Eighth Grade, the Movie: The Torture Never Ends

As a rabbi, teacher (high school), parent, and former child let me confirm that the central issue for Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is unlike anything we adults had to manage when we were young.  

My argument with Bret started out innocent enough.

“I can beat you up.”

“ Nu-uh” I replied.

“My dad can beat up your dad.”  I thought this might be true, so I couldn’t counter with ‘nu uh.’

“Well, my grandfather could beat up your grandfather.”

“Nu-uh,” he said.  Then I got vicious.

“My great grandfather can beat up your’s.”

“I don’t have a great grandfather.”

“I know,” I smirked.

Soon we were on the grass pummeling each other.  After that, we were in the principal’s office. Mr. Shnider told us not to walk home together as we usually did.  That seemed to do the trick. The next day we were friends again. 24 hours later, our fight was funny to Brett and to me.  We imagined my 101-year-old great grandfather fighting the ghost of his. All we needed was an afternoon apart for us to turn back into our goofy selves.

In the newly released movie Eighth Grade, director Bo Burnham treats his main character, Kayla, with such sympathy that it’s easy for viewers to quickly recall the awkwardness of childhood.  As a rabbi, teacher (high school), parent, and former child let me confirm that the central issue for Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is unlike anything we adults had to manage when we were young.  Sure the out of tune band sounds familiar, and the ‘It girls” are still snobs/bullies, and the boys still pick their noses. Yes, every uttered statement, from adults and fellow students, is still scanned for potential double entendres and accidental innuendo – “Behold the wiley sperm whale!”  Being an awkward teen hasn’t changed over time, and to be sure, Kayla deals with depression and with anxiety unique to her character, but what Burnham highlights is the sea change in how today’s young people need to navigate their awkwardness with unrelenting inner strength.

When we were young, if you were having trouble with a teacher, or a friend wasn’t living up to what you thought, or a boy or a girl didn’t dig you the same way, or you unexpectedly got your period, or your erection was discovered, or you said something stupid and everyone (‘literally everyone’) laughed, at the end of the day, like my fight with Brett, it was over.  

Navigating social life ended at 3:15 or 3:30 pm.  Done. Finished. Try again, the next day. What is different today, and yes, technology is the cause, our kids get no respite from their own awkwardness.  Every mistake, every misstep of youth in the connected age gets texted, chatted, Snapped, Instagrammed, throughout one’s entire social network. It’s as if school never ends.

This is not an anti-technology post.  Social networks have a place in our lives and can be a lifeline at times.  As troubling as it is, we will not know everything our kids go through at school, getting to and from school, and online.  For many, childhood, especially teen years, can be filled with traps and pitfalls. What we can offer are tools to navigate.  Perhaps the greatest tool we can offer our kids is an off switch. Our tradition suggests one day in seven to change our view of the world.  Let Shabbat be a day away from our digital connections. Let’s extend that wisdom to a daily practice, a Shabbat Katan (a little Sabbath) – A few hours every day, where we all get away from our cyber bonds.  Likely, this advice is something you already know, but the best wisdom needs constant repetition: Tune out, so you can tune in.

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