Definition: (Adjective) At an equal distance from the extremities of something
Synonyms: Center or Midst, suggesting that a person or thing is closely surrounded or encompassed on all sides, especially by that which is thick or dense; such as the midst of a storm.
When I tell someone I teach in a middle school, the most common reaction is a wince followed by a comment such as, “I hated middle school.” People say things like “I’m sorry,” or “Those were the worst years of my life.” I’ve never heard anyone say, “You know, I really wish I could go back and re-live eighth grade.”
I teach the years most people try to forget.
“An equal distance from the extremities” — that’s what it feels like a lot of days — that those of us who teach the middle are wading through the messy, inmost pieces. We are teaching lessons to brains mid-developed, grading essays that are half-finished, trying to counsel and guide people who are only able to partially listen.
There’s no hiding the realities of these places — students try so very hard to appear to have it all together, but pull it off very poorly. Even those who appear the most composed are doing their best to stay that way. It’s a place where an untidy vulnerability hangs heavy in the air. Everything seems a little shaky, a little fragile, when so many are trying to hard to look the right way, say the right thing, and be the right version of themselves. (This is also exactly why I feel anxious at bridal showers.)
Oh, and on my warm days, my classroom smells like puberty. (When prepping him for “the” video to be shown in his 4th grade classroom, my oldest son said, “I don’t know what this puberty thing is, but it sounds disgusting.”) The aroma on May afternoon serves as very tangible reminder that this stage of life is often awkward and uncomfortable.
Wander through a middle school cafeteria and you’ll see it — how hard it is to be truly confident, truly funny, truly smart, truly anything (but trying). It’s a microcosm for the world — a place where self consciousness and hurt intermingle with curiosity and a joyful innocence.
But in the middle, magic can also happen. There is a reason so many books that have become classics are coming-of-age stories. (If you hated To Kill a Mockingbird when you were assigned to read it in high school, can I beg you to try it again? You weren’t ready for it then, but you are now.)
There is a single account in the Bible of the adolescence of Jesus — when he was 12 years old and left behind in the temple while his parents traveled three days back home before realizing in panic that their boy was missing. (Doesn’t this make you feel better about your parenting skills, too? If it happened to Mary and Joseph…) Upon their reunion, we see this God-as-a-boy stopping to ask his parents, “Do you know what matters to me? Didn’t you figure out where I would be?” The process of figuring out identity, a gentle moving toward things that matter, is not a clean and simple process.
I’m slowly figuring out that the only way through is through the middle, through the midst of it all.
Adolescence is one inevitable “middle” in life, but it’s not the only one. During most of our lives, we’re wading through middles — we’re offshore, swimming through (or treading the waters of) parenting, faith, friendships, family intricacies, marriage, illness, tragedy, pain.
We can try to ignore the hard stuff, try to push it out of our minds, try to leap over it, but we have to wade into it first. The “middles” of our lives are not shiny, easy, or non-stop fun. Many moments don’t make our social media highlight reels. This looks much more like wading in mud than in shimmering waters. Most middle moments involve little more than showing up and trying our darndest to do the next right thing. Or sometimes, taking a nap.
Redemption can be found in running out onto the other side, but much of the time, redemption looks more like crawling out, a clumsy stumble onto dry land, with months and years before we can make any sense of it.
When life gets overwhelming, I find a strange comfort in knowing that I am just a pinprick on this planet, just one player in God’s greater story — a story much, much bigger than I can see. We are all confused adolescents in the noisy cafeteria.
We are loved, we are chosen, but we are not alone, and everyone else is loved and chosen, too.
Do you know of the Russian Matryoshka dolls? The wooden dolls that nest one inside the other? My days nest one inside another, adding up into phases and seasons (some harder than others), adding up into a lifetime, but still nesting inside a bigger story. And as much as I may try to work and prove my worth, I am already resting — being held safely — inside that larger space. I’m not going to earn my way in or out of that safety, God’s nest. I am in the middle, but I am secure. I am imperfect and flawed and irritable — but I am loved anyway.
I wonder if my time spent in the middle — inside my 8th grade classroom; inside that car ride with the kids when the word “Mom” whined one more time makes me feel this close to snapping; inside the hospital waiting for word from the surgeon about Dad’s surgery — could remind me to stop trying so hard and just rest in the mess with assurance that I’m nestled inside a larger story.
The magic of the middle may be that though life’s messiness cannot be comfortably navigated, we are, in fact, “closely surrounded, encompassed on all sides.” We’re not crushed in the middle, but held safely in the “midst of its storms.”