Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Middle School Shuffle

They shuffle along, their heels dragging with each step, making a statement. It says to those who watch and listen that they don’t care much where they’re going and they’re not in a hurry to get there either. They re-laced their sneakers, not in the typical crisscross pattern you see out of the box, but in a horizontal, parallel pattern. After putting the sneakers on, they don’t pull the laces tight. The result is loose-fitting footwear, the heel of which thumps the floor as they walk - the middle school shuffle. Those who consider themselves coolest do it, but if patterns of past fads hold, soon nearly all will.

It’s another way for an adolescent to attract attention that can be seen and heard. It’s a display of purposeful slovenliness or studied carelessness, and it’s arriving just as the low-riding pants with exposed boxers craze is fading away. It is similar, however. Practitioners of either fad take great pains to appear as if they don’t care how they look - as though they can’t be bothered to pull up their pants or tie their sneakers - as if such mundane considerations are beneath them. Thankfully though, the shufflers who try very hard to appear lazy are not all lazy students. Some are, but the fad crosses the entire spectrum from lazy to diligent - so far at least.

Over my three decades in public education, I’ve seen a lot of fads come and go, way too many to list. Once it was friendship bracelets - a kind of miniature macramé of colored strands or strung beads tied around wrists or ankles. They were harmless and kind of nice actually, in that the bracelets were meant to proclaim a camaraderie or one kind or another. Then there were stickers - shiny and colorful and depicting almost anything. More recently, there were - I don’t know what to call them - key chain-like things hanging from numerous zippers on the backpack every student lugs around. As they walked down halls on the way to homerooms in the morning or to their busses at afternoon dismissal, there was a cacophony of key chain doodads banging into each other as they swung back and forth. It was like the shuffle in that it called attention through sight and sound.

Hairstyle changes over the decades are too numerous to chronicle here. I can’t think of anything that can be done to hair that hasn’t been on display. Piercings, too, appeared in many variations, however not so many as in the wider world, thank goodness. As a boy reading National Geographic, I was appalled by the ways people in primitive societies mutilated their bodies according to local fashions. There were pictures of people who forced wooden disks into slits cut in their lips to stretch them out so they could put in bigger and bigger disks. They attached weights to their ear lobes to stretch them down so much that eventually they flopped onto their shoulders. They stuck things through their nostrils and carved patterns into the skin of their faces, backs, abdomens, and God knows where else. All of it was bizarre to my young eyes, but practitioners stared boldly into the camera lens as if proud of how they looked. I asked my parents why anyone could choose to look that way. They laughed of course, and told me that different people had different ideas of what was attractive. I believed they were answering me truthfully but it was hard to accept. It still is.

Primitive piercings started years ago in middle school when girls made numerous holes along the edges of their ears and filled them with metal. Then some boys wore earrings. Then metal began appearing on nostrils, lips and eyebrows. Most often, a student would come in on Monday morning with something stuck in his or her face, the surrounding flesh looking puffy and red. When I had occasion to speak with the student and make eye contact, a troubled self-consciousness was obvious. I’d avoid looking directly at the wound, but there was an unspoken awareness in both of us that it was there. Not one ever asked, “How do you like my new nose ring?” and I never asked, “What they heck did you do that for?” Mutual courtesy, I guess.

Outside of school I’m seeing more bizarre body mutilations on people here in the rural western Maine mountains as our civilization regresses toward the primitive. I see the ear stretcher things and the lip stretcher things I thought were so bizarre forty years ago in National Geographic. Hopefully I’ll be retired before they start showing up on the fourteen-year-old bodies of my students. Meanwhile, I’ll tolerate the middle school shuffle as long as it lasts.

1 comment:

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