My kid starts middle school next month (and for those of you who have been around since his birth, yes: We are old), and a lot of people want to comfort him, to say to him, “You’ll be fine! You’ll love it! You’re going to have a great time!” I’m not one of those people. I tell him this: “It’s going to be awful. It may very well be the worst years of your life.” I tell him this to both lower his expectations, and because it may very well be true, and I want him to be prepared for it, because for me — and a lot of other people — our middle-school years were the worst of our lives.
In fact, there was an episode of This American Life about middle school a few years back, where a middle-school teacher interviewed said that, as far as learning goes, middle-school is useless. That it’s almost impossible to get through to middle-school kids because they are so preoccupied with hormones, sex, popularity, and their own insecurities. That sounds about right. I don’t even remember much of middle school anymore; it’s like one of those traumas that we repress.
Every middle-school kid should see Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade. Not before they enter, because I don’t think most middle-school kids would understand until they’ve had a taste of that medicine. And not because it provides any of the answers one needs to traverse middle school. But because Eighth Grade will make them understand in very specific ways that they are not alone in their misery. That these three horrible years are the price we pay to grow up, to find ourselves, and to figure ourselves out. It’s about building back our confidence by having our self-esteem completely stripped away, and rewiring and relearning and reprogramming ourselves to be adults, because everything we thought we knew about becoming an adult was completely fucking wrong.
I would not wish middle school on my worst enemy.
Elsie Fisher, who is flat-out phenomenal here, stars as Kayla, who is embarking on her last week of the eighth grade before heading off to high school. From our vantage point — as adults, as people who have graduated middle school — Kayla seems atypical. But she’s not. She’s like a large majority of eighth graders. She’s quiet. She has few or no friends. She’s terrified to speak to people, afraid of rejection, afraid to put herself out there. She spends time away from school holed up in her bedroom, attached to her one and only friend: Her phone. She makes awkward YouTube videos, that no one watches, about how to navigate middle school and make friends, about how to build her confidence, about how to let people know the “real” you, and not the “school” you. And she tries — my god, does she try — to follow her own advice, but you can almost hear her interior monologue debating with itself, demanding that she remain in the comfort of her own silence, and when she finally musters the courage to speak, it comes out as awkward stutters and false starts that only exacerbates her daily humiliations.
In other words, Burnham’s film puts you right back into the hell that was eighth grade, where you moon over the popular kid, where you game plan every day only to see that plan fall to pieces, where you carry on imagined conversations as rehearsals for the conversations that you want to have but never do. The movie feels like a documentary to so many of our young lives.
As an adult, it’s almost impossible to watch Eighth Grade without wanting to tell Kayla that none of what is happening to her matters, without wanting to speak to your younger self to tell him that middle school is not something that you can win or defeat. It is something that you survive. That you get through. That one good day can sustain you for weeks.
In a way, with my kid — who reads this site now, which is fucking bizarre — entering middle school, I have an opportunity to offer a younger version of myself that very advice, although my kid (like my younger self) probably won’t listen, and my hope, anyway, is that his experience is a much, much better one than mine.
But I will say this, D: Don’t worry about being “popular” or fitting in. It doesn’t matter. The people who are popular now probably won’t be in three years, and the kids who are popular now are probably only popular because they are shitbags to everyone else (if you are popular, please do not be a shitbag to everyone else). Also, don’t worry about what other people think of you, because they’re not thinking about you at all: Everyone in middle-school — everyone — is thinking of only themselves, of how they are going to get through the day. Adults will say to you, “Just be yourself,” but you have no goddamn idea who you are right now, so just be. Find a friend or friends — any friend, and it doesn’t matter how cool or popular or attractive he is, and it doesn’t matter what he does or does not wear — and latch on to him. A friend, any friend, is invaluable.
And on your roughest day, at your lowest point, after what you perceive is your worst humiliation, come to me, and we’ll watch this movie together. Or you can watch it by yourself. That’s fine, too. It will not provide you with any answers whatsoever, but it will be an immense comfort to know that almost everyone around you is going through the exact same thing. It’s so universal, in fact, that they even made a movie about it.