Transcript

449:

Middle School
Transcript

Originally aired 10.28.2011

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/449

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Hey, everybody, Ira Glass here. So we got this email at our radio show near the end of the last school year from a 14-year-old.

Annie

Hello?

Ira Glass

Hey, is this Annie?

Annie

Yes.

Ira Glass

I called her up at her house in California and asked her to read it.

Annie

It says, "Dear This American Life, I just escaped the whitewashed brick walls, iron-gated prison that is commonly known as middle school, and I'm finally out for good. But in all the time I have listened to your show, I have never heard an episode devoted to what goes on inside the walls of a middle school. I hope you'll think about it. Anonymous."

Ira Glass

Yeah. You signed it anonymous, but then you actually-- your email was signed with your name.

Annie

Yeah. I had said anonymous because in middle school everybody is so judgemental, and I didn't want the kids to judge me or anything if they heard me on the radio.

Ira Glass

Mainly, she says that she wrote to us because she and her friends were talking right after they left eighth grade about how terrible middle school was. And she wondered, was it just as bad for other people as it was for them?

Annie

You always wonder whether other people are going through the same thing as you. And it'd be cool to hear other people's stories about it and what they went through.

Ira Glass

And if you had to explain to somebody what are the worst things about middle school, can I ask you to just walk me through it? Like what is so bad about middle school?

Annie

Kids there are all in kind of socially-awkward stages that the drama every day can be frustrating, and girl/boy things, or someone likes so-and-so. And then, no matter who you are or what you do, you'll get made fun of for it. Anything, anything in the world, you can get made fun of for.

Ira Glass

In Annie's case, she had friends who smoked. So she got criticized for smoking. But then she also was made fun of for not smoking, for being too much of a sissy to start smoking. She was made fun of for coming from a bilingual elementary school, where everybody learned to speak Spanish and spoke it throughout the day.

Annie

And leaving elementary school, I guess I thought that when I got to middle school everyone would think it was really cool that I spoke Spanish. But when I got there, they mostly just thought that it was dumb. I don't know if they were jealous or what. But they would make fun of me for it. Then they'd say we're all full of ourselves that we spoke different languages and stuff.

Ira Glass

Did it make you feel bad?

Annie

Yeah. I didn't want to stick out in that way. If I got a new sweater or something, say, for Christmas, that I really liked, and I would really want to wear it to school or something, but I'd be nervous because what if someone didn't like my sweater, or someone made fun of me for wearing it? It can be hard to do even the smallest things because you're so nervous that people will tease you or judge you from it.

Ira Glass

That sweater example, is that a real example?

Annie

Yeah, it actually is. I worried about it so much. I also had a pair of moccasins that I'd never worn, and they're kind of my signature now. Everybody really likes them. They're like ankle-high, lace-up moccasins.

Ira Glass

And how long did you have the moccasins before you actually wore them?

Annie

A few months, like probably two months. I guess I just thought, if people didn't like them, they would all make fun of me for wearing them. And I didn't want to stand out that much.

Ira Glass

What could be done to make middle school better?

Annie

I don't think you can really do anything about it.

[LAUGHTER]

Nothing.

Ira Glass

We talked about this for a little while. She said, basically, everybody comes into middle school as a little kid, and you're going to have to grow up and figure out who's in what group, and who you are, and who's above who. And you're going to have to figure that out somewhere at that age, right? It might as well be middle school. And it was terrible, she says. But now she's in high school.

Annie

Whatever middle school was, it worked. Everyone's a lot friendlier. And everyone's lives are a lot better now.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our radio program, for Annie, we look at whatever it is that happens in those mysterious years that we call middle school. We have stories today from all over the country, people lurching their way through these years when you're figuring out so, so much. We go to middle school dances and classrooms and down to the Mexican border. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One. Life in the Middle Ages.

Alex Blumberg

I don't know if they learned anything. They are so consumed with learning all these other lessons about where they fit in, and the social order, and how their bodies are now working, and--

Ira Glass

Who they're going to be.

Alex Blumberg

--who they're attracted to, and who they're going to be, that facts and figures and geography and all the other stuff that you teach in school, it just doesn't even penetrate.

Ira Glass

Wait, wait. Are you saying, like, we shouldn't even bother to have them in school, we should just basically put them to work in the factory for two or three years?

Alex Blumberg

Yeah. I basically came away thinking you're sort of wasting your time trying to teach middle school students anything.

Ira Glass

If that seems, just, insane, Alex told me that Maria Montessori, who is the creator of the Montessori schools who looked at what kids could learn at each developmental stage, at one point in her career actually tossed out a similar suggestion. Perhaps, she said, young adolescents would be better off at a farm school, what she called an Erdkinder, where they would work with the land.

[LAUGHTER]

Marion Strok

Has he just got a great sense of humor, or what?

Ira Glass

I ran Alex's thoughts by Marion Strok, the principal of Evergreen Academy Middle School in Chicago, which is listed as one of the best middle schools in the country, a school to watch by the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform.

Marion Strok

You have to be-- I have to say, well, I, obviously, don't agree. I think that we definitely have a way to stick knowledge in their heads. It's being creative about how we do it and taking into consideration all of those other things. It-- I'm not going to lie. It's not easy.

Ira Glass

Can I ask you, how much of the stereotype around students this age is true? Are you saying that the stereotype is true, you've just got to deal with what it is?

Marion Strok

It is true. And you have to-- as the adult in the situation, you have to find a way to work around it, find a way to help them to grow up. They won't have to suffer if we do things right. They won't have to suffer as much, let's say.

I mean, you're going to go through emotional changes, and your body's changing. But that can't be helped. The raging hormones, that can't be helped. All of that can't be helped. It's the way that we react to it that will make such a difference in their lives. It's our flexibility. It's our concern. It's our listening to them. It's our hearing them out.

Ira Glass

And so what's actually happening developmentally in the bodies and brains of kids when they're in middle school?

Linda Perlstein

Let me give the overview this way, the terrible twelves are a complete analog to the terrible twos. They're just not as cute, right?

