Stepping Up

Spring 2013

By Dane L. Peters

The middle school at Davis Jones School in Cleveland is pretty typical of American schools that serve grades six, seven, and eight in one location. Jones’s 748 students is the largest enrollment since it opened its doors in 1980 when many districts were transitioning from K-8 schools to K-5 grades in one building and 6-8 in another. Like any middle school across the U.S., Jones’s cafeteria is the locus of typically awkward social turmoil — girls ogling boys; boys just beginning to understand that there is a difference between themselves and girls (I mean a real difference); and the ever-present peer pecking order.

This Thursday lunch, everyone was talking about tomorrow evening’s school dance that happens every spring. Brett, who was sitting alone at a table, eating his lunch as he always does everyday, was eyeing his sardine sandwich over the top of his glasses, wondering if anyone at the next table could smell the unbelievable fish smell wafting from what his mother dutifully assembled for her Brett. 

It was Trigger who purposefully fell into Brett, loudly exclaiming: “What the hell is that smell, Brettster? Did something die in your mouth? Oh, I know, it’s the dead hamster from Carlson’s science room. You are the one who murdered the little rodent!” The four other eighth-grade boys and girls standing around laughed and pinched their noses.

Brett shrank into his seat, lowered his head, and even though he swore that he wouldn’t let it happen, a tear squeezed out of his eye. Now totally dissolved, he wished everyone would just go away.

It was relentless, the barrage of laughing, taunting, and ridicule that ensued from the growing number of kids. All of this was not unusual for Brett. Even though his greatest goal was to come to school, attend classes, and go home without being noticed, he knew that it could never, ever happen here at Jones.

“Brett... Brett, don’t mind them. They’re so immature.” Brett recognized the sweet voice he heard belonged to Lydia, the most popular girl in the school.

“Come on, Brett, let’s get out of here.” Lydia said softly. But not before she asked Trigger why he was so cruel. “It seems like you live to hurt people whether it is here or on the Internet. Why do you need to do this everywhere you turn?” 

Ms. Tenor, the cafeteria monitor, could see as she approached the cluster of kids that they looked at Lydia with much admiration. Lydia was never afraid to stand up for Brett or any fellow student. It’s probably why Lydia held the respect of so many of her peers. This brought Ms. Tenor to reflect on her own tormented middle school years, and at the same time, Lydia’s actions pleased her to no end.

Sheepishly, but with a snarl on his lips, Trigger laughed and said, “Let’s get out of here or else Lydie Lady will give us all detention.” Ms. Tenor could also see how Trigger’s gang was wrestling with what was the right thing to do: Ignore their own values of their hatred of Trigger’s bullying and walk with him, or give him a look of disgust and rally around Lydia and Brett. All followed Trigger, knowing that Trigger would do his nasty deed once again before the end of school, but hoping that none of them were his next victims.

Once alone, Lydia began to comfort Brett with her own story of bullying. She wanted him to know that he was not alone and that there was a way out of the fear he was carrying. As early as second grade, Lydia experienced her first bout of being rejected. On the playground, Tara made sure that her classmates would pay attention to her, and when they tried to include Lydia, Tara made life miserable for the others. For them, too, it was easier to go along, reject Lydia, and stay close to Tara. Also, after many tears and hurtful emotions of anger and disrespect, Lydia’s mother helped Lydia to find her true sense of self by listening without offering a ton of adult advice, but instead providing her with much love and encouragement. Her mom’s support was always a beacon to Lydia. It helped her resolve to focus on being the best friend she could be to Brett, and help him come to a similar realization.

Author’s note: While Brett’s and Lydia’s story is a work of fiction, teachers and parents must be ever vigilant to student behavior in the fragile and disruptive middle school years.

Dane L. Peters

Dane L. Peters is recently retired as head of Brooklyn Heights Montessori School (New York). He still serves as vice president of the board of directors for the American Montessori Society. He can be reached at [email protected] Visit his blog at