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Not Much Just Chillin': The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers
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Not Much Just Chillin': The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers

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by Linda Perlstein

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Suddenly they go from striving for A’s to barely passing, from fretting about cooties to obsessing for hours about crushes. Former chatterboxes answer in monosyllables; freethinkers mimic everything from clothes to opinions. Their bodies and psyches morph through the most radical changes since infancy. They are kids in the middle-school years, the age every


Suddenly they go from striving for A’s to barely passing, from fretting about cooties to obsessing for hours about crushes. Former chatterboxes answer in monosyllables; freethinkers mimic everything from clothes to opinions. Their bodies and psyches morph through the most radical changes since infancy. They are kids in the middle-school years, the age every adult remembers well enough to dread.

Here at last is an up-to-date anthropology of this critically formative period. Prize-winning education reporter Linda Perlstein spent a year immersed in the lunchroom, classrooms, hearts, and minds of a group of suburban Maryland middle schoolers and emerged with this pathbreaking account. Perlstein reveals what’s really going on under kids’ don’t-touch-me facade while they grapple with schoolwork, puberty, romance, and identity. A must-read for parents and educators, Not Much Just Chillin’ offers a trail map to the baffling no-man’s-land between child and teen.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Perlstein’s interpretation of what’s going on inside [middle schooler’s] hormone-charged world is information every educator and parent should have. . . . A fascinating and important book.”
Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Linda Perlstein has a wonderful and compassionate way of presenting the incredibly poignant day-to-day stories of middle schoolers. A truly valuable book.”
–ANTHONY E. WOLF, PH.D., author of Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall?

Chillin’ may not make parents feel more comfortable about early adolescence’s arrival in their household, but it will certainly make them more prepared.”
The New York Times


The New Yorker
Catherine Hardwicke’s new film, “Thirteen,” has once again raised the issue of adolescent girls’ social rituals, especially the more brutal aspects. The same topic propels two recent books, Rachel Simmons’s Odd Girl Out and Queen Bees and Wannabes, by Rosalind Wiseman. According to Simmons, adolescent female culture is fraught with treachery and strained niceties (“alternative aggressions,” she calls them) that are more reminiscent of a sixteenth-century court than a sweet-sixteen party. Wiseman, whose book has been released in paperback, includes a set of charts that plot “power plays” and track the ascendance of a socially dominant girl, a “Queen Bee” among the drones. But by collecting the byzantine stories of betrayal, both authors provide a tonic to social isolation: as Simmons puts it, “What crushed girls was being alone.”