Ira Glass

This is Linda Perlstein. When she wrote a book called Not Much Just Chillin', The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers, following five middle school students very closely for a full year, she also, incidentally, researched everything she could find out about what is going on developmentally with kids that age that makes them so different from other ages and fascinating.

Linda Perlstein

This is the time of biggest growth for a human being aside from infancy. So your bones are growing faster than your muscles. So you can't actually sit still.

But your brain, your gray matter-- during the middle school years, what happens in your early stages of puberty is this vast overproduction of brain cells and connections, far more than you actually need. And only some of them are going to survive puberty.

This growth in your frontal cortex, it peaks at 11 for girls and 12 for boys. And then what happens is the cells just fight it out for survival. And the ones that last are the ones you exercise more.

Ira Glass

In other words, during those years, your brain turns you into you, the adult you. The stuff you don't exercise, just kind of goes away. And what stays?

Linda Perlstein

So if you think about what you learned at the early stages of puberty, I don't know what that was for you. For me it was tap dancing and French. You know, it sticks. I know French much better than any language I learned after that, and not because I had a better teacher. I was learning it at the right time. I can still do tap dances, though I won't, that I learned when I was 12 or 13.

Ira Glass

Yeah. I can still do magic tricks that I learned at that age.

Linda Perlstein

Exactly. It's like it's embossed in your existence. It's this important time for your brain. It's like this use it or lose it time.

Ira Glass

Linda Perlstein agrees that all the stereotypes about middle schoolers, everything, in fact, that Annie complained about, all of that is true. But she says that there's a flip side that people don't usually talk about. Middle school is when kids open up to the world. It's when they think about bigger things. And they haven't formed their opinions on things yet. Everything is up for grabs, which is amazing to be around.

Linda Perlstein

I just think kids that age are fun. I like being around them. Middle schoolers are in that real nice spot of being interesting, but also being able to explain to you what's going on in their minds and why they do the things they do. They're self-reflective. They're capable of self-reflection in a way that younger kids might not be.

Ira Glass

Older kids, she says, high school kids, by then they can be jaded or cynical. They're settling into who they are. Middle school, everything's new. You're probably picking your friends for the very first time. For the first time, they aren't just the kids on your block or your parents' friends' kids or the kids who are around.

And so you make a best friend one day, who then you drop two weeks later. You get obsessed with guitar, or computers, or dance for two weeks, and then two weeks later you drop it. For everything that's awful about middle school, she says, that's the great thing about it. You experiment.

Act Two. Stutter Step.

Rob Wildeboer

Who's nervous about tonight?

Girl

I am.

Girl

I don't know.

Rob Wildeboer

Why?

Girl

Well just, we don't know what it's going to be like. I just don't know. Yeah.

Girl

I mean we've gone to these things before, but they've never exactly had the term dance to it.

Ira Glass

These four girls are sixth graders, and they're in a car on the way to a neon-themed dance at Edgewood Middle School in Highland Park, Illinois, with their mom and reporter, Rob Wildeboer.

Rob Wildeboer

Who's going to dance with a boy tonight?

Girl

Nobody.

Girl

I can tell you that.

Girl

No one in this car.

Girl

You don't know if it's going to be slow dancing or regular dancing. That's why we are nervous.

Ira Glass

Roughly 800 miles east in New Jersey, sixth-grader Ethan DeRose was hoping that there would be at least one slow dance, though did he feel ready for a slow dance?

Ethan

Nope, not at all.

Brian Reed

Why not? What are you worried about?

Ethan

I just don't know how to do it. I'm not sure that I'll do it correctly or-- yeah.

Ira Glass

He's standing in front of the school with reporter Brian Reed, as kids stream into the school. Ethan is wearing a button-up shirt with green and black stripes that he is not happy with.

Ethan

That was my mom. She made me wear it. She said that if I don't wear the two shirts that I'm wearing right now, that I can't go to the dance.

Brian Reed

What are you hoping happens at this dance?

Ethan

I'm hoping I don't-- like nothing bad happens, like no humiliation or-- not something that will be a story for the next month or two, at least to me.

Ira Glass

Of course, Ethan and the girls in that car in Illinois are sixth graders. In New York City, seventh graders Evelyn Benson and Alice Westerman are excited and feeling very grown up on their way to their school's Halloween dance.

Girl

I'm really happy, because last year they split the gym in half, so it's light on one side and pitch black on the other side. All the sixth graders are kind of like banned from the dark side, but that's where all the cool kids are. So now we're in seventh grade and can dance on the dark side. So it's like, woo, we're cool.

Girl

Dance on the dark side.

Ira Glass

Some of the middle school boys got up the nerve to ask girls to be their dates to the dances. And because this is a new experience for the girls, too, being asked out on a date, they don't exactly know how to handle it. Here's a girl named Autumn, talking with our producer, Lisa Pollak, in Delaware, the afternoon of the dance.

Lisa Pollak

Did you get asked to the dance?

Autumn

Yes, I did.

Lisa Pollak

And what did you say?

Autumn

I said I don't know, but I probably won't say yes.

Lisa Pollak

Wait. You haven't told him yes or no yet?

Autumn

No.

Lisa Pollak

OK, so it's 1:20, and the dance is at 7:00.

Autumn

Yeah.

Lisa Pollak

When do you have to let him know?

Autumn

I probably won't answer.

Lisa Pollak

Are you serious?

Autumn

Yeah. I just kind of want to hang out with the girls.

Lisa Pollak

So he's the only one who asked you?

Autumn

There was other people, too.

Lisa Pollak

How many?

Autumn

Probably five-ish.

Lisa Pollak

Wait. Five boys asked you to the dance?

Autumn

Yeah.

Lisa Pollak

You told all these guys, I don't know?

Autumn

Yeah.

Lisa Pollak

What if they took that as a yes?

Autumn

Then they got the wrong answer.

Lisa Pollak

Do you say I don't know because it feels too mean to say no?

Autumn

Yeah, I'm not mean.

Ira Glass

Of course, some of the boys are no better. During the dance in Windham, Maine, our reporter, Claire Holman pulled sixth grader Christopher Potter out of the action for a chat.

Claire Holman

Is there anyone you like at the dance?

Christopher

There is.

