Do you remember Middle School? Or maybe it was called Junior High, like it was for me. Those years in your educational career that roughly spanned the ages between about eleven and fourteen.
Looking back it might be just a distant memory, and if you were one of the lucky ones, a time you fondly recall. That tightrope between childhood and adolescence, also known as puberty, spans a gulf of emotional awakening that is as treacherous as the Grand Canyon for most.
Without a doubt, the ‘coming-of-age’ years, especially in the modern West, are among the most dramatic and tumultuous eras of life. Modern youth in the West are largely adrift, as rituals or community ceremonies that were common in archaic times are for the most part absent.
On the earlier side of the bridge lies childhood, filled with familiarity, at least, ideally love and comfort as well. The horizons are near, stretching only as far as the front yard and perhaps the end of the block.
Grade school is an extension of the playground with the same playmates and neighbors accompanying one throughout the day. The World of Wonder expands in all directions through myths, stories, or the modern cartoon, but there’s an abstract quality to it all, tethered only to imagination.
Way off in the distance on the other side of the puberty gulf is High School, and by extension, Adult Land. Look at those self-assured sophomores, juniors, and seniors calling their own shots, making their own decisions, and choosing their own destinies!
In between is what might be called The Minefield of Identity. You step into it, at around the age of eleven or twelve, simply as One of The Kids. Somewhere in the journey across the chasm you are expected to figure out just Who In The Heck You Are.
But here’s the rub. If you can recall those distant years in your own personal Wayback Machine between your ears, it’s far easier to categorize everyone else than it is to hang an identity on your own self. After all, part of the process of pawing through puberty is trying on different identities like clothes on the sale rack.
From the inside looking out, You’re just You! The internal ‘Me’ is special, unique, and one-of-a-kind. But everyone else? Well, they have to be pigeonholed, classified, labeled, even stereotyped if you will. Gradually, without even really thinking about it, you find yourself in the company of a few kindred souls at a similar point along the path of puberty who are pointing and labeling and categorizing ‘everyone else’ in a similar way, and there you have it. You’ve found your tribe, or perhaps, more accurately, by default, your tribe has found you.
Nothing is new about this coming-of-age process. All the characters and categories are more or less the same. What’s an eye-opener for a geezer like me, (who happens to also be the Dad of a 7th-going-on-8th-grade daughter) is how much the terminology changes over the years.
In any given middle school population you’ll find the usual suspects. Some kids are more academic and easily get good grades. There will always be certain youngsters who have natural athletic or musical ability. Some are rebels who go against the grain of authority. Many are happy with the mainstream of culture while others insist upon being nonconformists.
A recent conversation with my darling daughter brought this all into stark relief. We were driving and discussing musical styles and her recent reverence for All Things Punk Rock. I went off on a long soliloquy about what it was like to live in the world before either Punk or Hip Hop had emerged, and how they were both in their own ways reactions to the by-then polished long-haired Rock & Roll of the 60s and 70s and the somewhat sappy sounds of mainstream Soul and Disco.
Then I reminded her about how not much more than a year ago she was an expert on much of the music heard on popular radio stations. She emphatically made it clear that those days were over!
She explained, “Whenever I meet someone new, the first thing I ask them about is what music they’re into. I have them name four or five bands or artists that they like. If I don’t like their music, we’re done.”
“What if you’ve never heard of any of the groups they name?” I enquired.
“I go look them up and do my research before making a decision.”
“That’s reasonable.” I replied before going on at length about the wisdom of keeping an open mind and giving people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to music because tastes can change as people grow.
Then I started asking about who listens to what and things got interesting. Indie bands? “Well, that depends. Some of the Alt kids are into that.”
“What makes someone Alt?”
“Well, they’re definitely not Punk, pretty much just Normies who just put on a bit of eyeliner or maybe a safety pin or something.”
“Ah, we used to call them Posers. So who listens to like the Top 40 or Rap music on the radio?”
“Nobody I hang out with. Just the Highlighter Guys or the Hot Cheeto Girls.”
“Whoa, wait… Highlighter Guys? Hot Cheeto Girls? Please elaborate.”
“The Highlighter Guys all wear those baggy shorts and fluorescent neon windbreakers and look like highlighter pens. If you’re a girl with big poofy hair and a lot of bright colored makeup and those huge hoop earrings then you look like a Flaming Hot Cheeto like you get at the gas station. The Highlighter Guys and the Hot Cheeto Girls all hang out with each other.”
Wow. Consider me schooled on the up-to-the-minute terminology. I shared with her how back in Colorado in the 70s my junior high school factions were comprised of Jocks, Brains, Band Kids, Stoners, Freaks, and Goat Ropers. And how almost anyone in any one group would have never labeled themselves as such.
Some things never change. As kids tiptoe across the tightrope over the perils of puberty, the struggle is real. Only the labels evolve.
Sending you love till next Monday from the far side of the generation gap…
Director of the Dance First Association
Publisher of Conscious Dancer Magazine