If I’ve learned anything in my life, it’s to never argue with a middle schooler.
They’re too smart for their own good—they watch too many YouTube shorts on true crime and strange life hacks and probably know how to both get away with murder and the best Five Minute Crafts to clean up the evidence.
So I’m usually quite careful around them at my current part-time job in a school because I have a nice life and I don’t want it ruined by middle schoolers.
But yesterday, a group of eight students came running down the hallway at me, top speed, shouting “Gabbie! Ms. Gabbie! Sign our petition!”
Rule number one of working with middle schoolers should be don’t sign their petitions. Multiple petitions will pop up during the year. A petition against a math test. A petition to let them use the elementary school playground. A petition to make a kid, let’s call him James, get a haircut.
Rule number two of working with middle schoolers should be take at least two years of mandatory debate classes and maybe have a minor in Buddhist thought and practices to prepare you for their reasoning and arguing abilities because it will depend on whether or not you can avoid breaking rule number one.
“What’s the petition for?” I asked when the middle schoolers screeched to a stop in front of me, pushing a spiral bound notebook into one of my hands and a green crayola marker into the other.
“It’s for James to cut his hair!”
Is there such a thing as a “good haircut?” At some point in our lives, will we experience a “good haircut” and know, or is it just part of the adventure of our lives to keep trying horrendous haircuts until we don’t have much to work with anymore?
“Which James? Who is James?” I said, struggling to think critically over the amount of fingers pounding on the notepad for my signature.
“Mr. K signed it! Look!”
Cue lots of pointing at Mr. K’s signature. Sure enough, a middle school teacher had fallen to the arguments of middle schoolers, and broken rule number one.
“It’s James with the really long, shoulder length hair; he wears those combat boots and the baggy pants and he ties his hair back in those low ponytails in gym class like George Washington or something,” one of the girls said all in one breath.
“Sign so he gets a buzz cut!”
Alarms are going off now in my mind, because I can see James being surrounded by these middle schoolers with their Mr.-K-signed-petition and I know the power of middle school argumentation. Get a buzz cut, James! They’ll say. It’ll be a good haircut, James! Look at how many people think you should get a buzz cut, James!
“Isn’t that a little drastic for the poor guy?” I said. “What if you ease him into short hair, make a petition to get a mullet first or something.”
Shouts of protest erupt, including gagging, looks of horror, more fingers pounding the petition, and an uproarious and resounding five point sermon on Why Mullets are the Monstrosities of the Anthropocene.
I started thinking about when the bell would ring because I was starting to sweat, and their arguments about “good haircuts” versus “bad haircuts” were tearing apart my ability to think for myself, despite me knowing I’ve never had a “good haircut” in my life, and there was a high chance that James getting a buzzcut wouldn’t be a “good haircut” so then he would be just stuck with no hair, and a petition of the whole school saying he should have no hair. It’s better, I think, to just blame your hairdresser after you get your haircut, not your entire student body.
I’ve lived through a life full of bad haircuts. I’ve had a 2000s “bob,” which is a glorified bowl cut minus the front curtain bangs. When very suddenly my hair went from a straight bob to a headful of frizzy curls, I grew it out to shoulder length and wore it just like James does, now that I’m thinking about it. Low ponytail, because I didn’t know how to manage it.
Then came the years of Youtube curly hair tutorials. I let my hair grow even longer, and my curls stretched out into long, limp, unkempt waves. The videos gave me too many directions and products, so I gave up and would just spray myself hair down with water in the mornings before school and pray that for one day a year—picture day—I would have a semblance of “good hair.”
“Good hair” continues to evade me. I know what it looks like in my head—some unattainable mixed goal of curly but silky but detangled but not greasy, both not too long and not too short. After a haircut, I think did we do it? Did I find the “good haircut” this time?
And after a few days I’d think to myself, better luck next year.
“He needs a good haircut,” one of the middle schoolers said, shrugging. The ultimate denouement of the argumentative pitch for James’ baldness. And maybe they knew better than me about finding that elusive good haircut. I, after all, haven’t followed my own rule number two and taken Buddhist thought or debate classes.
So I took the dying green marker and signed.
Gabrielle Eisma graduated Calvin with a BFA in studio art and writing in 2022. She’s from Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she now works as a writer and illustrator for books for (mostly) children and middle grade readers.