Boerne Middle School Boerne, Texas an Essay by James Bonner

Navigating the Sixth Grade: A Personal Reflection on Self-Discovery, Ritalin, and the Quest for Identity

It may not be my nicest button-up, but it is my most comfortable, I can’t say that preferring comfort over style is a characteristic that I developed on my own, it is however inherent in my mother. And I have happily adopted it. For an event such as this, if you are the first of your friends to arrive you would generally hang out outside until at least one other showed up because no one walks through the doors of a middle school dance alone. That never stopped me, and I don’t know that it’s because I am more confident than any of my peers but seeing even the most popular sixth graders outside the cafeteria waiting for their friends screamed early onset conformity issues; a behavior I recognized, even then, although not consciously. I was almost always early for everything, perhaps because that, too, was comfortable for me, and perhaps, it’s because the trait is inherent in my father.

The DJ had settled in against the side wall—it wouldn’t occur to me at that age, but the DJ always had a serious set of dual speaker towers with color-changing lights, and strobes; that setup would be extravagant now, let alone in ’96, and for a middle school dance held in a school cafeteria. As cliché as it might sound, the boys were gathered on the far side of the cafeteria in a row, as if waiting for the starting gun, while the girls gathered nearer to the cafeteria doors (they would be the finish line in my metaphor). In the sixth grade, there was only one girl that I wanted to dance with.

The discovery of new emotions, strictly at a young age, is exciting. Our expanding and developing hormones and the emerging relationship to sex is one thing, but there is also a comfortable tension when our early adolescent bodies are discovering and exploring love; when we are feeling a sense of possibility and spectacle rather than hormonal or learned fret. Learning about possibility through the concept of love was more gripping than sex, at least it was for me, and at least that’s the feeling I still remember and look back on, especially at a school dance, reverently.

This essay is the second of a series. The first in the series is somewhat of an abridged version of my early life before I was eleven. “Unearthing My Earliest Recollection” unravels my life through fifth grade. Writing this series, and specifically the process of writing the first essay, helped remind me of some forgotten thoughts and feelings, and how many of my thoughts and feelings would influence the person that I would start to become. I somehow forgot to mention, in that first essay, that my first real crush was in the fifth grade. Her name is Pamela, and she has breasts. She knew I liked her, my friends had told her friends, and whatever tension didn’t exist before the big reveal. The hesitation and nervousness that would otherwise rewrite those childlike daydreams that inconspicuously influence pretty much everything in life, until Pamela or I, might finally take that faithful leap of expression.

I never talked to her. Nor did she speak to me. But it didn’t matter, because I knew somewhere in my subconscious mind that I wanted more than the expression to explore the new feeling of attraction or love or whatever it was. I wouldn’t know it then, but while I was staring blankly at Pamela’s early-developed breasts, my unconscious mind was instead processing an array of things that I couldn’t actively understand when I was eleven. Nevertheless, I did somehow know that processes were spinning in my mind, and, because of that, my conscious actions and reactions were experiencing a sort of laggard buffering. As an adolescent, I didn’t feel like a complete person. I somehow knew I was “in development.” I could feel the updates spinning in my head for years, continuing easily into my early twenties. My interest in Pamela lasted longer than most early crushes, but no longer than seven or eight months. I wonder if my lingering interest in her was because I never felt present, but rather that I was, “under construction.”

One possibility for my overactive processing was my relationship with these little round, yellow pills, that were introduced to my diet when I was five or six. I started my schooling in Japan. It wasn’t until my first year of school in the States that my educators believed I should be medicated to help ease the burden of their teaching experience. When I think about my early life and watch home videos of my childhood, it’s impossible to ignore how much I’ve changed. Many of those changes started to find traction in the sixth grade. I can’t help but wonder whether my personality changes (as well as my memory issues) were related to Ritalin, my tailspin of adolescence, or a combination of the two.

I was a happy, curious, and engaging child, and as a child, while my mind didn’t have trouble focusing, my mind did have trouble focusing on topics I wasn’t interested in. It’s fascinating how few people seem to recognize the difference. It’s no wonder that most people struggle to explore their creativity and their passions as young adults transitioning into individuals when we’re encouraged, to the point of medication, to narrow our focus to strict, arbitrary idea systems (like our political arena or working for the sake of working). Many of my conditioned traits also found some traction in the sixth grade. Nevertheless, I was, of course, altogether unconscious of any of that at a young age. Although I’m more aware of it as an adult: my mind, and my emotions, and how I balanced the two, did not at all work the same way that the average child/teenager did. And of course, my mind still doesn’t.