Claire Holman

Does she know?

Christopher

Yes, she does. We're kind of dating at the time.

Claire Holman

So how's that going?

Christopher

Good. It just started like 20 minutes into this. So, yeah.

Claire Holman

You asked a girl to go out during this dance?

Christopher

No, a girl came to me and asked me out.

Claire Holman

OK, let's go minute by minute. So where were you when this happened?

Christopher

I was in the cafeteria, just got a drink of root beer. And she walks up to me and asks me to go out.

Claire Holman

What did she say exactly?

Christopher

She said, Chris, will you go out with me?

Claire Holman

And were you surprised?

Christopher

Not really. We've kind of been like on and off again.

Claire Holman

So it's not the first time?

Christopher

Yeah, not the first time.

Claire Holman

Does she always ask you? Or do you ever ask her?

Christopher

Well, it's kind of weird because it's always she wants me to ask her. So it was weird that she asked me.

Boy

Usually they don't last. It's a middle school relationship. Nothing really happens.

Eric Mennel

What does that mean, like a middle school relationship? What do you mean it doesn't last?

Boy

It just is destined to fail pretty much.

Boy

Yeah, because like it's a middle school. This isn't like where you're starting your life with. You don't hear things about middle school sweethearts.

Ira Glass

In Richmond, outside Moody Middle School's dance, reporter Eric Mennel spoke with Elliot German and his stepbrother, Jonathan Lawton-- they're both eighth graders-- who ran through the official rules for the dance.

Boy

So some of them are kind of funny. It says no hands below the waist. No petting, which I thought was kind of funny.

Eric Mennel

No petting?

Boy

Yeah, no petting.

Eric Mennel

What does that mean?

Boy

No one knows.

Boy

LIke it was specifically-- like the flyer that they hand out, they give you the dress code, and they give you the rules. No petting, and it's in quotations, and you never know what it means. It's like, do people sit there at dances and just like pet other people? Because that would be really weird.

Ira Glass

There are rules like this at all the dances, and some more comprehensible than others. As for whether or not the kids obey the rules, and what actually happens inside the dance on the actual dance floor, one of our producers, Lisa Pollak, went inside to the dance floor at the fall costume dance in Lewes, Delaware. And I'm going to hand it off to her.

Lisa Pollak

So the scene in the gym was pretty much the way you remember it-- older kids dancing in the middle, younger kids at the periphery, a few aimlessly wandering around, looking like they're not sure what to do. Lots of kids were dancing, jumping up and down. Occasionally you'd see a fist pump.

They danced in these tightly-packed clusters, very little room between them. And outside the clusters were chaperones, ready to step in if they saw any grinding or suggestive dancing. Hovering outside one of the clusters was a teacher named John Gause, and he looked perplexed.

John Gause

This knot has got me on edge at this point.

Why?

John Gause

Because they're trying to get away with stuff. You can tell by the way they're looking at you. They have a guilty look, because you're about to see me swoop.

Lisa Pollak

He actually did swoop. He plunged into the pack of kids, pulled a boy aside and talked to him. Then he told me why.

John Gause

He needed to be taken aside and told to stop being up against those girls like that. I don't want to jump in too much, but I just want to give them like the whoa, the flat hand whoa. Just whoa. Just calm it down a little. I mean usually if I see it, then they're going to stop, because they see me.

Lisa Pollak

And then comes the moment of truth, the moment that forces every kid in the room to make a decision, the moment that separates the timid from the brave. The slow song. I watch it with teacher Brian Comroe.

Brian Comroe

So we got our slow song. And just as I suspected, a majority of the students left the dance floor. All the couples are in the middle of the dance floor in a cluster, I suspect so they're not near an adult.

Lisa Pollak

I love how the kids go up to the couples dancing and interrupt them.

Brian Comroe

Oh, absolutely.

Lisa Pollak

Some of the couples didn't have much privacy. The friends were standing a foot away, hanging out and talking to them. And every so often a random kid would just cut across the dance floor.

Lisa Pollak

This girl right here just grabbed onto the back of her friend's neck while the friend is dancing with a boy.

Brian Comroe

Yeah. I don't know if she didn't want to be left out, or they came as friends. I think at this stage of the game it's hard when boys and girls pair off, and then one friend is always left behind.

Lisa Pollak

There's a few of these slow dances, but most of the songs are fast. And then suddenly, the song "Hit the Road, Jack" starts playing, and the lights snap on.

Lisa Pollak

Oh, my God. They just all like--

Brian Comroe

Yeah, it ends very abruptly. It's 9:00. It's 9 o'clock.

Lisa Pollak

That's it?

Brian Comroe

That's it. There's no wind down. 9 o'clock, lights come on. Parents are waiting. It'll be empty in another minute.

Lisa Pollak

And he was right. The experiment in mini adulthood that is a middle school dance was over. The same kids who minutes earlier were holding each other and swaying awkwardly on the dance floor got into cars and said hi to their parents.

Ira Glass

Lisa Pollak. Coming up, surviving middle school by pretending that you are from a completely different family. That is in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Three. Mimis in the Middle.

Ira Glass

This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, middle school. A 14-year-old from California who just got out of middle school asked for a show on the horror that is middle school.

Girl

It'd be cool to hear other people's stories about it and what they went through.

Ira Glass

We thought, you know? That's a pretty good idea. That is a place with a lot of stories. We've arrived at Act Three of our show. Act Three, Mimis in the Middle. The place that Domingo Martinez went to middle school, they still called it junior high. And he says that his sisters did something to cope with any feelings of inferiority they might have otherwise felt in the new school with all those new kids.

Domingo Martinez

When they started junior high, my sisters Mary and Margie invented the Mimis as a way to cope with any feelings of inferiority they might have otherwise experienced. They were entering the sinister world of teenage girls which, in the mid 1980s in Brownsville, Texas, was tinged with border-town racism. Instead of being ashamed of who they were, my sisters decided to create a polite fiction, and invited everyone to participate.

First, they died their brown-black hair blonde until it turned the color and brittleness of hay. Then, they began dressing in Sergio Valente and Gloria Vanderbilt. And finally, to cap it off, they decided to call each other simply Mimi. A typical conversation between them went like this.

