Eighth Grade

“I learned about Y2K in my middle school history class.”

My friend works at a large university and she sometimes texts me things she hears students say in passing. She and I graduated within a year of each other so our reference points are similar and it’s always entertaining to hear how people a generation removed from ourselves thinks or feels about this or that. So the other day when she texted me the statement made by a grad student in her office—”I learned about Y2K in my middle school history class”—I laughed out loud at my desk.

More and more frequently, I’m encountering people whose points of reference are further from mine due to the gap in our ages and my first thought upon reading her text was, How could you not know about Y2K? That’s silly. Then, once the half-life of the silly moment wore off, I felt incredibly old.

Y2K wasn’t something I was merely aware of but something with which I was actively engaged. I was a junior in high school and when I wasn’t obsessing over every new Britney video, I was hearing about the impending new millennium and what it could mean for our daily lives. To reach the point where that global, culture-encompassing moment was being discussed in history classes—an event students wouldn’t have been old enough to cognitively remember—it dropped an anvil of a timestamp on my day.

The statement didn’t make me feel old in terms of age, rather it illuminated the informational chasm that forms between generations over time. I have firsthand knowledge about something this person wasn’t old enough to remember at all. Yikes. We may all be having a shared human experience but our experience as humans is vastly different. Of course, this isn’t a new phenomenon. There’s a moment in every generation when they realize the folks coming up behind them weren’t around for history-defining events; events so big, it’s odd to consider they’d ever be unknown. It just so happens this is happening for me now.

It’s been happening progressively I suppose. At first it was odd to hear someone had been born in the 90’s since everyone I’d known in school was an 80’s baby like myself. Then, it was really odd to meet people born after the year 2000 but that’s the way life is. Half a dozen of my friends have all had babies in the past month or two and in another decade, those kids will be talking about what they’re learning in their history classes; history that’s being written today in the headlines. They won’t know the things we know and they’ll have to learn about our present in the past-tense. The cycle spins on.

I recently watched the movie Eighth Grade and it follows a girl, Kayla, as she walks through life in her junior high. My interest in the film was piqued due in large part to that grad student’s Y2K comment and the fact I’m 20 years removed from junior high so I have no real frame of reference for what life looks like for those kids today. I was also told this was a true slice-of-life film and not a farce or a heightened reality pandering to stereotypes for the sake of comedy. When I was in eighth grade, the biggest movie about teenagers was Clueless and while I will defend that movie’s cultural significance until I’m blue in the face, it wasn’t exactly a down-to-earth depiction of our lives.

In Eighth Grade, Kayla’s day-to-day is indeed different than mine was at her age—cell phones and the internet being the most pronounced ‘normal’ with which I never had to contend during my time at Arbor Creek Middle School—but while my initial interest had been in examining what’s different, I found myself somewhat blindsided by what’s overwhelmingly the same. Specifically when it came to the issues she had with her body, worries about her face breaking out, and the anxiety of having to be in a swimsuit at pool parties, it all felt eerily similar to my own life; pages from my diary playing out on my computer screen.

Around the time I was in eighth grade, there was a group of guys at church with whom I was friends and within that group was a set of brothers. Each of them was infatuated with their appearance and spent more time getting ready than many of the body glitter-covered girls our age. I first noticed this when we were at summer camp.

Each evening before dinner, we’d change out of our wet, ratty camp clothes into something more presentable for the church service. For a group of people who were at camp to spend time with Jesus, we spent an awful lot of energy caring how we looked to the teenagers from other youth groups. I include myself in this as I made sure my jewel tone Tommy Hilfiger shirts were as neat as possible each evening. But while the rest of us got to service on time, those brothers would routinely arrive late because of how long it took them to become presentable.

Occasionally, they’d invite all the guys to stay at their house after a summer Sunday night service so we’d go over and spend the night playing video games or wandering around the neighborhood. The morning after one such sleepover, a group of us sat in the living room watching TV while the middle of the three brothers got ready in the downstairs bathroom.

This brother was, to put it bluntly, super-hot. His Abercrombie catalog-ready physique was sharply chiseled, his hair perpetually looked as if he’d just arrived from a Pantene Pro-V commercial, and his skin was a year-round shade of tan. He was, at least to me, the example of what a perfect teenage boy looked like.

With the bathroom door open, he stood in front of the mirror with a towel around his waist while he dried his hair still wet from the shower. From where I sat on the couch, I could see his reflection in the mirror and found myself staring—not because of any of his model-ready traits but because he seemed to be entirely blind to them. When he angled his torso to study his body, he made a displeased face at what he saw. He’d then lean close to the mirror to examine his hairline and make sure every strand was still in place. But he spent the longest swaths of time staring at his flexed muscles, a look of frustration frozen on his face as he did.