I’m more aware now that I was not a normal child, and therefore more concerned. My concerns relate more to balancing my thoughts and emotions than my relationships with most people or those systems I mentioned earlier. Incorporating Ritalin into my personality didn’t necessarily affect my behavior in the way that it was intended, but then again, medicating psychological or behavioral issues is never going to have the intended effect. We are more than our biology; we are also how we choose to relate to the chemical signals triggered by our biology. Regardless of the system’s attempts to refocus my attention on certain things, I decided to refocus my attention from the classroom to basketball.

I was now strictly focused on something (the Ritalin was gaining traction), unfortunately, my focus was not on anything that anyone wanted me to be focused on. Basketball would become my great love, at that age. I was always prepared to play basketball, regardless of the weather and other mitigating social factors. My main priority was basketball. Going to school found a comfortable place in my routine as a mandatory social event. School would become an opportunity, only, to play basketball with like-minded people. And if I couldn’t play basketball, because of math classes and $hit, then maybe I would at least catch a glimpse of Pamela’s breasts walking through the halls.

I’ve read many articles, medical journals, and studies researching for this post, particularly the interjections about Ritalin. The question of whether Methylphenidates (the generic composition of Ritalin) are “safe,” and perform the intended function (except for “increased cognitive ability”) with little lasting side effects is not scientifically debatable, assuming, of course, that we are emotionless computers that are experiencing concentration problems. Because Ritalin would be the ideal reformative program if we were automated, unfortunately, we—as in, people—tend to experience and relate to our life experience on a deeply subconscious and emotional level, and not so automatically. Most of us think robotically, which kind of complicates things. Especially since reason is subjective and is not requisite to mutually shared and explored experiences. I wish we had been taught that in the sixth grade. So, the problem is that, as we age, we’re also being programmed, reprogrammed, influenced, and manipulated by our physiology and biology; as well as our emotions and how we relate to and respond to those emotions and our experiences. I don’t necessarily mean our experiences, but how we relate to and feel about being alive. And how that fits into the framework of the story we tell ourselves about our experience. I wonder how many studies have been done with all that in mind. 

If I were to respond to a particular stimulus in one way, and the use of Ritalin changes that, then over time that is going to influence one or more of my habits, which in turn is going to affect my reactions, and as I develop as a person and into adulthood, that is going to have a profound impact on how I relate to the world. And when I behave a certain way consistently, like any other habit, that new behavior will become my unconscious norm. The only way you can consciously change a behavior—the only way we can change anything about ourselves—is to be conscious enough to choose to change the habit that influences that behavior. You have to continue to behave or react differently over and over again until the new behavior becomes standard. Most people believe they’re open-minded and self-aware (because none of us want to think we’re not). Unfortunately, far fewer of us are living as consciously as we want to believe, it’s not just our actions that we need to be conscious of, but also the immediate and unconscious thoughts that influence our actions.

I never went through the front doors of middle school, not once throughout the sixth, seventh, or eighth grades that I spent there. I grew up in a smaller town, there were roughly seven thousand people in Boerne at the time. So, although graduating from fifth grade meant the end of elementary school, sixth grade meant the new milestone of middle school. Despite the new, old building, most of the faces were the same. I kept an eye out for Pamela’s breasts that first week, but only out of curiosity or habit. I was no longer interested in her. Everything was changing but it never occurred to me how much things were changing, especially inside of me. As an adult, I recognize change immediately. While I was actively living through many of the most dramatic changes of my life (in middle school), I was led to believe that those changes were a symptom of maturing, of becoming a rational, functioning member of society. I was in the beginning stages of working through a realm of conflicting feelings and thoughts while also changing the process by which I would feel and think. And because I was so focused on the immense pressures of being a twelve-year-old, I would willingly offer my self-awareness to the prospect of practicality without resistance.

As a teenager, I had already stopped testing boundaries and exploring possibilities. I had traded them for some guidance counselor's list of boundaries that were acceptable to test and a rational list of acceptable choices. There was no way that I could know that my education was limiting my purview. I was taught that there are real-world practical benefits to studying math and the sciences. It would take me way too many years to recognize that although there are obvious real-world practical benefits to math and science, that doesn’t mean that we should apply everything, especially the way that we think and feel, to the certainty of scientific “fact,”—let alone the process itself. We’re limiting ourselves to the possibility of scientific truth and the possibility of possibility. I’m sure that I was more than capable of picking that up on my own, however, there was still that one side of my brain that remained under construction (remember); the realizations were attainable, but I wasn’t yet capable of relating to them, even if I was capable of recognizing them.

One morning I woke up, wandered into school through one of the side doors nearest my locker, and there was Alex. On average, a middle school relationship lasts two weeks to three months. My crush on Alex lasted a year and a half. She would later tell me, when we became friends our sophomore year of high school, that although she was never interested in me, she was flattered by my, uh, “obsession,” which was a word that was tossed around here and there. And that I had made her feel more confident about herself. I had never met anyone like Alex. She didn’t look like everyone else—too many young women look the same in Texas, it’s likely an epidemic, and should be addressed—she didn’t behave like everyone else or share the same interests.