"Mimi, do you like my new Jordache jeans?"

"Yes, Mimi, I do. Do I look rich in my new Nikes, Mimi?"

"Mimi, you look like a tennis player, Mimi."

"I know, Mimi. Maybe I should make Mom buy me a racquet."

It was really that simple. The Mimis made a conscious decision that they would be rich and white, even if their family wasn't. In other words, Marge and Mare had a small break from reality that we all participated in to help them through junior high. We all helped in creating the Mimis.

At the time, the rest of the family had not fully realized that our job as relatively new Americans, and worse yet, Texans, was to be as white as possible. And we honestly didn't see their delusion as anything other than another bewildering tactic in our sisters' quest for a higher level of superior fashion-- just teenage girls doing what teenage girls do.

There had been a time when our family had been rich by barrio standards, because our grandpa, Dad's stepfather, fought in the Korean War and used his GI money to start a trucking business when he got back. He married Grandma, who was widowed from her first marriage at age 16, and gave both her and my dad citizenship. My siblings and I, we were all born in Brownsville as Americans but really didn't understand what that meant. Not really. Not in that area.

Then Grandpa died in 1980, and our world began to crumble. The trucking business began to disintegrate around Dad, and he was started on a slow road towards desperation and religion.

Meanwhile, the Mimis had made their decision to be two blue-blooded, trust-funded tennis buddies from Connecticut, accidentally living in Brownsville, Texas with us, a poor Mexican family they had somehow befriended while undergoing some Dickensian series of misfortunes.

No one acted like it was peculiar, especially those in the family who didn't speak English, or could not understand the Mimis when they showed up at family gatherings.

"Yo no puedo hablaro espanolo," one of the Mimis would say to an uncle or cousin, who more often than not would linger lasciviously around them, at first conflicted by the idea of being turned on by so young a relative, and then mentally calculating just how distantly related they were, and tabulating his odds at scoring with this new white chick, who just happened to show up at this barrio party. But only after two or three beers.

"Mimi, how did you like my Spanish?"

"Oh, Mimi, it's getting really good."

"Mimi, do you think they understood me?"

"Oh, Mimi. Who cares?"

Soon the Mimis were buzzing at a fever pitch, intoxicating everyone who came near and caught a whiff of the Mimis' Anais Anais perfume. We had all seen the commercials on network television while watching Dallas or Knot's Landing, and it was a forbidden fragrance for rain-depressed English women with secret muscular boyfriends, who drove Jaguars dangerously through unpaved, one-lane Scottish roads. So the Mimis had to have it. And they found it at the local JCPenney and had Mom pay for it. Me and my brother Dan, and our older sister Sylvia, we just kind of stank from the heat and dealt with it.

Even Mom developed her own fascination with the Mimis, like she couldn't believe her luck now that she was related to royalty. Feeding into their fantasy gave her one of her own, so she was always ready for an air-conditioned trip to the mall. She took the little clothes budget reserved for us boys, my brother and me, and added it into the Mimis' wardrobe, because to her, it was a sign of status for the family that the Mimis look their best.

None of the rest of us would question it, even though it felt wrong. I was often left with the Mimis recently stylish hand-me-downs. No one else in my grade school was remotely label conscious, or capable of reading in English really, so it passed unnoticed that most of my clothes were made for glamorous junior high school girls. Almost every child at my school came from recently immigrated families-- kids so poor they'd save half their free lunch to share with their younger siblings at home, their heads shaved to rid them of lice.

My best friend, Arthur, he noticed though. He was part black and part Mexican, had just moved to Brownsville from some big city slum in Michigan, where his mother's boyfriend had been employed at a GM factory. And he read labels.

"Hey, Dom," he said. "Yo, man, you're wearing a girl's shirt. Or is Esprit making baggy boys' shirts now, too?"

So to change the subject, I slugged him high in the chest and ran away. He chased me down to punch me back and left me crying in my girls' blouse.

If she had any guilt about giving the Mimis the lion's share of the clothing budget, I imagine the justification my mother probably used was that my older brother and I would just ruin our clothes working with Dad under the greasy trucks. It made better sense for the Mimis to be in high fashion than for the feral boys to wreck new clothes.

"Mimi, you look just like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance. You should join the dance team at school."

"I know, Mimi. I think so, too."

"Mimi, I think you should dye your hair back to its original color, ash."

"I know, Mimi. I'm trying."

During this time, my brother Dan's eyesight was so bad he couldn't read the blackboard in school and constantly ran into corners or short, skinny people. People thought he was Asian, he squinted so much. Every photo of him taken in junior high, he looks like he's trying to see into the photographer's eyes through the camera lens. This, of course, goes entirely unnoticed. And it is the younger Mimi, Mary with the 20/20 vision, who gets vanity glasses with her name etched in gold script in the corner. Dan wouldn't get glasses until he was in the military when he was 17.

Eventually, Dad's failure at navigating the business and providing for his family intruded on the Mimis' fantasy. Dad made a decision that as soon as school ended, Mom would take the Mimis and Syl and drive them to California to participate in the seasonal grape harvest with Dad's cousins, people vaguely related to Grandma through marriage, I think.

They would be treated like adults there, paid the same as everyone else. Mom, I remember, was horrified at the implications, at the shame of having to send her virginal and royal daughters out to the fields. Plus, Dad's extended family out in California were very different from us-- wild and frightening and Californian. The Mimis, though, were undaunted, did not understand the complications.

"Mimi, we're going to California."

"Oh, my God, Mimi. We're going to be Valley girls, Mimi."

"Gag me with a spoon, Mimi."

"Mimi, your roots are showing."

We packed up Mom, the Mimis, and Sylvia in the beige 1980 Pontiac Bonneville, already an antique on its second engine and failing transmission, and they drove out of Brownsville.

A year later, I took this ride as well and also ended up picking grapes for the summer, mostly out of envy. That we were migrant workers for that period didn't occur to me, nor to anyone else. That label would never stick. Could never stick. We couldn't descend to that level. We just had to do it to help out Dad. That was all. Desperate circumstances calling for desperate measures and all that.

