A lot of successful middle school curriculum- to the limited extent that it exists- is finding the sweet spot between the kids’ desire for fantasy and performance and play on the one hand and their insistence that what they do be real, real both in the sense of abiding by the rules and rituals of school and by seeming, at least partially, to point towards the adult world and not to be little kid stuff. So you put candles and tablecloths on the tables for the poetry slam, dress up in judge’s robes for the mock trial in the library or put on lab coats for the science fair in the gym, set up the lights and booming sound system for the talent show in the auditorium, put a cardboard balcony on one of the bookshelves for Juliet Rodriguez to peak out at Romeo Jones, but in the meantime do all the dull and repetitive nonsense that reassures the kids you’re crawling through the state-enforced obstacle course of lesson objectives and unit plans, that you haven’t taken a break from your senses or your mandated duties to get them from Point E1 to Point F2 in the scope and sequence of bureaucratic American life. And when it works, if it works, school becomes a little more real and a little less fake, for a little while, to the kids, and you hear them telling each other “all y’all a bunch a playa hatin Montagues” on the ball court or naming and ascribing distinct personalities to the millipedes they tried to teach to go through a maze. It’s the fantasy and play that made it real, along with the fact that it happened to everybody at once, was shared by most of the people in their conscious lives. But it needs to be cloaked and hidden, made not to seem like the little kid stuff it is.
By high school, of course, they can mostly smell the bullshit, and will if not refuse to do the silly projects refuse to get caught up in them emotionally or intellectually, most of the time. They will put up with much more monotony and grind, especially if you tell a few jokes and stories and are clear and quick and give back their papers on time, but school, at least the part that happens in academic classes, is distinct and separate from real life, and rarely the twain shall meet. Even the fun of telling who got hauled off to the Dean’s office for saying such-and-such to Ms. So-and-So has mostly faded, because everybody either has real lives- jobs and girlfriends and teams and bands- or wants everybody else to think that they do.
That doesn’t mean that the desire for fantasy, for performance has disappeared in high school, just that it’s displaced onto other things- to the moments before the team steps onto the football field or the cast hears the pit orchestra playing the overture to the musical before they step onto the stage, or to scoring some kind bud or some cheap beers, or to obsessing over which college you or your friends will get into or go to, or to being lonely and angry and 16. Or to the online world, which combines the aspects of fantasy and self-invention that teenagers want with connection to the adult world- since the online world is increasingly all that adults care about- and the real.
The incidents of random violence that have cascaded at an increasing rate are of course driven not only by access to guns but by a desire for infamy, the narcissism that says the self only exists when it is being watched, that it is better to be seen in horror than not to be seen at all. The media, amplified by the online world, provides the main audience for this spectacle and is the main enabler for this accelerating cascade. The eagerness with which adults employ children as representatives of their political desires comes not only from the supposed moral purity of youth and adults’ feckless uncertainty over what adulthood should be, but because we are uncertain enough about our roles for our play-acting to be forced and unnatural and obvious, and play-acting comes most naturally to the young.