Not Much Just Chillin’: The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers – Linda Perlstein
After spending a year observing, interviewing, and recording in a Maryland middle school, Perlstein presents a close-up picture of the middle school experience, including the perspectives of teachers, parents, and the kids themselves.
I had a lot of issues with Not Much Just Chillin‘. At first I was really enjoying the kids, their attitudes and their speech and all the things that make kids that age entertaining to me, but then I started to notice your voice coming into it much more than I would have liked. You often took a knowing and patronizing tone when describing the kids and their lives, making subtle judgements about their fashions, or belittling their emotions. I took the book out of the library and have since had to return it, so I can’t quote specific examples here, but I felt throughout the text that you were coming at this whole experience from an entirely adult point of view–the stance of an adult who isn’t really trying to understand the social and emotional workings of twelve-year-olds, instead just reporting without the proper empathy or context as though spying for the grown-ups in some sort of battle. The sensationalist sort of feel about the book, the “hidden lives” and the all-secrets-revealed attitude didn’t sit well with me, especially with all the reviews quoted on the cover about how it’s “an important book” and “information every parent and educator should have.”
I think it’s problematic, too, that you made a great deal of blanket statements about middle schoolers, and present your book as a guide to all middle schoolers, when you only observed one middle school. No one school can represent an average, and no one school can be assumed to be like all the others. Sure, you had lots of back matter and references, but I wish the book had been presented more as a look at one particular school, and less as a look at all adolescents.
I also was concerned by the lack of any information on homosexuality in middle schoolers. Certainly some people don’t know yet, at that age, but also certainly some do; you frequently mentioned the kids’ reactions to being called gay or supposed gay, and how that was one of the worst names they could be called, but included no statistics of how many kids that age actually identify as gay or lesbian, nor made any comments addressing whether the middle school you observed had any homosexual students, or how the casual and cruel use of “gay” in bullying and name-calling might affect students in the closet. It seems irresponsible to report anti-gay bullying and then pass it off as something they do whether or not the target child is actually gay without any further explanation or investigation, especially when you spend so much time investigating and supposing and explaining heterosexual dating, crushes and sex.
Overall, I wish that you’d sided with the kids, trying to make their world comprehendable to the clueless adults, rather than the adults-always-know-better-and-now-we-know-your-secrets tone you took. Three stars, and only that high by virtue of the kids themselves and the insights I got from what little of their real perspectives you presented.