|THE BOTTOM LINE When a report card means the difference between freedom and being grounded, schoolwork takes on added importance. Danielle Heffern (top), with best friend Isela Reinberg, squints to see a specimen during science class. Mrs. Borchers (bottom), the critical thinking teacher, stands among her students.
Mrs. Borchers sits at the front of the room, listening to every word. She's calling up students one at a time for conferences. But she keeps one ear permanently tuned to the running dialogue around her.
She's a spy, Mrs. Borchers. This is just her third year of teaching - she's only 25 - but already she has learned to pay attention to anything and everything her students are willing to reveal about themselves. She knows that if she wants to reach these kids, she needs to understand them first. She has to know what they're thinking, what they care about, what it feels like to walk in their low-rise jeans.
Out of the adult population in the United States, a small percentage is truly cut out to be teachers. And only a handful are insane enough to teach seventh-graders. The kids are too volatile, too annoying, overflowing with hormones.
M.J. Borchers is one of the exceptions. The very things about middle school kids that drive other teachers crazy, she enjoys. The rampant insecurities, the skirmishes with their parents, their overheated tales of thwarted passion - all of it fascinates her.
She knows that these tiny dramas are merely the surface signs of a deeper, more elemental transformation. These kids are not just growing up. They're reinventing themselves. They are literally bursting out of themselves and into someone new. In more ways than one, they are being born all over again, only this time they're handling the delivery on their own.
The teachers at Booker T want to help. Unfortunately, the students do not make it easy. As a rule, seventh-graders maintain an almost military secrecy about their lives, refusing to divulge any intelligence to potentially hostile forces, i.e., adults.
Mrs. Borchers sneaks through the perimeter any way she can. In a drawer of her desk, she keeps a supply of sanitary napkins, so the girls will remember who to come to when their period arrives a day early. Knowing they'll relax if she makes them laugh, she channels multiple personalities, teaching the students in the voice of a valley girl, a redneck, a hippie. Her crowning achievement is her dead-on impersonation of Cher.
"If I could turn back time," she'll sing to them, flipping back her nonexistent long black hair.
When they wear a new pair of shoes or risk a different shade of lip gloss, she notices. When one of the girls suddenly stops eating and starts avoiding eye contact, Mrs. Borchers pulls her aside and asks if she's okay. And when they dare to make a cutting personal observation about an adult - a favorite pastime of most seventh-graders - she does not automatically freak out. Not long ago, one of the boys approached her with a concerned look on his face.
"We need to discuss your hair color," he said, grimacing.
He had a point. Usually Mrs. Borchers' hair is red, but on that day, just for fun, she'd shifted to purple. Unlike some adults, she has no trouble accessing her inner 13-year-old. In fact, she maintains constant communication with her inner 13-year-old, so she can remind herself what the world must look like through the eyes of her students.
She stays on top of what they're listening to, what they're watching, the ever-multiplying streams of information and attitude being downloaded into their brains. She knows the difference between Britney and Avril, Nelly Furtado and just plain Nelly. To the surprise of her students, she has actually seen a game of Grand Theft Auto 3, instead of just complaining about it like most adults, who wring their hands over the video game's sex and violence without having the slightest idea what they're talking about.
Everywhere Mrs. Borchers goes, she gathers data. As she walks through the press of students in the halls, she listens to their arguments, their plans for the weekend, their sweetly inept approximations of flirting. When she is lucky, she gains custody of the notes they scribble to one another. Sometimes she finds them on the floor beside her trash can. Sometimes, if the kids are brazen enough to pass the notes directly under her nose, she confiscates them.
Alone in her classroom, after her students have gone, she examines the evidence. Most of the notes have been written by girls. Almost always, the paper is folded into little triangles. Because the students are writing to one another, and not for adults, they give free rein to their thoughts, not caring what their mother might say and definitely not worrying about their spelling and grammar. What ends up on the page is a raw and unfiltered glimpse into what they care about, what they find amusing, their evolving notions of the sacred and profane.
This is why they say things they would never say to an adult. Why they talk so openly not just about love, but about sex. Also why so many of the girls address each other with R-rated insults, routinely referring to their best friends and even themselves as "skank," "bitch," even "slut." Coming from anyone outside their circles, these words would offend the girls; traded among themselves with rough affection, the words carry a giddy power.
