I have a solution to that thing that’s bothering everyone right now.

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The world has gone insane! 

I’m greeted by this sentiment everywhere lately.

We need unicorn people to guide us through the madness, the conversation goes. They must have the emotional intelligence of Winston Churchill (Google it), the altruism of Dolly Parton (duh), and the resilience of Lady Gaga (she has fibromyalgia!). They must also coach like Pep Guardiola. (He’s a famous football guy whose name sounds like delicious pasta, so who can argue with this one?) Unfortunately, the conversation always ends with hand-wringing because finding these rare beings, especially in large numbers, will be challenging. 

Here’s the good news: There’s a solution to this problem. In fact, it recently hit me in the face like a licorice rope (the delicious candy that leaves a mark if someone slaps you with it). The unicorn leaders we need right now are already here, and they exist in large numbers.

I’m talking about middle school teachers!

That’s right. The unicorns we seek are the heroes who spend most of their adult lives persuading other people’s adolescents to embrace quadratic equations and deodorant. There are 615,000 of them in this country alone, and they possess the exact leadership skills and temperaments necessary for guiding society through this psychotic moment in time. 

It’s undeniable. We humans, as a species, are going through the middle school phase of our evolution, and man, are we ever acting like it. We’re contrary and rebel against almost any gesture of authority. We reflexively reject logic and facts, even when doing so causes pain for ourselves. We’re forming toxic cliques and other types of exclusionary power centers. Plus, after three-plus years of a pandemic, we’re moody and feel alienated from each other. And as social media makes clear, we are obsessed with influencing each other’s behavior. Who better to guide us right now than people who are experts in our current mental state? So, let’s put the nation’s middle school teachers in charge of everything – businesses, governments, the military, whatever – because they would turn things around immediately! 

My middle school teachers could have easily stepped into today’s board rooms, the Pentagon, the halls of Congress, or any other theatre of operations and convinced everyone to get their act together. I’d start by deploying Mrs. Adamski, my 7th-grade home economics teacher. She was a candid, no-nonsense woman who wore turtleneck sweaters covered with patterns of woodland creatures. Squirrels were a particular favorite.

One of Mrs. A’s greatest strengths was her willingness to share uncomfortable truths,  especially when they concerned our bodies. For example, one afternoon during the Sewing Unit, a month when we stitched together pieces of stretchy cotton fabric and called the result a “tracksuit,” she asked for our attention. She was passing out permission slips that needed to be signed by our parents, she explained in a somber, slightly hushed tone, which was unusual because Mrs. Adamski usually spoke as if she had swallowed a trumpet. (To be fair, the trumpet-speak was necessary because she was often competing with a room full of sewing machines that we operated by flooring their pedals as if we were driving in the Grand Prix.) We would be starting a unit on reproduction, Mrs. A. continued, and some of the content would be graphic. That was the actual word she used, and as it left her lips, the sewing machines fell silent because we collectively took our feet off the pedals and began excitedly chattering. What could the graphic information be, we wondered. 

Two weeks later, we found out. Signed permission slips in hand, Mrs. A. began the birth control unit by terrifying us to the core by delivering a play-by-play account of giving birth to her daughter. The pain, the blood, the screaming. Nothing was left out. She even talked at length about her episiotomy in chilling, graphic detail. 

It was effective. Several decades later, I still haven’t given birth. 

Research says that speaking clearly and authentically to middle school students and offering real-world examples is key to their engagement and comprehension. Mrs. Adamski was gifted at this. Research also says that communicating clearly and authentically is one of the skills most needed in today’s workplaces. I’d love to see a battalion of Mrs. Adamski’s unleashed into conference rooms across the country. They would speak clearly (and graphically), stuff would get done, and people would make wiser choices about their behavior.

Next, I’d tap Mr. Johnson, Mr. Bartek, and Mr. Grundowski, a trio of bearded lumberjacks who collectively taught a series of courses called Industrial Arts. The industrial arts curriculum basically required us to master a commercial printing press and do small woodworking projects.

During the 7th-grade woodworking unit, for instance, we made spice racks for Mother’s Day. I was utterly inept at using the huge circular wood saw, and consequently, after I nailed together the little pieces of wood that I’d carefully sawed and shellacked, my rack’s two shelves tilted downward from the left to the right. As a result, when my mother hung my spice rack on the kitchen wall, it had a distorted look, like one of those melting clock paintings by Salvador Dali. 

I don’t know if it was by design or coincidence, but the industrial arts classrooms were located in the basement next to the school’s massive boiler. Mr. Johnson, Mr. Bartek, and Mr. Grundowski were rarely seen outside these subterranean classrooms except during the hours of 3-5 pm, when they would ascend to the gymnasium, where all three of them coached various girls’ sports. 

I was on the basketball team, and Mr. Johnson, who also taught woodworking, was the coach. Standing in the gym after school, attired in a faded flannel shirt, Wranglers jeans, and worn DieHard work boots, he looked the same as he did in the classroom. The main difference was that at basketball practice, he wasn’t yelling, “Samantha, for Christ’s sake, get your fingers away from the blade!” (Woodcutting for my Dali-esque spice rack almost cost me two digits.) Instead, he had a whistle that he blew as hard as he could, especially when he was unhappy with our zone defense. He blew it so hard that it created a breeze that ruffled his beard.

Here’s the thing: Despite all the flannel and rage-whistling, Mr. Johnson was an effective coach and teacher. He understood his audience and knew how to get his point across clearly. I’m not saying that yelling (or blowing a whistle so hard it moves your beard) is the best way to communicate, but the fact is, our basketball team was almost undefeated, and I managed to make a spice rack without slicing anything off my body. Mr. Johnson clearly understood his audience was powered by a hormonal cocktail typical of thirteen-year-olds, who move through the world in a distracted, anxious, and defiant state. He managed to communicate with us – to help us hear him – in a way that resulted in success in the classroom and on the basketball court. Ultimately, while his methods involved power tools and shrieking, Mr. Johnson met us where we were at.