But it was too much for the Mimis, the reality of this first trip. Sadly, I think it was childhood's end for the Mimis. The vineyards had somehow inverted their secret garden, and the low door in the wall had closed shut behind them.

When they first reached California, the Mimis did indeed become Valley Girls-- the hippest, cutest, best-dressed migrant workers of that year, and very likely for many years to come.

The older Mimi, Marge, continued to dress like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance out in the fields, where the sun sizzled any inch of exposed skin. She wore a spaghetti-strapped red and white striped Esprit top, white cotton shorts, and a matching headband, with her red and white leather Nike tennis shoes, and took pictures of the vineyards and the workers with her Canon AE-1. Her headband kept a white strip of skin on her forehead from tanning. And as a result, she was forced to wear headbands for a few months afterwards, way after headbands were out of fashion. Eventually though, even she started dressing like the rest of the migrant workers, wearing long-sleeved, collared shirts buttoned all the way to the neck, thick, unstylish denim, and work boots, with a bandana covering her nose and mouth, or else she would have died of heat stroke. There were no photos taken of that.

Mary, the younger Mimi, did not fare any better. Her vanity glasses with the fake lenses were scratched well beyond recovery. Her roots grew out. And her hair turned a lighter brown as a result of the heat and the pesticides of the grape fields of Southern California.

The hard work went on all summer, and eventually it became bitter enough to breach even the walls of the Mimis' perfectly constructed fantasy. And so sadly, eventually even they were humiliated. And the illusion of wealth that had kept the family's idea of itself buoyant was deflated.

When they returned to Brownsville, as happy as we were to see them, no one ever mentioned the Mimis again. They were gone. And it was Marge and Mary that returned in their place, Mary rubbing her nose with the palm of her hand from allergies and snapping at anyone who tried to talk to her, and Marge, who never went back to California, and took a job at the bank the following summer instead.

I was sorry to see the Mimis go. We all were. When they were at their peak, the Mimis had been capable of creating a real sort of magic around them, enchanting both people and places, so that you could be looking at the same dreary landscape as them, the same terrible and hopeless event. And while you might be miserable and bitter, they would be beaming, enthralled, and enthusiastically hopeful. And then, if you got near them, or blessed enough to maybe talk to them, you would walk away feeling the same way as they felt, too. They were a gift to everyone who was lucky enough to get caught in their Anais Anais, the Mimis. They made all of us Americans.

Ira Glass

Domingo Martinez, reading an excerpt from his book The Boy Kings of Texas, which is a memoir and a finalist for the National Book Award.

Act Four. Anchor Babies.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Anchor Babies. So this week as we were putting together the radio show and sending reporters out into middle schools, we discovered that in schools all over the country, there already were reporters on the ground, deep inside, covering the issues that middle school kids really care about.

Taylor

Good afternoon, Huskies. It is Thursday, September 15, 2011. After today, there are only 162 school days until summer vacation. I'm Taylor.

Ira Glass

These are student newscasters from Hart Middle School in Pleasanton, California. I, myself, got my start on the mic on the morning announcements.

And this is what middle school morning announcements in some schools are like today. Students make these full-blown video productions. Some of them have music themes. The kids stand in front of banners with their school logo, or sometimes it's a green screen backdrop. They make it look like they're on a local TV news set. Our producer, Jonathan Menjivar, has been watching these newscasts all week with fascination. And he has noticed a few trends.

Jonathan Menjivar

Just like the local news, middle school newscasts tend to follow a formula. They almost all start with the Pledge of Allegiance.

Kids

And to the Republic, for which it stands--

Jonathan Menjivar

This next segment from DMS News at Dibble Middle School in Dibble, Oklahoma, is a staple of almost every broadcast I watched.

Boy

OK. We have late-breaking news. You'll be the first to know that we have two birthdays today. Happy birthday to both Gabriel Romero and Nathan Nidel.

Jonathan Menjivar

This has to qualify as breaking news because it's school. There's not a lot of exciting stuff for them to report. They have to tell their fellow students what the cafeteria is serving that day, when makeup pictures are being taken, and do the weather. My favorite comes from this girl, McKenna, near Buffalo, who's clearly had enough.

Mckenna

Good morning, Amherst Middle School. This is McKenna with today's weather. It's going to be how it is, like it is now, pretty much all day. In the afternoon, colder, windy and wet, with heavier rain [HEAVY SIGH]. In the evening--

Jonathan Menjivar

These newscasts are Middle School in relief, like what you'd see if there was a middle school exhibit at the Natural History Museum. There are tiny kids with big ears, shy, red-faced kids, jocks, computer club kids, completely normal, super-sweet, overachieving ones, and spazzy kids who are far too proud of their terrible jokes. They were fun to watch. I'd forgotten that middle school kids can have this overconfident goofiness.

I spent days watching kids deliver these newscasts. And I was curious what they'd be like if they actually reported on the stories that mattered the most to them-- stuff they'd never say on the morning announcements. The big headlines in their school that week.

Girl

Amanda, you need to get out of my shot.

Jonathan Menjivar

So I found a school that was willing to play along. Parkville Middle School is just north of Baltimore, and the students there do their morning announcements as a six-minute show called PTV. With the help of their teacher, Ms. Davis, the kids put out a really involved production. There's three TV cameras, a control room, and the anchors sit at one of those giant news desks. It has a PTV logo on it. Behind them, there's a backdrop of downtown Baltimore.

Ms. Davis

Girls, don't forget to watch your hair. I see Amanda, especially-- I see yours sitting right on your mic.

Jonathan Menjivar

With Ms. Davis' help, I enlisted the kids in this experiment to write up a newscast with news from their lives and the stories they each cared about. And they delivered. They said they had fun doing it.

Girl

So I've heard that there is a new Martin Luther King Jr. statue in Washington, DC. That statue doesn't even look like him. It looks like he has a uni-brow.

Boy

Our school's getting their boiler fixed, and they talked over the announcements like it was an important thing. But it didn't really sound important to me. But I guess they thought it was important for some students and the teachers.

