Of cliques, clothing, and classes: imagemaking in the junior high

``Did you play spin the bottle when you were our age?'' This comes as a shock. Aren't I supposed to be the one seeking answers here? I consider not answering, but the sweet face that asked the question shows no signs of giving up. Besides, I realize my embarrassment is rising quickly -- and obviously -- from under my shirt collar. ``Uh, yes,'' I confess.


We're sitting in the cafeteria of Western Middle School in Alamance County, North Carolina: I am presented as ``a newspaper reporter from Boston'' to a gaggle of giggling girls. Our topic is the interests and concerns of ``kids'' in the middle-school, or junior-high, age group. For Clay, Alisa, Debo, ``J.J.,'' and Rhonda, the answers are remarkably similar to those of their contemporaries across the country: making friends, being part of the right group, and clothes.

For these five girls -- a self-confessed part of the school's cheerleader clique -- the clothing styles range from prep to punk. But wherever they fall in that spectrum of styles, they are deeply concerned, perhaps for the first time, about image -- how they ``look'' to their peers, and how they will be accepted.

Probed further for responses that might indicate a concern with something beyond their tight worlds, the girls speak of parties, movies, and rock-and-roll. But then one suggests that I talk to another group seated at another table. ``We're kind of silly,'' she says, amid a chorus of giggles. If nothing else, the suggestion bespeaks a certain wisdom.

Another table: four boys, two girls, racially mixed. There's immediate agreement that ``making a good impression with everybody else'' is a major concern. Then Greg Brown, a black eighth grader wearing a neat pink tie over a powder-blue shirt, adds that another big concern is ``making it in life.'' This is echoed by some of Greg's peers in Minnesota, who say grades are much more important to them at this stage than they were to their older siblings.

This talk of grades and ``making it'' among 13- and 14-year-olds reminds me of a woman I met while she was taking her daughter, a junior in high school, on a tour of a New England liberal arts college. ``I have one at home who is only in the eighth grade, and all he talks about is getting into Stanford,'' she lamented. ``I don't know where it comes from. We certainly never talk to him about getting in there or any other school. He's just a baby.''

Perhaps. But as one junior high principal in Minneapolis told me, ``In so many ways my students are still babies, but babies with surprisingly adult concerns. That's why they need special care and understanding.''

It's an age group that is silly and vulnerable and prone to sudden change, but one that can also be astonishingly wise.

Back in Western Middle School's lunchroom, Tooey Loy's friends are rolling their eyes -- and giggling -- because Tooey's braces are making it a little tough for him to eat his salad gracefully. But the giggling stops and they all nod their heads in approbation when, during a discussion on drug abuse, Tooey says drugs are ``not a problem'' at Western because ``most of the time it seems drugs are for kids who are down. We don't need them because nobody's down here.''

At Stillwater Junior High School in Minnesota, a group of ninth-graders say they know all about the great difficulties kids in their age group are supposed to go through.

``And some of us do, I'm sure,'' says Melinda Driscoll. ``But sometimes we hear so much about adolescence ,'' she says, putting quotes around the word with her fingers, ``that we wonder, `When is all this going to happen to me?' ''

Her classmate, Dan Spencer, adds facetiously that his father has ``this great book'' on his shelf, ``something about `helping your child get through adolescence.' Sometimes I feel like asking him, `Do you really expect me to be like that?' ''

Down the hall, several students are sitting at the school's ``commons,'' two long tables next to some vending machines. Asked about their preoccupations and concerns, their answers have a familiar ring: making friends, ``what everybody else thinks of you,'' and clothes.

But one of the boys says clothes are really more important to the girls. What about the boys, then? What are they interested in? His answer is simply, ``Breakin'.'' Which means breakdancing.

I'm informed that the school's best breakdancer is recovering from a skiing mishap, but the students quickly point out Joel Olson is ``a pretty good breaker.'' Joel shrugs his shoulders in response, then giggles and shakes his head when asked to give a demonstration. His friends taunt him and I ask again to see what he can do, but the answer is, ``Nah.'' No sooner is that said, however, and Joel is up and on the floor, gliding about as if he had a slab of Minnesota ice beneath his feet. Then he stops, and walks away.

``He's embarrassed,'' says one of his friends. ``I'm kind of shocked he even did it,'' says another. ``No way,'' says a third. ``He wasn't going to lose a chance to make a good impression.'' --

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