Eighth Grade: AKA Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride

This reflection comes to us from Andy Clack. Middle school. Boys. Girls. Assemblies. Lockers. Meatloaf. […]

This reflection comes to us from Andy Clack.

Middle school.

Boys. Girls. Assemblies. Lockers. Meatloaf. Gym class. Talent shows. Choir practice. Braces. Acne. Whispering. Giggling. Blushing. Looking away. FREAKING OUT.

Your mind grows. Your body changes. Your spirit breaks. Your parents suck.

No, seriously, they’re the worst.

Middle school.

I think about it a lot, actually. Why, you ask? Well, first, because I have taught middle schoolers and continue to work with that age group during the summers. And second, because middle school is just a strange, strange time, and quite frankly worthy of far more reflection than we typically afford it. My friend often likens middle school years to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, the quirky Disneyland attraction that has been jerking guests around since 1955. And truly, what is middle school if not a dark and disturbing journey that somehow continues to chug along?

Whenever I share my experience of teaching middle school with others, I tell them that you see the best and the worst of humanity every day. One moment, Timmy makes the incredibly profound suggestion that religion is merely a social construct (note: I did not hear the words “social” and “construct” mashed together until college), and next, Timmy proceeds to fart in front of the class wearing his devilish grin. Dude’s got major potential, but c’mon. Are you a kid or an adult?

The answer is yes.

Middle schoolers are works-in-progress, and that is why they are just plain awkward. Many of them are either a) beginning to question authority, b) refusing to wear their emotions on their sleeves, c) unable to express themselves as clearly as they wish, or d) some combination of a, b, and c.  Consequently, it is easy to forget that they feel things and think things. Lots of things.

I vividly recall one day in seventh grade when Mom was giving me a ride to a friend’s house (you know, since her job was to tote me around ‘cause like, what else could she possibly have going on?) and “She Will Be Loved” by Maroon 5 came on the radio. Like any sensitive middle schooler in 2004, I belted out the lyrics from memory: “I don’t mind spendin’ everyday/Out on your corner in the pourin’ rain/Look for the girl with broken smile/Ask her if she wants to stay awhile…” About halfway through the song, Mom—normally content to tolerate the private concert—glanced at me and probed, “Do you even know what this song means?” In retrospect, I guess not. I mean, how could I have known anything substantive about relationships in that stage of life? It was true that my affection for a young lady was unrequited, but I didn’t even know which corner she lived on, and I certainly didn’t know much about the “pourin’ rain,” at least metaphorically speaking. But man, when I sang that song and others like it, I ached. I lamented. I yearned. I dreamed. I was in touch with my emotions, even if Mom wasn’t. So in response to her question at the time, I simply glared, thinking, “You don’t know what I’m going through.”

Enter Bo Burnham’s summer film, Eighth Grade, a beautiful and occasionally terrifying riff on “You don’t know what I’m going through” for the digital age. If you are wondering what on earth is happening in the heads of middle school kids during their first weeks of school, watch Eighth Grade. The film is a story about Kayla (played brilliantly by Elsie Fisher), an anxious and awkward eighth grader navigating her way through the final days of middle school, and it somehow manages to capture the timeless elements of tween/teenhood in the ‘Burbs while establishing itself as the time capsule of adolescence in 2018. The older folks in the audience chuckle as they observe the lame award ceremonies, the off-key band performances, and the serious school drills that are never taken seriously, because they remember. But then they are hit by something they never experienced: a young person sinking into the fathomless abyss that is her phone. There she finds the multimedia matrix that essentially comprises her social life. There she indulges in the never-ending cyber-festivals which scream fun, and cute, and clever. They seem harmless on the surface, but when she listens closely, Kayla hears their demands: “Look like this. Be this way. Say these things.” When she leans in even more, they whisper ever so slightly, “You are not enough. You don’t matter.”

I heard a pastor a few years ago call Instagram “a world that is not fallen.” In other words, when we scroll through our feed, we are confronted by a world that people have curated to look like Eden. Then, when we examine ourselves and our world, we realize that it looks nothing like what we’ve just seen. We wonder why we aren’t tasting wine in southern France, or why our wedding wasn’t as beautiful, or why we never get to spend as much time with our friends. Of course, in some ways, Instagram is a collective agreement to play pretend, except we’ve somehow convinced ourselves that we are the only ones pretending, and that everyone else’s life is idyllic. Much like Kayla, we start to believe that our lives—even our identities— are not enough. But unlike Kayla, most of us can at least recall a time before smartphones. Eighth Grade explores what it’s like facing middle school years with a virtual Eden as a perpetual point of comparison.