Girl

Kids were randomly clapping at lunch, and the teachers got fed up. So last week a rule was made that you're not allowed to clap. So in lunch, this one kid, Raymond, clapped. I think he got suspended.

Girl

The US Department of Agriculture is banning potatoes from school lunches. I love potatoes. They can just make them healthier or something. They don't have to ban them.

Girl

The weather has been terribly cold lately. I've had to wear my Ugg boots like five times in the past three weeks. I swear if I find any dirt on them anywhere, Mother Nature is going to hear from me.

Boy

So over the weekend, my best friend told me he's still going trick or treating. He says he's going with a friend from school. Personally, I think we're all too old to be trick or treating. Well, that is all I have for today. I'm Billy Cochran. Have a good day.

Jonathan Menjivar

Zakia Bryant decided to go hyperlocal with her news. She wears glasses, and she had her hair pulled back with a headband.

Zakia Bryant

In local news, a.k.a. here at Parkville Middle, there's a lot of drama going on. Me, personally, I lost most of my friends. I really miss those chicks, but I don't think they feel the same. [? Kalen ?] and [? Jaya ?] were my besties, and now they're gone. I still love them, though. They're my sisters. Well, I don't really have too much more to say, because my life is kind of boring. So deuces.

Jonathan Menjivar

Zakia and I talked for a while. She told me that deuces is just another way of saying peace out.

Jonathan Menjivar

Can I ask you about your friends? What happened?

Zakia Bryant

Well, it was a lot of drama going on. Some things got said, and people's feelings got hurt. And some of us made up, some of us didn't. But I hope that we can. It sucks.

Jonathan Menjivar

So you're not talking to them at all?

Zakia Bryant

Well, actually, she's not talking to me, because I called her a name, and it hurt her feelings. So she's very upset with me. I need to apologize. I didn't do that yet. I feel kind of bad about that, so I'm going to.

Jonathan Menjivar

The very last kid I talked to was [? Jaya Wadi ?]. She sandwiched her most surprising news in between a couple other stories.

Girl

My brother goes to Penn State, and he's on the football team. And I've been to all the home games. And they are a lot of fun. The students are crazy, and they get dressed up in blue and white. It's really cool.

So my friend is always depressed, and then she's like mad at me all the time. So I don't understand that. I was watching the news the other day, and they were talking about how President Obama--

Jonathan Menjivar

Did you catch that? About her depressed friend? I asked [? Jaya ?] if it was hard to write about her.

Girl

Yeah, because I didn't want to hurt her feelings. But she really doesn't care, because she said she wrote about me, too.

Jonathan Menjivar

Oh, this is--

Girl

Zakia

Jonathan Menjivar

Yeah. Yeah. Wow. I didn't realize that her friends she was talking about were in this class.

Girl

Yeah, we are. But I've known her since like fifth grade. So we kind of fight a lot, but we always wind up being friends in the end.

Jonathan Menjivar

What happened exactly?

Girl

Nothing really. Just people telling other people things, spreading rumors and drama. Middle school.

Jonathan Menjivar

Ms. Davis, the journalism teacher at Parkville Middle, is always stressing that her students be factual and truthful in their stories. The news isn't rumors and opinions. But in middle school, sometimes it's hard to remember that. It's hard to step back and look at a story from different perspectives.

Ira Glass

Jonathan Menjivar is one of the producers of our show.

Act Five. Blue Kid on the Block.

Ira Glass

Act Five, Blue Kid on the Block. Last September, a kid that we're going to call Leo-- not his real name-- started seventh grade at a new school. And he was having a more extreme experience. He was having a harder time finding his place in middle school than other middle school kids, because he was new to town.

His family had just arrived from Rochester, New York. He had that on top of everything else. Leo still loved Rochester. He loved his school there. He loved his friends. Suddenly everything about his life was different and, according to Leo, much, much worse. The signature on his Gmail account read, Rochester is much better, in big red letters. Sarah Koenig knows Leo and his parents, and visited them at home to see how Leo was doing.

Sarah Koenig

This is how much Leo does not want to be here. When I got to his house, he was on the sofa with a laptop investigating Greyhound bus schedules. His mother was going to drive him and his sister back to Rochester for the Columbus Day weekend, but not until Saturday morning. And Leo wanted to get there Friday for more time with his friends. A multi-stage negotiation followed with his dad. For one thing, a bus ticket costs money.

Leo

That's not a problem. I have that money.

Leo's Father

Not for you. No, that wasn't a problem for you.

Leo

No, but--

Leo's Father

There isn't one.

Leo

There isn't one at 6:15 in the morning, and you won't let me miss school on Friday.

Leo's Father

The bus takes eight hours. Even if you left at noon, you-- are you going to do the math? That's excellent.

Sarah Koenig

Never mind that the bus takes twice as long as driving. And never mind that Leo would be alone and have to change buses, and that his parents had no intention of letting him go through with this plan. But it's the kind of negotiation you indulge when your kid is miserable. And Leo is miserable. He told me right away he was, and that he had been from the moment he got here in August.

Sarah Koenig

Is this the first time in your life where you felt like you've been sad about something for this long?

Leo

I think so, except for maybe when my other cat died, my old cat.

Sarah Koenig

And does this feel worse than that?

Leo

Yes.

Leo's Mother

Oh, really?

Leo

I've never had long periods of sad until now. I don't know. I don't know anyone here really. And I think it's just everything in general that's overwhelming.

Sarah Koenig

Back in Rochester, Leo had known all his best friends since kindergarten or before. They played together at school, after school, on weekends. Everybody knew everybody. Everything was comfortable. And as a sixth grader in his old school, he and his friends were at the top of the heap. They wore green sashes in the morning and got to be door monitors for the younger kids coming into the building.

So imagine now, Leo takes a school bus for the first time to his new school, a sprawling, one-story building full of sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. Leo's small for his age, only a hair taller than his sister, who's only 9 years old. On day one, he knows exactly no one.

Leo

It was much louder than my old school, much louder. People talking. People closing and opening lockers. People walking. It was just noise. There's older kids, more kids, because my old school's tiny.

