.
“Thank you,” I said to the boy as he walked off the field. “Are you cold?” he asked as he started to take off his puffy yellow jacket and walk back towards me. “A little bit,” I lied given the slightest possibility that a boy might offer me his jacket. “GET OFF THE FEILD, YOU’RE OUT!” the kid yelled again at the boy with the puffy yellow jacket who liked my slimy smile. “HE IS!” I turned and yelled, “HE’S GIVING ME HIS JACKET! I’M COLD!” I lied with confidence and a death stare seemingly from satan because the kid looked terrified. Don’t mess with an awkward girl on the outskirts of middle school when she is getting her first compliment and clothing offer from a boy. She may not be good at using her voice, but when you try to short her on her first interaction with a boy who might like her, she’ll find her voice real quick and verbally rip your head off.
He handed me his jacket, me still uncertain of why he offered it, but mostly certain it was because of my teeth. I went home that night and wrote a thank you card to my orthodontist. Seriously. I have believed in thank you cards for as long as I can remember. Dr. Ross Orthodontics knows what I’m talking about.
All of this to say, to my present self (because I’m forgetful) and anyone willing to listen, be nice to people. With love as the lenses with which you look through, speak truth over people about who they will become, but also speak truth to them about who they are now. Tell people they don’t have to wait to be great one day, tell them they are great now, growing into someone greater. Life is hard and middle school is harder. Kids need to be told they are smart and funny and beautiful and brilliant and fully capable of thinking for themselves and of voicing their truths.
Kids grow up, all of them, even the awkward ones, and they remember. They remember who picked on them and they remember who was nice to them. They remember the boy who wanted the girl to call him one day if she grew up pretty and they remember the boy who risked getting smacked in the head by a big red rubber ball so he could tell the girl he liked her smile. Nine times out of ten the girl never calls the first boy, but she still smiles and licks her slimy teeth when she sees puffy yellow jackets.
Take risks, not by jumping off cliffs or out of airplanes (though sure, do that too), take risks by being nice to people, even if you get nothing in return. Live a story worth telling by breathing life into other people and be amazed by the life it will breathe back into you. There are plenty of mean words out there to stereotype any sort of person you dislike or feel threatened by, but challenge yourself to look for something good, and say something even better. Where I live I always hear people say “send good vibes,” and yes do that, but don’t just leave it at sending good vibes in thought, speak them out. There is power in the spoken word and I think we would all stand a little more amazed at the end of each day if we spoke kind words to even just one person who might not even know how badly they need it.
Kindness matters. It is the fruit of love and it will nourish not only the recipient of it but also the giver. It’s not always easy… kindness, or love for that matter, but it’s worth it. If you don’t know where to start, start with a thank you card. There is always something for which you can be thankful… always… even if it’s your orthodontist from your entire middle school career, start there, and keep going!