Linda Perlstein came to a similar conclusion in her interviews with Maryland middle-schoolers in Not Much Just Chillin'. For all their rebellion, experimentation, and body piercing, kids still want to be reached by their coaches, teachers, and even parents. “Wanting to be independent is not the same as wanting to be left alone,” Perlstein writes. The sixth to eighth graders she interviews have complex opinions on justice, religion, and mortality -- while adults fret over whether video games create irrational fears of violence, students formulate sophisticated responses to events such as the terrorist attacks of September 11th. And one seventh-grade girl is equally philosophical about love: “The one for you could be two years old right now, or ninety. My soulmate could’ve been Benjamin Franklin.” (Lauren Porcaro)
Publishers Weekly
In contrast to the recent spate of books that focus on bullying (e.g., Rosalind Wiseman's Queen Bees and Wannabees and Rachel Simmons's Odd Girl Out), Washington Post education reporter Perlstein examines all facets of being an ordinary "tween." She discusses such issues as consumerism (according to Perlstein, 12- to 15-year-olds spend on average $59 a week, not counting money their parents spend on them); romance, which doesn't necessarily imply the couple ever spends time alone together; and the phenomenon of instant messaging-all to give parents of young children an idea of what lies ahead. True, much can be learned from reading catalogues and magazines geared specifically to preteens, like Delia's catalogue, CosmoGIRL! and YM, but Perlstein delves deeper into how boys and girls view life by tracking five students at Wilde Lake Middle School in Columbia, Md., a "rough" suburban school in an affluent area. Her subjects include the likable eighth-grader Eric Ellis, who is very bright and very bored, and seventh-graders Jackie Taylor, who is learning to deal with crushes on boys, and Elizabeth Ginsburg, whose favorite answer to her parents' questions is "nothing." There are also sixth-graders Jimmy Schissel, who is unhappy with his changing body, and Lily Mason, who worries about wearing-and doing-the right thing. In addition to details about the children's confirmations, bat mitzvahs, friendships and homework, Perlstein interweaves information about how middle-school children learn best and what parents can do to help. Agent, Gail Ross. (Sept. 4) Forecast: Although Perlstein doesn't break any ground the way the bullying books did, parents eager to know more about what it's going to be like when their kids get to middle school will find this helpful. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
This anthropological study of middle schoolers is fascinating and informative. Perlstein, a reporter embedded in a suburban Columbia, Maryland, middle school, chronicles a year in the life of several "tweens"—youth who are barely teens but no longer children. Much like A Tribe Apart by Patricia Hersch (Ballantine 1998/VOYA, The View from VOYA, August 1998), this study digs into the hearts and minds of youth. Especially valuable for librarians and parents is the information about how life changes for this age group once it leaves elementary school behind. Not only are their bodies changing, but also their social lives and academic demands alter. The book is divided by season, beginning with autumn, and as time progresses, the author illustrates how middle schoolers quickly lose their innocence and inhibitions. An intriguing aspect of the study is how middle schoolers use instant messaging to communicate with each other. Chapter two, "Everyone Else Thinks It's a Stupid Plane Crash," describes the apathy and fear felt by students during the terrorist attacks on September 11. Whereas the teachers attempt to explain the significance of the day, some middle schoolers simply see it as a day when they got to leave school early. The author intersperses information about adolescent development with observations of students. The book will be valuable to youth service workers and parents who want to learn more about the significant changes faced by teens when they enter middle school. It is highly recommended for public libraries, school libraries, and current and future young adult librarians. 2003, Farrar Straus Giroux, 261p.; Biblio. Source Notes., Ages adult professional.
—SheilaB. Anderson
School Library Journal
In this groundbreaking study, Perlstein chronicles the frightening and fascinating lives of the kids, teachers, and parents she grew to know intimately during a year in Columbia, MD. She introduces Eric, a bright but unmotivated African-American boy hobbled by his home life, and Elizabeth, an overachieving only child whose doting folks try to help her navigate a year of competitive swimming, her Bat Mitzvah, and pressures none of them really comprehend. She also profiles Jackie, who has become so "relationship" obsessed that her world resembles a soap opera. Sixth-graders Jimmy, whose body changes have him simultaneously terrified and thrilled, and Lily, who agonizes over what constitutes "cool" in a world where nothing makes sense anymore, are just beginning to move into the mysterious hall of mirrors that is middle school. Deft writing punctuated by well-documented observations bring these people and the depths of their challenges to life. In this subculture of suffocating peer pressure, burgeoning sexuality, obsessive gaming, gay bashing, and "IM"ing, no one emerges unscathed. Readers will emerge more knowledgeable, more understanding, and more than a little concerned for the future of all of us.-Mary R. Hofmann, Rivera Middle School, Merced, CA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

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Random House Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

i can't believe the day's almost over

On Monday morning some mothers drive their children to the bus stop, where they achingly resist the urge to hug their babies. Instead they settle on forehead kisses so quick as to be nearly invisible. One boy stands slumped, breathing in the muggy air slowly, tired from being kept awake most of the night by lingering images from The X-Files. A mom rolls up in a Suburban and leans out the window: "Brittany, did you remember your keys?" Brittany scrunches her face, mortified, and rolls her eyes to Mia. Mia's got on a camouflage tank top, khaki shorts, two old string anklets, and white, silver-striped Adidas with the laces tied under the tongue. (White Adidas are the best shoes you can wear; Vans or Skechers are okay, too. If your Adidas are colored because your mom says white gets ruined too soon, you may as well be wearing Stride Rites.) Having decided that a sixth grader has to care more about her looks, Mia took a while to get ready today. She had her mom blow-dry her shoulder-length chestnut hair pouffy, but not too pouffy.