Kayla’s late-night plunges into the social media rabbit hole are indeed what make Eighth Grade occasionally terrifying. That said, we are not meant to walk away from the film thinking, “Boy, social media are destroying our kids’ lives.” No, I think we are rather to conclude that the issues particularly pronounced during middle school years—self-image, anxiety, bullying, loneliness—are exacerbated and complicated by the presence of digital media. In short, middle school remains tough. But it’s possible that it’s tougher now more than ever. Still, with appropriate nuance, Burnham’s film situates social media as making up part—not all—of Kayla’s life. It is important to remember that she is a girl who already has social anxiety and happens to like spending time on Instagram and Snapchat. In this way, her phone is simultaneously a poison and an antidote—a prison and an escape. Sound familiar?

We primarily witness Kayla’s anxiety play out in so-called “real life,” most palpably during my favorite scene in the movie: her entrance to a pool party where she knows precisely no one. If you’re an introvert like me, you quiver with terror as Kayla, shoulders hunched, stumbles through the sliding glass doorway and surveys a landscape dotted with social landmines. Cannonballs! Water guns! Girls AND boys! “Oh my God,” Kayla thinks. “What do I do?” Obviously, she retreats to an inconspicuous corner of the pool acting as if she’s up to something but really just disappearing into herself. “Tyler, stop!” she hears the popular girl squeal as a bold young man courts her fancy and ruthlessly shoves her into the water. All Kayla can wonder is why no one ever tries to push her in the pool.

Okay, it’s true—we don’t know for a certainty that this is what Kayla is thinking. Eighth Grade lacks voiceovers. But as viewers, we are invited to imagine Kayla’s inner life in light of her circumstances, her body language, and our own experiences. And doesn’t this task aptly represent the hard work of understanding middle schoolers? Their blank faces disguise whirlwinds of emotions, and we can’t get in their heads. Kids around Kayla’s age also crave independence, and alternative contexts, be they physical or virtual, act as conduits of identity formation. The locker room, my Walkman, and AOL Instant Messenger (R.I.P.) helped to create who I am today. Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube do the same for Kayla. Bad news for most adults: your exclusion is the very ingredient conferring legitimacy to these spaces.  And ironically, your absence is also what empowers young people to declare, “You don’t know what I’m going through.” So most of the time, you have to use your imagination.

Every now and then, though, kids open up. At the end of Eighth Grade, Kayla is finally able to articulate her anxiety to her single father as they sit by a fire in their backyard: “It’s like I’m waiting in line for a rollercoaster and that stupid, like, butterflies-in-your-stomach feeling you get. I get that all the time. And then I never get the feeling after you ride the rollercoaster.” In other words, Kayla feels like she’s about to hop on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, except that she knows the feverish odyssey is never going to end. Do you remember that time when almost every moment around our peers held such sheer gravity? What, then, must it be like to have social anxiety today, when the digital gaze of one’s peers never falters?

The complexities of this brave new world can make the prospect of raising or teaching a child scary. The challenge of shepherding adolescents might instill a sense of dread, or even despair. But the father’s response to Kayla’s campfire confession reassures us that what kids really need to hear never changes. Dad tells his daughter how much he loves her and that he longs for Kayla to see herself as he sees her. We need not interpret his message as subtle advice for parents to affirm their kids in everything. Humans are all in repair. But there’s a reason Mr. Rogers recognized that children need to hear they are special: it’s because they are. They are fearfully and wonderfully made. Does a girl plagued by acne, self-doubt, and anxiety need to hear that she should change when the world’s expectations assault her personhood on a daily basis? No—she needs to know that she is loved unconditionally.

Bo Burnham has suggested that Eighth Grade, at least in part, reminds adults that we have yet to escape adolescence. If we see ourselves in Kayla, we realize that we are all works in progress, stuck in the throngs of our own anxiety and sense of inadequacy. Who among us does not worry, or sink into our doubts, or compare our lives to what we see on our phones? As we consider the inner lives of middle schoolers this fall, may we remember what all adolescents—including us—need to hear: there is nothing we have done or will do that can change God’s love for us. Only that truth can get us through Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.