Alex was the most unique girl that I had ever met. I still hold her in high esteem, and there is no reason for it. I used to write long poetic love notes—at least that’s how I remember them to be, poetic—with only half a working brain who knows how those notes translated. I would slip them into the weird air vent of her locker. It never occurred to me that she was probably passing the notes around to her friends and letting them read and swoon over the beautiful misery of my solemn and exposed throbbing heart that longed only for her pixie embrace—and for basketball, and probably Cheez-its. When I think about Alex now, I imagine her frustratingly trying to explain the concept of displacement to adults who don’t understand displacement. And there’s also no reason for that whatsoever. 

The upside to the years of cognitive construction is that eventually the labor is completed. Living outside of San Antonio, Texas is a testament to that—even if it does require transfusions every few years for the rest of your life. The downside is that most people don’t take into intellectual account that the emotional part of living, what some might refer to as the living part, isn’t compatible with the arbitrary objective, and algorithmic part of living our society is programmed to. That’s because we don’t all share the same information, let alone the same interpretation of the same information. You can’t objectively “live your truth,” if we don’t share enough of the same truth to recognize that most truths are arbitrary.

If living through middle school taught me anything, twenty-five years later, contrary to popular belief, math is a language, not a lifestyle—Thanks, Ms. King. I think about being twelve and the behavioral changes I was going through at that age, what triggered those changes, and why I interpreted things the way I did. Perhaps my overthinking is a symptom of Ritalin. But to account for what I was choosing to overthink. Where the hell was that coming from? Pamela’s breasts; basketball; Alex’s beautiful brown eyes; Cheez-Its. What we choose to think about and how we choose to react are representations of who we are, our individuality doesn’t rest in whatever distance may or may not physically exist between us, but rather in the habits we choose to develop that will subconsciously control our behaviors.

For example, for this next exercise, imagine a swinging door. My door is tall, about seven feet, it’s a solid, dark stained oak wood, with an intricate carved mandala-esque sun at eye level, and it leads into a coffeehouse (if my door sounds familiar that’s because it’s the door leading into the Starbucks near the plaza in Santa Fe, New Mexico; I wish it were any other coffeehouse, but sei la vie…).  Watching people walk through any swinging door is a monstrously frustrating trial of our humanity. On the one hand, you can place your palm against the carpentered oak wood and push the door open. That’s what most people would do, push a heavy door blindly into a crowd of people; possibly slamming into someone walking out or opening the door into the line of patrons waiting to place their order for overpriced, overcooked, and oversweet coffee using linguistically retarded malapropisms. Another option is to grab the handle and open the door, eliminating the possibility of hitting anyone except yourself. Pushing the door open is our unconscious default setting. We would have to stop and consciously think about pulling a swinging door open unless the habit is willfully developed. However, we’re not going to walk around thinking about, or whispering to ourselves, to remember to pull some random swinging door open. We teach our brains to think about the act when we see the door. The door itself triggers the thought.

Unfortunately, people don’t think that way. And I didn’t used to think that way; I would do things, usually with reason, but reason without perspective isn’t reason, it’s stimulus. I was never annoying or brutish or overtly immature (although, Alex might disagree), nevertheless, I would shove things into a locker without thinking twice about it. I think about how my mind worked then, back in and around sixth grade, and the way that my mind works now. I find value in both processes, although my ideal thought process is somewhere between the two. Ritalin isn’t solely responsible for my overthinking. That doesn’t mean Ritalin doesn’t share some responsibility (the generic template, the skeleton of that attitude, is so much more common than it should be, and that’s disappointing).

My favorite part about sixth grade, besides Alex, was the middle school dances, I didn’t even dance much back then, not nearly as much as I enjoy dancing now, beyond the outstretched arm length, slow dancing every preteen with a crush both dreaded and anticipated. What I liked most about middle school dances was the feeling of being nervous, excited, curious, and chimeric. Alex even danced with me once or twice. I was always too nervous and stupid to say anything to her as we danced. Then again what could I possibly say that Boyz II Men wasn’t already saying, and in ways more articulate and poetic than I could have at that age, ask Pamela’s breasts? Sixth grade, was an introduction to myself in ways that were altogether impossible for me to understand, because the sixth grade, and the whole of middle school, was a real-time, ongoing, and subconscious exploration into the idea, “I think therefore I am,” which is enough of a rabbit hole as it is, but how does that translate to the real-world question, "who am I?" I still don’t know, but at least I’m comfortable. Thanks, Mom.

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.