Sarah Koenig

Leo is between. He's old enough to decipher Greyhound bus schedules, but not old enough to actually travel on one by himself. And old enough to know that if he's going to survive in middle school, he has to make friends, but that making those friends stands to be significantly more complicated than it was back in Rochester. Leo's sister, [INAUDIBLE] is in fourth grade. He says she's not having as hard a time of it.

Leo

She hasn't been alive as long. She hasn't made as deep connections. And she's already met a friend in her school. I think it's easier to make friends in elementary school than in middle school.

Sarah Koenig

Oh, really? Why?

Leo

Because people care less about who you are.

Sarah Koenig

What do you mean by that?

Leo

The older you get, the more you judge people on their looks, their background, how they act, like what cool is for kids. Because in kindergarten, you could just walk up to someone and say, do you want to be my friend? And they would. That would be it. But it's harder. I just think people are more wary before they open up. In first grade, if I met someone, I wouldn't really care who they were. I would just care if they were nice or not.

Sarah Koenig

The day I interviewed him, Leo had had a couple of breakthroughs. He emailed his parents during the school day to tell them the first piece of good news they'd had from him. Until that day, the emails had mostly been three desperate words-- I feel awful-- without even a period at the end to make the feeling finite. It was an endless awful.

But on this Thursday, he wrote to tell them the mashed potatoes they serve in the cafeteria were great, followed by four exclamation points. Second, and this was the big news, he asked another kid if he wanted to come over. Leo told me he thought about it first for a few days, then finally emailed the boy, whose name is Devon, another seventh grader. But now, Leo didn't want to call Devon's house to finalize a plan. He dreaded the awkwardness of the phone. So his dad called Devon's parents, introduced himself as Leo's father.

Leo's Father

He goes to school with your son Evan, and we were-- Devon. I'm so sorry. Devon. I'm getting the evil look from my son. I apologize. But we're hoping Devon can come over on Sunday. Thanks. I panicked.

Leo

[LAUGHS] You fool!

Sarah Koenig

How'd that go?

Leo

Not well.

Leo's Father

This is my son, Freddie.

Sarah Koenig

I had thought Leo might be upset about it, maybe get sulky. But here he was cracking up, joking with his dad. It was such a relief to hear him laugh after he'd been so solemn in our interview. And I thought, this is all going to be OK. He's going to snap out of it. He's almost there. An afternoon with Devon is going to do the trick. Then Sunday came.

Boy

OK, now I have three health again.

Boy

You can tell your wolf to--

Boy

OK, I'm going to tell my wolf to attack then.

Sarah Koenig

Leo taught Devon how to play Dungeons and Dragons.

Boy

And the wolf lands on its feet.

Boy

Yay! Go, wolfie. Go, wolfie. Go, wolfie. I am so weird.

Sarah Koenig

On the drive home, Leo and Devon talk nonstop, a gentle rat-a-tat one-upmanship, emanating from deep inside a computer game.

Boy

I am a what elf? Warlock?

Boy

Warlocks are fun. Can you summon your imp yet?

Boy

Yeah, you start with an imp.

Boy

Oh, right. I had a goblin shaman.

Boy

I'm a knight elf druid, and I can turn into a cat at Level 8, which is nice.

Boy

And at Level 12, you're the bear.

Sarah Koenig

By the time they dropped Devon off, they were giggling.

Boy

Our cat responds to whatever you call him. We said, [INAUDIBLE], we could call him football, and he'd respond.

Boy

You can call him football?

Boy

Here, football. Here, football.

Leo's Father

Thanks for coming over.

Leo

Thanks.

Devon

Thank you for inviting me.

Leo

See you tomorrow.

Devon

See you.

Sarah Koenig

So a perfect day, right? Leo's parents were relieved, hopeful. But no.

Sarah Koenig

It's Wednesday. You had your friend over on Sunday. How'd it go?

Leo

It went OK. Yeah, it went OK.

Sarah Koenig

Has it changed anything about being here?

Leo

A little bit. I don't think very much. But a little bit, yeah.

Sarah Koenig

What's changed? What's the little bit?

Leo

That I know someone at school. It helps. Not all that much, but sort of, yeah.

Sarah Koenig

This is when I realized I'd underestimated the depth of Leo's gloom, that he greets every morning of every school day with dread, and not because he's being bullied or anyone's being mean to him.

Leo

I feel sick because I know that I have the whole day ahead of me. And then I have the next day, and the next day, and the next day ahead of me.

Sarah Koenig

Does it pass once you get to school?

Leo

No, not really. It usually increases to a climax around lunchtime, and then I actually have been throwing up recently. And then it just stays that level of sickness until I get home.

Sarah Koenig

You're kidding me. You're throwing up at school?

Leo

Yeah.

Sarah Koenig

That's awful. In the bathroom or where?

Leo

Yeah, in the bathroom. Usually at lunch, I feel really bad, and I go to the bathroom. And I throw up.

Sarah Koenig

Has that happened this week?

Leo

Today it did.

Sarah Koenig

Do you tell your parents like I don't want to go, I don't want to go? Or do you just-- you know you have to, so you don't say anything.

Leo

No, I throw a screaming fit.

Sarah Koenig

Every morning?

Leo

Yeah, pretty much. I didn't today.

Sarah Koenig

What was different about this morning? How come you didn't today?

Leo

I felt resigned. I knew that I would have to go anyway, so I gave up.

Sarah Koenig

There's the curse of being almost 13-- old enough to understand his life will supposedly get better with time, but not old enough to really believe he's going to feel any differently than he does right this minute.

Since making friends with Devon, Leo is one step toward being the kid he wants to be-- someone with pals, someone who's comfortable again. But he says right now he's just worried he's going to be throwing up all year.

Ira Glass

Sarah Koenig. She's the host of Serial. In the years since this story first ran, Leo has made many friends, become immersed in the world of musical theater, and almost forgiven his parents for the move. When he graduates from high school next year, he wants to return to New York for college.

Act Six. Grande with Sugar.

Ira Glass

Act Six, Grande with Sugar. So I've been talking to educators. And one who had taught for years in high school and then moved to middle school told me that the key difference between teaching in the two environments was that in middle school, you have to be sympathetic to and patient with all of the emotional drama. You have to deal with that directly if you want the classroom to work, which brings me to this next story of a student who was doing badly in a middle school in Newark, New Jersey.

