the overlapping transition of middle school

i’m writing one of my final chapters for the middle school ministry book. here’s a bit i’ve just written:

Do you remember the video game called “Frogger”? You controlled a little frog who was trying to cross a street or a river. You could move left and right, forward and backward. On the street scenes, the goal was to jump, off the safety of the starting curb, into the spaces between the cars and trucks. There was a little median in the middle, before hopping through traffic going the other direction. On the river levels, the goal was the opposite: jump onto the moving turtles and Lilly pads before they submerged.

In both cases, the objective was the same: leave the safety of one curb or shore, navigate through the potentially life-ending obstacles of the transitionary space, and—hopefully—arrive at the safety of the far curb or shore.

For many years of middle school ministry, we thought of the middle school experience this way. We pictured, in our minds eye, pre-teens ambling up to the shore of a turbulent river. Then, at puberty, we pictured them wading into the swirling shallows, eventually moving out to depths beyond their ability to stand, and battling the currents, waves and eddies of early adolescence.

We pictured, as we handed them off to the middle teen or high school years, that they were arriving at some kind of far shore. What, exactly, that far shore was didn’t really factor into this metaphor too much (maybe it was just the median?).

But, after many years, and working with thousands of middle schoolers, we have come to see that this metaphor is flawed. The “Frogger transition”, or any metaphor that pictures leaving safety, moving into transitionary space, and arriving at some kind of post-transitionary space, is not the experience of real middle school kids.

Instead, the shores (or curbs) of that metaphor need to trade places. In other words, early adolescence is an overlapping transition. The transitionary space in the middle is both/and, rather than no longer/not yet.

i’ve talked about this metaphorical shift in my thinking in seminars for years. but, as i wrote this, i realized i didn’t really have a replacement metaphor, other than the idea of the shores trading places (which, of course, kind of deconstructs the metaphor!).

anyone want to suggest a metaphor that reflects this overlapping nature of transition? i thought of a president elect (since we have one right now!), who is already but not yet the president. but i think we can come up with something better than that.

i’ll certainly credit you in the book (in a footnote) if you suggest something that fits!

13 thoughts on “the overlapping transition of middle school”

  1. Freeway onramps and exits? Both lanes are simultaneously converging/diverging and travelling together with those already in the core chaos of adolescence – with multiple onramps, multiple exits as possible destinations… but as with so many things both middle school and youth ministry – the potential road stretches out endlessly, the destination a myriad of possibilities and complete unknowns? (ok, the complete unknowns might just be me, a foreigner, on an american freeway!)

    yeah, still not 100% satisfied that it really answers the challenge.. but it’s a start and my befuddled brain can sleep on it.

  2. We don’t have words for the pre-teen early teen experience. We need a words that mean girl/woman or boy/man and we have neither.

    For those of us who grew up in Star Trek times, this transition into, through and out of middle school seems a lot like being stuck in Temporal Rift – a symmetrical tear in time that opens up an alternate time line (
    One minute a boy, the next a man, the next something in between, quite often simultaneously capable of the logic of childhood and adulthood.

    Middle School is sort of a “Spatial Rift” or an opening between two different dimensions (same source).

    Interesting to search the imagination for a definition for a real, yet intangible, as yet unsatisfactorily defined time, in life.

    Of course my own two middle schoolers (14 year old boy/girl twins) would probably just roll their eyes at this one. The darling daughter would pat my arm and politely dismiss me with a ‘nice try, mom.’

  3. (should have proofread better – replace the first sentence of my comment above with this:

    We don’t have words for the pre-teen early teen experience. We need words that mean girl/woman or boy/man and we have neither.

