February 16, 2004

Fast Times at Wilde Lake Middle School

By: Chaim Karczag

A review of Not Much Just Chillin’: The Secret Lives of Middle Schoolers by Linda Perlstein, 272 pages, $24.00, Farrar Straus & Giroux

In Britney Spears’s America, we probably know too much about the minds of twelve- to fourteen-year-olds. Marketers can read this demographic like a J.K. Rowling book: According to one study, they have managed to squeeze $23 billion per year in sales out of fickle, jobless pre-teens. But if there’s anything left to know about brooding and pimpled tweenagers, it might be located somewhere in Linda Perlstein’s painstakingly reported and well-written expose ‘Not Much Just Chillin’: The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers.

Perlstein, a truly brave Washington Post reporter, spent the 2001-02 school year in middle school in Columbia, Md., a seemingly average suburb 45 minutes from Baltimore. She apparently chose Columbia for being so typically American, though Perlstein never bothers to justify her methodology. Designed in the 1960s by urban planner James Rouse, the town began life as an experiment in integration, where barriers of class and race would dissolve as people of different colors and income brackets worked and raised families in each others’ company. Today, after years of white flight and other disappointing realities, Columbia has its rough patches. One such area is the village of Wilde Lake – one of several “villages” that make up this planned community.

Wilde Lake Middle School is not the jewel in the crown of the county public school system. It has no metal detectors or police presence, but neither does much learning take place. This is about par for the course for American middle schools. Experts generally consider them the weakest link in public education, academic wastelands where students begin to lag badly behind their foreign counterparts. In addition to the standard mess that is a middle school, this one has a sprinkling of pathologies, great and small (e.g., a sexual assault in a bathroom, groin-to-rear “freak” dancing, and so on.)

One interesting curveball Perlstein had to contend with was September 11, which might have made her year in a middle school very atypical indeed. Except that it didn’t. Consider this scene from the mall:
“When Jackie meets Kristina and Celia at the mall, she hitches a Betty Boop beeper (no batteries, no phone number) to the back pocket of her sparkly jeans. She laughs with them at the key chains at Spencer’s, especially the one that says ‘You be my 6, I’ll be your 9.’ Jackie spots a pimp Halloween costume. ‘This is Anton! This is Anton!’ She buys two stickers for her binder that say ‘Warning: HEARTBREAKER’ and ‘I Recycle Boys.’ Over cookies in the food court, Kristina complains about how the terrorist attacks are on television all the time. ‘I don’t really care about it because it doesn’t affect Maryland,’ she says, to which Jackie replies, ‘We’re going to war, Kristina.’ Then they discuss Kristina’s new boyfriend, for whom she has written on her hand, ‘I love Scott 4ever.’ ‘He has the nicest personality and the nicest ass,’ she says. They compare numbers: Kristina has had twelve boyfriends, Jackie seven, and Celia five. Jackie has kissed one boy, though not French.”

Sprinkled throughout are Perlstein’s summary judgments on the way things ought to be, judgments that don’t always gain authority from the author’s careful reporting on the ground. And so Perlstein tries to make quick work of scientific evidence she presents as unambiguously supporting this or that parenting strategy, teaching method or educational philosophy (e.g., Perlstein is against standardized testing but for tough love). She doesn’t get very far. This may not matter since the meat of the book is devoted to five student profiles.

Eric, the lone African American, is an eighth grader living at home with his dad and dad’s girlfriend Beulah. His mother, the deliciously named Tenacious, lives in Baltimore and has difficulty commuting to see her son. This is especially unfortunate since she is the more academically demanding and strict parent, a manifestly better guardian for Eric than his indifferent father. Predictably, Eric succumbs to an academic swoon as he comes home to a parentless house where no one makes him concentrate on school. Despite repeated lectures from ultimately impotent teachers, he never gets his act together. His passing into high school is a textbook case of social promotion. To think of his life’s prospects is to shudder.

If Eric is preparing for a future shot-through with defeat, Elizabeth is the pretty much the opposite. Her dutiful parents attend PTA meetings and stay in touch with her teachers; she studies hard, plays viola, and practices synchronized swimming. Occasionally she throws a fit or acts like a little snob – neither of which is unusual for a spoiled seventh grade – but otherwise Elizabeth is on the right track. Ditto Jackie. She’s a confident, self-possessed seventh grader whose story illustrates the improbable shifts of the pubescent personality. Turning from a tomboy to a boy-crazy teeny bopper to a premature stoic in the course of the year, Jackie becomes in Perlstein’s treatment fodder for the less-than-profound insights that (a) early teens are fickle and (b) relations between the sexes are confused at this age.

Then there are a pair of sixth graders. The more interesting profile concerns Lily, a Louisiana transplant who becomes obsessive about her friendship with another girl, Mia. Their relationship makes for a mildly amusing story – explained, like everything else in the book, in painful detail – that rings particularly true for being so anomalous. But while it’s nice to take a break from the formula of anecdote-as-sociology, the reader is left wondering – in accordance with the template of the rest of the book – what Lilly is supposed to teach us.

Ultimately, however, these stories do not amount to much. Despite their quirky details and sometimes striking scenes, they deliver nothing more than a kind of high-end trivia. The insights of the book – that teenagers are fickle and horny; that they make life difficult for parents, teachers, and principals – are utterly banal. By cataloging the thoughts, perceptions, and emotions of her five subjects, Perlstein manages to give very detailed answers to questions no one seems to be asking – the answers being so obvious, after all. With its interweaving narrative, accessible writing, and attention to detail, Not Much is exceedingly well-crafted. Only the reader might be left wondering: What’s the point?

Chaim Karczag is a policy analyst at the National Council on Teacher Quality.

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