Picturing him today, perhaps leading one of the listless Zoom meetings I’ve attended, gives me a warm feeling. “BEEEP!” his whistle would scream out of my computer speaker. “Thanks for coming to the meeting! We are NOT going to name fun facts about ourselves! Everybody shut up, hustle, and get your work done. And for God’s sake, pay attention to where your fingers are!” I think we’d see gains in productivity, more engaged employees, and fewer workman’s comp claims caused by office injuries. 

Finally, I’d bring in the big guns, the GOAT of middle school teachers: Band instructors. Their work is not for the faint-hearted, and some of the challenges they face are more intense and complicated than those of their non-musical colleagues. This was true of my band teacher, Mr. Isaksen, who was a GOAT mainly because he convinced thousands of students to embrace music written by composers like Bach, Beethoven, and other men who wore powdered wigs and called their pants breeches. In addition to developing their musical prowess, his bands also won competitions and gained important life lessons. 

To understand how impressive these accomplishments are, it’s important to have a clear picture of the middle school band experience. First, there are typically more than fifty students in a band, and each of them is equipped with a noise-making device. Technically, these are musical instruments, but let’s be honest, a thirteen-year-old with a trumpet makes more noise than music. (By the way, research has found that band instructors often experience hearing loss during their careers, which should surprise no one.) 

This was all true of my middle school’s band, which was led by Mr. Isaksen. Making his job particularly difficult, our three-times-a-week rehearsal typically followed the lunch period, which meant we arrived in the band room in a state of near-hysteria because we had just consumed ridiculous amounts of sugar (thanks, Little Debbie!). Consequently, we were often barely able to string together a coherent sentence, much less learn music with titles like “Symphony No. 3 in E flat.” Some days, we could barely stay in our seats, which was agony, because what were you supposed to do if you were a clarinet player who needed to consult with your saxophone-playing friend about a boy in the horn section? I’ll tell you what: NOTHING. We weren’t allowed to wander across the room for impromptu chats because, while Mr. Isaksen was a kind, soft-spoken man of Norwegian descent, he had no patience for sugar-fueled shenanigans. That meant we had to communicate with each other by making a lot of meaningful eye contact and occasionally, if we were feeling daring, sending hand-written notes passed person-to-person, relay-race style. 

So there we were, fifty stimulant-riddled adolescents, each of us armed with ear-damaging devices, our eyes focused on anything but the piece of music in front of us. Not exactly a recipe for success. Nonetheless, several months later, due to Mr. Isaksen’s grit, dedication, and talent as an educator, we were able to perform multiple pieces of music written before the American Revolution. 

Getting to that point meant Mr. Isaksen had successfully guided us on a complex, sometimes unsettling journey like he was Gandalf, and we were a coterie of defiant hobbits. He always selected pieces of music for us to learn that were perfectly calibrated for our abilities at that moment but challenging enough to help us grow. Selecting the right music could not be more important because a piece of music is a map that leads to a destination. It has a clear beginning, an end, and a series of steps that must be taken by the band collectively in order to reach the destination. Each musician must understand their individual part and how it aligns with everyone else’s part. If this isn’t done successfully, a band loses its way and doesn’t arrive at the musical destination together. Mr. Isaksen worked with each of his hobbit musicians to help us learn our individual roles and then guided us through full-band rehearsals. Thanks to him, we always arrived at the musical destination together.

You know what really blows my mind? Mr. Isaksen did this work with the aid of only one resource: a conductor’s wand. That’s basically a small stick! When he wanted us to play something, Mr. Isaksen would step onto a small podium at the front of the room and raise the wand above his head. In an almost Pavlovian manner, we would fall silent and pick up our instruments, ready to play. Then, he would WHOOSH the wand downward, and the band would crash to life and lurch its way through a concerto or sonata. 

I honestly don’t know how he was able to handle going through this experience year after year because the sound we made was not pretty. In fact, if I had to choose one word to describe it, I’d say dystopian pretty much covers all the bases. There was something post-apocalyptic about our musical stylings, especially when we were learning new music. Yet, every time, we eventually improved enough to perform for our parents during a year-end concert. 

Often, before waving his wand, Mr. Isaksen would encourage us to “play like blue velvet.” He always lingered on “blue,” which caused it to sound like “blooooo velvet.” I never understood exactly what he meant by that but figured he wanted us to pay close attention to the music’s dynamic markings, which are notations that tell you how a composer wants it played, like fortissimo (loud) or pianissimo (soft). Not following these directions can cause a performance to sound jarring and musically schizophrenic. (Ask me how I know.)

My understanding of the blue velvet instruction was probably partly correct, but over the years, I’ve come to wonder whether there was more to it. Perhaps Mr. Isaksen was also thinking about the nature of velvet, which is a unique fabric that embodies a number of dualities. It’s soft and luxurious but durable. It was created for royalty but is now available to everyone. 

What I find most intriguing is the way velvet is constructed, and I hope this is what Mr. Isaksen ultimately meant. Velvet is a woven fabric, particularly known for its durability. It’s strength comes from the weaving process, which binds together threads that point in different directions. Once they are bound together, the collection of diverse threads emerges as a single, beautiful, strong piece of fabric. 

That’s the real magic of middle school teachers, and it’s what we all need the most right now – leaders who can bring together groups of disparate individuals, most of whom are in a challenging emotional state, and convince them to play their parts like blue velvet. And if that doesn’t work, I know some rage-whistling lumberjacks who can help. 

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