The Importance Of Being Understood

I've never met anyone who has overwhelmingly fond memories of middle school. That's not to say that the entire experience was horrible—it's just that for many people, middle school was a bit of a challenge in various ways.

It's not entirely surprising that many people have less-than-stellar memories about their school days between the ages of 12-14; it's the age when puberty starts changing everyone, both mentally and physically, creating an atmosphere of hormonal overload, anxiety, and awkwardness. You are, as Britney would say, "not a girl, not yet a woman," but attempting to find that middle ground and shape it into some semblance of an identity can be a daunting task, particularly if you don't have anyone to show you the way. It's even more difficult when you consider the social structure of middle school: it's difficult to find a sense of self when you're constantly being judged by everyone else.

Some people never get over the judgments cast upon them in seventh grade, but others, like the girls who attend author Rachel Simmons' Girls Leadership Institute summer camp, are given the skills to transcend the often demoralizing atmosphere of middle school. Simmons' two-week summer camp, as explored by Jan Hoffman in today's New York Times, is designed to help middle school girls develop self-confidence, assertiveness, and the ability to face challenges and conflicts in a healthy way, without falling in to the traps of bullying, aggression, or self-loathing.

However, Simmons is quick to point out that her camp alone can't completely solve these issues: "I'm not a fixer," she tells Hoffman, "I'm a conversation starter." One hopes that others will follow her lead and attempt to hold similar conversations in schools across the country, empowering young women and inviting them to consider using assertiveness, as opposed to aggressiveness, in order to tackle difficult social situations. It looks like the process has already started, according to Hoffman, who claims that "this fall, Ms. Simmons will oversee the expansion of its programs in Hoboken, N.J.; Manhattan; and Boulder, Colo."

What really struck me about Hoffman's piece, however, was a quote by Dr. Patricia Hayot of the Chapin School, who notes that Simmons' success comes, in part, from her ability to speak to the girls as someone who has been there before: "She tells stories about having been bullied, and the kids relate," Hayot tells Hoffman, "but she has moved beyond it, and that gives them hope. There's magic in that: They say, ‘Here's a woman who gets it, and she's not my mom, and I can have the same insights she has.'"

The presence of a mentor who is both relatable and approachable allows the girls to be themselves, to discuss their fears and ask questions without feeling as if they have to censor themselves in order to fit the expected roles their parents, teachers, and peers often place upon them. While Simmons can't follow her campers back to their homes or schools after camp is over, surely her words and openness stay with the girls, giving them the knowledge that they aren't alone in what they're going through, and that there are adults out there who understand and are willing to help them find—or stay on—the right path. That feeling of being understood by someone who has been through it is perhaps why some of us latch on to musicians or movie stars or athletes in our middle school years, finding hope in the knowledge that they, too, were once bullied or misunderstood or shy or unsure, but eventually found a way to be themselves and get beyond the boxes they often felt trapped in. Simmons may claim that she's simply a "conversation starter," but I'm willing to bet that for many girls who go through her program, she's also a bit of a real life rock star, the kind of hero you hope to grow up to be someday.

Which leads me to ask: did you ever have a mentor or hero in middle school? And if so, what kind of impact did they have on your life?

Girls, Uninterrupted [New York Times]

[Image via Shana Sureck/New York Times]