One of the other guys noticed this as well and said to him jokingly, “What’s the problem? You look perfect like you always do.” The brother turned without so much as a smirk and matter-of-factly replied, “I’m not even close.” He then left the bathroom and walked immediately upstairs. An hour later, he reemerged wet with a different towel around his waist. He’d showered again because he just didn’t like what he saw in the mirror and had to wash off his discontentment and start over. He closed the bathroom door this time.

It was a jarring moment for me; the first time I truly realized no one was immune to insecurity, even someone who looked like what society deemed an ideal specimen of manly maleness. Of course, we’d been told this by every motivational speaker and counselor since we were old enough to listen but I’ve never known an eighth grader who believed it. I knew I lived with my insecurities like a monkey on my back so feeling less than was business as usual, but I never considered he or people like him—you know, the hot—dealt with it as well. He looked like he shouldn’t have a care in the world but he did. He cared a lot.

In the film, Kayla grapples with the same sort of feelings as that brother and myself did at her age. I watched as she filtered her selfies and scrolled through her timeline comparing herself to her classmates and while I’m incredibly thankful I didn’t have that technology available to me as I tried to clumsily figure out how to exist within my new, foreign-feeling, hormonal body, I recognize there’s very little difference between staring at her selfies and I or that brother staring at ourselves in the mirror. However, when I was in eighth grade, regardless of how I felt about myself in the bathroom mirror, I wasn’t constantly seeing myself. No one had phones and even once the Nokias began popping in high school, none of them had cameras, much less cameras facing toward us for the sole purpose of taking pictures of ourselves. But regardless of how we saw/see the reflections of ourselves, where adolescent fixation on self-image is concerned, we’re all the same.

Around halfway through the film, I figured I’d harnessed and internalized the bulk of the takeaway from the story—how despite our generation gap, we’re not so different after all—but then I got to an almost obnoxiously kismet scene where the very reason I’d turned on the movie played out in front of me.

In the scene, Kayla has met up with Olivia, a high school girl she shadowed during a sort of “prepare an eighth grader for high school” day. At a table in the mall food court with Olivia and her friends, Kayla mostly sits silently as she listens to them gab back and forth. One of the boys, Trevor, sees Kayla looking down and asks her if they were boring her. (He’s a loud, opinionated, dick.) She says she wasn’t bored and though Olivia tells him to let it go, he doesn’t. He harps on about how she was bored because “she’s a different generation than us.” Olivia responds by saying, “She’s not a different generation. She’s four years younger than us.”

Trevor goes on to defend himself, saying, “Okay, but, like, on top of that, she didn’t have Twitter in middle school, and we did. That made us different.”

Olivia looks at her and says, “Kayla, you’re not different than us.”

Trevor, refusing to recognize when to stop, says, “Yeah… When did you get Snapchat? What grade?” Kayla answers, “Fifth grade,” and Trevor sounds appalled as he explodes, “Fifth grade? What? No, see!”

Even at this food court table, we see a microcosm of this generation-to-generation phenomenon. This wasn’t a 20-year age gap or even a difference of a decade. This was only four years but this particular technological gap blew idiot Trevor’s peanut mind. Getting Snapchat in fifth grade isn’t exactly the same as learning about Y2K in history class, but the feeling of age-based separation is the same.

There have been plenty of moments when I’ve been Kayla; when someone older made a reference about a movie or a cultural event with which I wasn’t familiar. It didn’t always involve that person haranguing me loudly, but the realization of the gap was almost always followed by “the look;” the look that says, oh bless your heart, you young, uneducated little thing. I hated that look. I felt like I was being put down on basis of something for which I had no control and that sort of bless your heart judgment infuriated me. I couldn’t help when I was born so why was I getting that sad, sad look simply because I was in diapers when Ghostbusters came out? Hating that feeling has made me cognizant of how I react when I’m the older person in the situation trying to explain to someone how it felt seeing Moulin Rouge in the movie theater, what Saturday mornings were like when cartoons were still on the air, and where I was on 9/11.

I think the real reason the generational gap sideswipes us from time to time is how it identifies a disconnectedness. The theme of Eighth Grade isn’t really body image or self-esteem. It’s not about the dangers of selfies or mean girls or peer pressure. The theme of Eighth Grade is connection. Kayla wants more than anything to feel connected which is why it’s such a beautiful human moment when Olivia, someone she’s known for under a week, looks at her in the food court and says, “Kayla, you’re not different than us.” She was ensuring Kayla felt connected.

This is the first of three essays in a series.

Ryan’s book of essays, I Feel God in This Cab, is available here. 

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