Shannon Grande

He was a mess. He would come in, his uniform would be dirty. He hadn't showered. He hadn't had breakfast. His book bag most likely had a hole in it, and all of his pens and pencils had fallen out. His homework wasn't done. And so, of course, he'd come in and he'd be angry.

Ira Glass

This is Shannon Grande, who teaches at Rise Academy Middle School which is a public school, 91% black and Latino, and eligible for free lunches, one of the KIPP charter schools, hence the uniforms. I heard about this story from Elizabeth Green, who has been reporting on this school for a journalism outfit called Gotham Schools.

Anyway this teacher, Shannon Grande, says that this seventh grader would come in angry all the time.

Shannon Grande

And usually someone would say something literal to him like your shirt's not tucked in.

Ira Glass

Another kid would?

Shannon Grande

Yeah, because they do that. They just kind of pick at each other. And it would set him off. And then he would just be very loud and just be like, oh, why do you always have to say this to me? And slam his stuff down. I hate this place. And he'd just go into these very general rants. And usually that's an indicator to us, like when they use those very general statements, that they're not processing through their emotions and that they're feeling overwhelmed.

Ira Glass

So this kid was in an unfortunate spiral. He felt isolated from the other kids just inherently, because his home situation was so bad. And then he would get angry with the other kids, which then made them mad. It made him more isolated. And he got worse and worse. Threw some stuff across the room and it hit a teacher.

Shannon Grande

There were points where he would come in, and he would refuse to do anything all day long. And he'd just-- he would cry. He would break out and cry in the middle of class. You didn't even know why.

Ira Glass

He couldn't explain why. One big problem for him, one reason that he was ostracized, he didn't wash. Kids would whisper about it. And when he would get mad, and then arguments would escalate, that is where it would go. You're dirty. You smell. The kids would say it right to his face.

Over time, the staff found all kinds of ways to address this. They got him clean clothes and a place to clean up before school. But the bigger problem, and that's the problem of his isolation and his anger, Ms. Grande says it was not clear how to deal with that. They would try things, but nothing was working. And then finally one day in history class during group work, he was trash-talking. And one of the best girls in the class, one of Ms. Grande's best students, ended up in an argument with him, saying terrible things. And Ms. Grande felt like, really? You, too?

Shannon Grande

I pulled the girl, and she was like, well, he brings it on. He gets angry, and then what am I supposed to say? I was like, well, you could not say that.

Ira Glass

That being?

Shannon Grande

That he's dirty and he smells. And she's like, well, he does. And I said, I think this is a bigger conversation.

Ira Glass

So Ms. Grande took this girl, and the three other girls who'd been doing group work with this boy, and she took these girls into the teachers' room, and all four of these girls were academically strong, and all of them had shown good leadership qualities in school in the past. And she talked to them.

Shannon Grande

I had explained to them that he struggles just to get here every day. I was like, you wake up in the morning, and you've got somebody that's getting you out of the door, giving you breakfast, making sure your clothes are clean, making sure you get here on time. He doesn't have that. He has nobody doing that for him.

And at that time, I knew that the power had been off at his house, that the week before, the water was shut off, that they had had part of their roof cave in. He has an elderly grandmother that he tries to take care of. And she had been getting up in the middle of the night and wandering. And he would hear her and get up, and carry her back upstairs.

Ira Glass

What was their reaction?

Shannon Grande

Empathy. And she's like, I didn't know that. And the other girls there were talking about that. And I was like, I'm telling you something that I normally wouldn't tell another student. This is something very private, but I'm trusting that you're mature enough to handle this. And I was like, so you're kind of breaking him down when you're doing these things. And she's like, well, can we talk to him?

I was a little nervous obviously. I was really worried about it. I was like, what am I doing here? This could be really dangerous and backfire on me terribly. They started to talk. And they're like, when you get angry, we get angry back. What do you expect us to say?

Ira Glass

And it really was just a couple of minutes before the kids told Ms. Grande, we can take it from here. And she left them to talk. Afterwards, the boy told Ms. Grande that it felt good. It felt good that these girls knew that he was trying to deal with his anger. And since this conversation, over time, the entire class has entered this discussion with this kid. And when this kid has an outburst, they will all talk openly about his anger.

Shannon Grande

Like the students say, well, you told us you're working on this. What are you going to do differently now? And then he'd try to explain, well, I'm trying to take deep breaths. I'm trying to journal when I'm getting angry. I'm trying to-- and he'd come up with whatever solutions he's trying to do.

But a lot of times even, it wasn't about the solution. The peer pressure itself, and the feeling like he had come in, and he's making these general statements like everybody's against me, and then he's starting to feel like, OK, maybe everybody isn't against me. Maybe they are just frustrated with this behavior that I'm doing, that I could be doing better. And we started to see that impact of peer pressure.

Ira Glass

It's like you took the entire machinery of middle school dynamics, and you're harnessing it to help this kid.

Shannon Grande

Exactly.

Ira Glass

Harness the fact that they'll listen to peers.

Shannon Grande

Exactly. And we know they do.

Ira Glass

This is what the research shows, that in middle school you listen to peers more than you listen to anybody else. And that is working with this kid. The other day this kid got a detention for missing part of his uniform, and he started on a rant in class about how they're all against him, and all the time they're on his back, and everybody's against him, and it was the end of the world. And Ms. Grande finally asked him, who's they? Who's everybody? And he started smiling. And she asked him what he was really upset about. And unlike in the past, he could untangle it. He could tell her.

[MUSIC - "PEER PRESSURE" BY THE SLITS]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Today's program was produced by Lisa Pollak with Ben Calhoun, Sarah Koenig, Jonathan Menjivar, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer for today's show, Julie Snyder. Our technical director is Matt Tierney. Production help from Ira Smith.

[ACKNOWLEDGMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. He gets so confused at the beginning of every HR meeting.

Boy

Like they give you the dress code. They give you like the rules. No petting, and it's in like quotations.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - "PEER PRESSURE" BY THE SLITS]