  4. Here is my best shot and I’m not quite sure I like it, either.
    We have been ministering with adolescence it is like a stage show. We have grown comfortable in thinking (and programming our ministries) into tight little packages- – – ahhh, here’s the opening act (middle school,) here’s the next act (high school,) and here’s the concluding act (college/ young adult). When the show is over? Well, to quote Ferris Bueller, “It’s over, go home!”
    We may have been looking at it from the wrong side of the spot lights. Any theater-goer knows that a stage show is an experience, a whole package. There is the anticipation of the show. There are the acts but they are greatly impacted by the transitions. Good writing sets up the connection between acts. Intermissions involve choices— I have seen folks leave during intermissions (bad form! bad form!) Long lines for concessions or restrooms can change a theater-goer’s mood or perceptions of the show as well as the company that is kept in those moments.
    Finally, great theater transforms the theater-goer from passive audience member to active and engaged member of the experience:
    > My toes are still tapping to that show-stopping tune.
    > We discuss the clues that hinted towards the surprise resolution.
    > We repeat the punch-line.
    > And we make cultural references to the show to make our point – – When’s the last time you sang Danke Schoen?? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? Even Cameron in the end is willing to take “the heat” for is choices!!

  5. 1. A jumpsuit! Is it pants? or is it a shirt? Where does it make the switch?! (too deep theologically?)

    2. A basketball court. There are two distinct sides of the court. But teams can play offense/defense on both sides (example: full court press, etc.)

  6. Dude, what’s with you wanting us to rethink everything lately? (ym3.0, middle shool years, etc) It’s like you want us to make progress or something…

  7. A colloid? An inbetweeny kind of particle that’s too big to be small and too small to be big. Or what about a froglet – sometimes a tadpole and sometimes a frog. Or a sine wave, modulating over and under the median line? Or maybe it’s not a useful thing to do to single out middle schoolers as a type. We don’t have them here.

  8. your comment about the “shores” got me thinking – and well, you asked for a metaphor. MS is a bit like coming out of a forest. You’ve been bushwhacking through the back woods for several years in elementary school – it’s your backyard, relatively safe, within shouting distance of the back porch. And then the trees start to thin, thr ground slopes, and you realize you’re at a swift creek – not too wide (but big enough for you), with a steep embankment on the other side which you can’t see past. It’s intriguing, it’s somewhat dangerous, but you are stoked about the adventure and you plunge in with your buddies. It’s new, it’s fresh (goodbye 5th grade!), and you slog across, picking up a lot of flotsam and jetsam. You straggle up the far bank, thoroughly wet and excited at your triumph. But that bank is an illusion – there is a much wider, deeper river ahead. And all of a sudden the confidence vanishes – you are timid again, unsure, somewhat afraid, your friends don’t agree on the best way across, and you don’t know what to do. welcome to high school, or mid adolescence for what that’s worth.

    I think middle school years end up feeling that way to the students going through it. and maybe it helps us to remember that those cocky 8th graders, flush with king-of-the-hill triumph in 8th grade graduation, have only started a journey.

    don’t know if this helps, but you’re welcome to it!
    grace and peace – Andy

  9. Speaking as one from experience, how about a bench player on a sports team? You get in the game for part of the time, but it’s only temporary. Like you’re wading in and out, not fully a regular player yet, but starting to be trusted more, coached more and getting into more risk.

  10. I think Frogger is a pretty decent metaphor. Our middle schoolers are lucky if they even get a median between middle school and high school. Not to sound too negative, but they don’t get a nice transition between the two. It seems like most kids have to keep hoping and doging the entire 7 years. Sometimes they get to sit on the lilly pad for a little respite, but otherwise it’s an exhausting journey. Hell, I still feel like I’m crossing the road.

  11. if i understand correctly, this is like any two adjacent colors of the rainbow. as they don’t have a defined boundary between them but actually fade or blend one into another.

  12. These years are like a kayaking/whitewater rafting trip. You can’t start your trip in the rough waters, like you don’t start life in the rough waters. You start in the calm, flat water so you can get in, get a good start and get going.

    Most rafting trips have a guide, and they point the raft in the right direction. After a while, you get to the rapids and things are a little rougher — but that’s also where the thrill comes in. A bump here, a big drop there, maybe your kayak/raft flips and you’re dumped into the water. Sometimes you even need someone to rescue you from the shore. But even the rescue isn’t easy — they toss a rope out into the middle of the river and start to pull you to shore, but you still have to navigate the rocks and the rushing waters.

    There’s a thrill and excitement in this journey — even when the “kayak” tosses you out.

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