As Mia pushes her hair behind her ears, the seventh graders, weighed down by enormous backpacks, grill her:

"Do you like school?"


"Well, you won't by the end of sixth grade."

One of the most popular kids in her elementary school, Mia has the confidence that comes with having popular jocks as older brothers, plays soccer (the coolest sport), isn't afraid to try a never-before-seen hairstyle, and sasses just enough to crack the class up but still get away with it. She was the only girt not to cry at the end-of-fifth-grade pool party. So none of her classmates would guess that Mia Reilly has worries, too.

The only reason she didn't cry at the pool party was that she got it all out in private, the day before. She's anxious about middle school. If only she could wear her tall hidden-roller-skate shoes -- then she might not be the shortest in the school. After being with the same group since kindergarten, she's looking forward to meeting new kids from the two other elementary schools, but that's also what scares her: "How will I know I can trust them?" She's concerned about times tables and about teachers "from the Black Lagoon."

Another huge issue: Mia has to broker peace between Lily and their friend Alexandra, who aren't speaking after a fight this summer. They ended fifth grade best friends -- quite an accomplishment for Lily, who arrived, quiet and Southern and with no Adidas, in the middle of December. Lily and Alexandra spent practically all summer together, until one day Alexandra wanted to go outside to dance and Lily didn't. They argued and stopped talking to each other completely. "Alexandra has to be the boss of everything," Lily says. Seems to Mia like a stupid thing to fight over, but there it is. Getting them to make up "might take a little bit of time," she says, but "it's crucial, because I can't spend time with just one."

Dropped off by the buses but not allowed inside until the eight-forty-five bell, the students swarm outside the school building, a flat, cream-brick hexagon that lies in view of the big high school and the strip mall. A few eager boys peer through the front doors. They half shake hands or don't touch at all. The girls touch each other's hair. "Fine, don't say hi," one girl says to another. "I did say hi." The bell goes off and the students push their way inside, where Ms. Thomas snatches hats off heads. Teachers stand in the hall with homeroom lists, filtering kids down one hall or the other.

In homeroom Mia finds her assigned seat, up front. Lily sits in the back corner, wearing turquoise-plaid shorts, a white T-shirt, and a navy cardigan from The Children's Place. For an eleven-year-old she rarely slouches, conditioned from the discipline of ballet and gymnastics and a desire to one day be Miss America. Her dirty-blond hair spurts from a little ponytail; she hates the way it styles and wishes it were thinner. Her blue-gray eyes are always either cast down bashfully or (when she is sure they are not looking) studying the people around her, for clues on how to act. When her face is at rest, like now, it is inscrutable, but she will tell you she's pretty happy today. Last night she and Mia went to the Aaron Carter concert and screamed. Middle school all sounds interesting to her -- the lockers, the teachers, getting to sew in home ec -- and anyway, she doesn't fashion herself a worrier. Her answer to an annoyingly large number of questions is "I don't care," whether it's her mom asking what she wants for dinner or a friend asking what game she wants to play.

Split personalities are common among middle schoolers, Lily included. At home she is chatty and confident, not a hint of self-consciousness about her. She is an able caregiver to her siblings, nine-year-old Gabrielle, five-year-old Sean and the foster newborns who arrive one, two, three at a time without names. Among the neighbor kids she is something of a mother hen, leading the skit-writing and fort-building and chalk-drawing. When she is alone with Mia, hyperactivity takes over. Heady with the companionship of a true friend, Lily gets wacky. She cannot stop moving, tailing, touching, goofing. At school -- in any large group, in fact -- Lily rarely speaks, so her teachers would laugh if you told them this. Not Lily! Since she got to Maryland it's only every two months or so Lily figures she has something amusing to add to a lunch-table conversation. In the rare instances when, having appraised the sentence thoroughly in her head, she judges it worthy of emitting, everyone is like, "Uh, yeah."

