by Dana VanderLugt
Definition: (Adjective) At an equal distance from the extremities of something
Synonyms: Center or Midst, suggesting that a person or thing is closely surrounded or encompassed on all sides, especially by that which is thick or dense; such as the midst of a storm.
I spend most of my days teaching in a middle school. When I tell people this, the most common reaction is a wince followed by a comment such as, “I hated middle school.” People say things like “I’m sorry,” or “Those were the worst years of my life.” I’ve never heard anyone say, “You know, I really wish I could go back and re-live eighth grade.”
I teach the years most people try to forget.
Wander through a middle school cafeteria and you’ll see it: how hard it is to be truly confident, truly funny, truly smart, truly anything. It’s a microcosm for the world — a place where self-consciousness and hurt intermingle with curiosity and a joyful innocence.
“An equal distance from the extremities” — that’s what it feels like a lot of days — that those of us who teach the middle are wading through the messy, inmost pieces. We are teaching lessons to brains not quite developed, grading essays that are not quite finished, trying to counsel and guide people who are not quite listening.
Though February is the second month of the year, for those of us in education, it’s also the middle. Dark, cloudy days at the midpoint of the year.
This year feels especially dark, as we wade through a new reality and presidency. Emotions run high. Finding wise words is hard; listening well can be harder.
I’ll admit that I used to be a “Kumbaya” kind of girl. I wanted happy endings. I yearned for those moments when everyone joined hands and for a few fleeting seconds, it seemed like everything was going to be okay.
But I’ve also begun—very slowly—to figure out that the only way through is through the middle, through the midst of it all.
Adolescence is one inevitable middle in life, but it’s not the only one. During most of our lives, we’re wading through middles — we’re offshore, swimming through (or treading the waters of) faith, friendships, family, parenting, marriage, illness, tragedy, pain.
We can try to ignore the hard stuff, push it out of our minds, attempt to leap over it, but we have to wade into it first. The middles of our lives are not often shiny, easy, or fun. Few moments make our social media highlight reels. This looks much more like wading in mud than in shimmering waters. Most middle moments involve little more than showing up and trying our darndest to do the next right thing.
But just maybe, redemption can be found in the sloppy, unfinished middle. Maybe the middle is a Psalm 40 kind of place. A murky, miry, muddy place where we are most open, most likely to hold out a hand, to reach for a savior, to accept grace.
Dana VanderLugt teaches English to middle school and Hope College students. She blogs at www.stumblingtowardgrace.com.