He could go 2 hell 4 wat I care, writes one girl, describing a boy. He iz just a small punk ass faget dat thinks he got game wit every gurl but no he don't cuz I sure don't want him. I need ta shut hiz stank azz up.
While many of the students are still at the hand-holding stage, others are experimenting with sex. Some of them, says Mrs. Borchers, write about it in notes so detailed they read like kiddie porn. They talk about their preferences, about oral sex, about who they'll sleep with and who they won't.
I don't think me and him still go out. Cause in 3 peirod his friend asked me would I f*** him. I go maybe then he goes would you let him? I go it depends.
Most of it, Mrs. Borchers believes, is old-fashioned bragging, kids trying to impress their friends. But in some cases, they're clearly describing something happening in their lives.
The first time Mrs. Borchers came across that kind of language, written in seventh-grade cursive, she felt her ears burning. Now she reads the notes more calmly, appreciating the fact that she has been allowed entry into an underground system in which the students share all the things they can't share anywhere else.
"It's like a secret mail service," she says.
From the notes she discovers who they like, who they instant message, who they have driven from their inner circles. When she wants to find out something more, she catches them off-guard, acting as though her interest is not a big deal. Sometimes, she'll turn to a boy before class begins and ask how it's going with his girlfriend.
"You still together?" she'll say, and the kid will smile and nod and start talking, forgetting just for a moment that she is in fact a teacher, married, with a husband and a little boy at home.
The problem is not that the kids are leading particularly wild or shocking lives. It's that they're making their first attempt to assemble a life of their own. And often their moms and dads simply are not ready for it.
"A lot of the parents," Mrs. Borchers will tell you, "are so out of touch with their kids."
Sometimes, she says, it's because the parents aren't paying attention. The other day, Mrs. Borchers called the mother of one of the boys she teaches. This boy is struggling; she thought the mom would want to know.
"He doesn't live with me, he's not my problem," the mother told Mrs. Borchers. "Call his father."
More often, Mrs. Borchers encounters parents who are trying to stay engaged in their kids' lives but are having difficulty accepting what that means. When they look at their kids, these parents still see the toddler who smashed a finger in the door of the minivan in the McDonald's parking lot. They see the 6-year-old who used to sit in their lap after dinner, the 10-year-old who hid behind the couch every time somebody kissed on TV.
What they do not see - what it's easier for them not to see - is the 13-year-old who curses on his cell phone when Mom and Dad aren't listening, the one who sits in class with her friends, pondering the sexual orientation of their teachers.
Mrs. Borchers has no need for such denial, at least not yet. Her son is only 11/2; the biggest change in his immediate future is potty training.
With her students, it's entirely different. She's their teacher, not their mom. She is free to see them exactly as they are. The truth is, many of them remain fairly innocent. They try their best to act sophisticated. They pretend to never be impressed by anything, armor themselves with an air of weary cynicism, as though they have already witnessed enough for 10 lifetimes and could never be surprised by the wicked world again.
It's a sham. Beneath the jaded veneer, they are still 13. For all the bravado that spills out in their notes, most of Mrs. Borchers' students are remarkably naive. Even the ones who are already having sex don't know that much about what they're doing.
This is the real secret. The most important thing that Mrs. Borchers has learned. The thing she wishes the parents understood.
Her students are quite young, only a couple of years removed from the relative safety and simplicity of elementary school. And just as small children learn basic life lessons on the playground, seventh-graders use the mess and sprawl of middle school to test some fundamental questions of what it means to grow up.
They're all trying so hard to work it through. They're doing whatever they can to brace themselves against everything that's about to collapse on top of them. High school, SATs, jobs, marriage, a thousand responsibilities of their own.
At Booker T, when a boy and girl become a couple, they sometimes say they're "getting married." They wear each other's rings on their ring fingers; at lunchtime, out in front of the school, they occasionally even hold mock weddings. And when the couple break up, they give back the rings and declare that they're "divorced."
They're just kids, practicing at being adults before adulthood swallows them forever.