This I Believe

Judd - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Entered on May 7, 2007


I believe in Seventh Grade. I believe in the wicked pleasure of learning what four letter words and dirty jokes actually mean; I believe in not telling your parents everything; and I believe you can learn to stand for something long before you can vote.

When I was a sixth grader, life was circumscribed by schoolwork and games on the street, most of it all, transparent to my family. I learned to keep a secret when things didn’t go well and I discovered the fun of cursing and misbehaving when I reached seventh grade. I got my first “C” and my friends and I tormented a boy named Tony who couldn’t throw a ball and whose high-pitched voice seemed like it would never change (not that ours had changed yet, either). One afternoon, I lapsed and recounted some Tony stories to my teacher, Mrs. Melman, who looked horrified and asked me to stand in Tony’s lonely shoes. I couldn’t move.

Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, was in October that year, and I decided to apologize to Tony before the holiday. As we took our seats in science class, I went to Tony and blurted out that I was sorry about teasing him, and that I hoped that we could be lab partners some time. He looked stunned and I wondered if he took my apology as just another form of harassment, but from then on, I left him alone, as did my friends.

Today, thirty years later, I teach seventh graders, and Tony came to mind one afternoon in the middle of a four-square game at recess when one of the popular athletic boys asked me, spinning the ball toward my square, “Hey, Rabbi Levingston, did anybody ever tease you when you were in seventh grade?” I paused, and instead of volunteering a story or moral tale, I sent him a curve ball and shrugged, “Of course I was teased!” I paused, looked at him and baited him, “How about you? Anybody ever tease you, Caleb?”

“Yeah. So?” He asked with an edge. We held onto the silence, having sparred and glimpsed each other’s weakness. The tension broke when he was put out of the game and swore. I was going to call him on his language, but I let it go because he was vulnerable, and he would need room from me to get back into the game. Seventh graders need room, so I allow them their secrets unless things turn nasty.

In my classes, the moral literature we study often inspires petitions and postcards and passion to fight global poverty, violence in Darfur, and hostage-taking in the Middle East. When I see a new Tony each year, I ask kids to break up their cliques and invite him in. They just need encouragement. I embrace and I believe in their capacity for risk. I believe in seventh grade because seventh graders do, too.