Whereas Mia looks forward to meeting new kids, Lily's friends are set and she doesn't much care about making new ones. She learned the sign-language alphabet so they can communicate during class. Mainly, when Lily talks about friends, she is talking about Mia. "We're best friends," she's explained, "and we're the same height and same age. Our noses come up to the same place and so do our eyes. Her birthday is the day after my birthday. We were born twelve hours apart. So when my mom was having me, her mom was in labor. I call Mia 'M' or 'MM' or 'Mi' or 'Mia.' She calls me 'Lil' or 'Lily.' I have four names for her and she has two for me."

Lily has only one name for Alexandra -- "Alexandra" -- and though the two saw plenty of each other during orientation last week, she didn't use it once. When Alexandra came into the cafeteria that day, instead of seeking out Mia and Lily, she bounced over to Tamika, one of the few other black girls from their elementary school, which was somewhat of a relief to Lily, because she sees Alexandra as competition for Mia's attention. At the same time she was a little insulted. Today Alexandra is late; she is supposed to occupy the empty seat in front of Lily, who eyes it nervously.

The school computer has run Lily's first and middle names together: Lilyelise. During roll, when the rest of the kids are offering up corrections and nicknames to Mrs. Stokes, Lilyelise is too shy to say anything about it. The students are silent, and efficient Mrs. Stokes is already going over schedules -- no warm "Hi!" or "Welcome to middle school!" -- when Alexandra walks in, wearing a white button-down, a plaid miniskirt that wouldn't pass the fingertip test, and chunky black-heeled loafers. She finds her seat in front of Lily, who watches and then tilts her head down and keeps it there, through morning announcements, through Mrs. Stokes reviewing all the papers that need to be signed, through the questions about gym shoes and recess and what if my backpack doesn't fit in my locker, through the explanations of Homework Hotline and hall passes, until the bell finally rings and the kids set out on their favorite task of the day: unloading backpacks into lockers. The girls walk through the hall with Mia in the middle, Alexandra and Lily talking to her from either side, but not to each other.

When they walk into the cafeteria for lunch, the swim-team girls at one round table, already making progress on their bagels and sandwiches and Trix yogurt, call out for Mia. They've saved her a seat, but she leads the way to an empty table. Everyone there except Alexandra brings lunch from home; when she returns with fries, they are dispersed, and enthusiastically approved of. Lily listens as the girls discuss Mia's blue Kool-Aid, the classmate whose new house has closets the size of bedrooms, and Brittany's mother's bus-stop appearance. In the telling, "Did you remember your keys?" has become "DID YOU REMEMBER YOUR KEEEEEEYS?" but the girls still agree that this was preferable to a hug.

Ms. Thomas comes by the table and asks, "How was your first day?"


"Did they stuff you in the locker?"

"Too small."

She laughs. New sixth graders are just the cutest. Later in the year they'll turn a corner, and the teachers will wonder, "Who are you?" But for now most of them are overwhelmed, sweet, taking it all in soundlessly. In the cafeteria they raise their hands for permission to use the bathroom. The noise is one-fifth what it will be during seventh-grade and eighth-grade lunch. When Ms. Thomas counts down from five into the microphone, the room falls utterly silent, for which she congratulates them. "Welcome," she says. "It's nice to see people from all the feeder schools, and all over the world."

At recess, some boys chase a shopping cart. Keith West, the assistant principal, quarterbacks a football game. Mia marches to the soccer field with the swimmers, where they play against the boys and her shoe keeps flying off. Alexandra and Lily are left alone on the blacktop to speak their first words to each other in a month.

"What do you want to do?" Lily asks.

"Nothing," says Alexandra.

"I can't believe the day's almost over."

"Like my new watch?"

"Don't tell me -- you got it at Kohl's. I put the pink one on hold, but I can't decide." Maybe this isn't so hard.

When the whistle calls everyone inside, the boy who played Robin Hood in the fifth-grade play passes by. "Hey, Joel," Alexandra calls, "nice tights!"

Lily rolls her eyes -- at the boy having worn tights once, at Alexandra taunting him, at all of it.

Copyright © 2003 Linda Perlstein

Meet the Author

Linda Perlstein is an award-winning reporter for The Washington Post.

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Not Much Just Chillin': The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a required book for one of my classes. It was an eye-opening, revealing look into the lives of middle school students. It helps teachers and parents to see into the world of their students and children. I will be keeping this book for future reference!