Not Much Just Chillin’: The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers, by Linda Perlstein

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Not Much Just Chillin' by Linda Perlstein. File Photo

By JODI BROADWATER

It’s been a decade since I walked the halls of Ormond Stone Middle School, but it only took 10 pages of Linda Perlstein’s “Not Much Just Chillin’: The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers,” to transport me back to that world of insecurity, instant-messaging and all around in between-ness.

For someone who, like many, has suppressed all awkward memories from grades 6 through 8, that’s a feat that testifies to the reporting and writing prowess of Perlstein. A former Washington Post education reporter, Perlstein tracked and documented the lives of five students throughout the 2001-2002 school year in a suburban Maryland middle school, Wilde Lakes.

All the familiar characters from our own middle school dramas are in place. There’s Eric, the smart and energetic, though academically underperforming, boy from a broken home; Lily, the shy, good mannered girl who’s desperate for the attention and affirmation of her popular best friend, Mia; Jimmy, the pre-pubescent, slightly nerdy boy who’s seemingly out of sync with his own body; Elizabeth, the only child of devoted, though uncertain-about-how-to-parent-a-teenager, parents; and Jackie, the boy-crazy girl who jumps from “boyfriend” to “boyfriend” while yet somehow maintaining her innocence.

Perlstein chronicles their actions, conversations, thoughts and feelings on everything from the Sept. 11 tragedy to friendship, romance, religion and homework. Their lives unfold dramatically as if on a film reel, from home to school and home again, from the first day of school to graduation, giving the reader privileged access and insight into the oft-overlooked, and as such oft-misunderstood, realm of middle school.

The students’ words are blunt, incredibly real, and admittedly alarming to any adult. They speak of the flippancy of friendships, of their frustrations with teachers and parents, of “freak” dancing and sex (or what they know of it)—and Perlstein injects no buffer for their language. She reports what she sees and hears–just as frankly as what she’s seen and heard–without attempting to tell parents or teachers how to do their jobs.

Rather, when she deems it appropriate, Perlstein subtly offers simple advice for how parents can meet their children amid the early teenage years. After detailing a love “compatibility test” Jackie’s created on her computer, combining such factors as looks, personality, athletic ability, favorite color and kisses, Perlstein notes: “Aside from ‘favorite color,’ the criteria in her formula make sense,” and adds that, “This is the kind of thing a parent can discuss with a child. ‘What do you like about him?’ ‘What would make a good girlfriend?’”

Not yet a parent, and not too far removed from being a middle schooler myself, I thought the book to be both incredibly insightful and extraordinarily entertaining. I found myself laughing out loud, relating to different aspects of the reality Perlstein depicts, and also envying her ability to depict it in such a way. It is clear how deeply and flawlessly she immersed herself in the culture at Wilde Lakes, especially to be granted entrance into the guarded lives of pre-teen students. For anyone interested in the cringing realities of youth culture, this is the book to read.

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