Looking for a movie to see with your teen or tween this weekend? Our guest contributor, Antonio Buehler, says this film is worth your while. Antonio is the founder of Abrome, a K–12 school just west of Austin that offers a program of “Emancipated Learning” for students age 5 to 18.
Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life (PG) revolves around a young man named Rafe who has a wild imagination that flows through the drawings he keeps in a special notebook. He also has not had the best experiences at school, seemingly due to behavioral issues, and is on his third school since his younger brother died from leukemia. He understands that this is his last shot at public school, and the threat of being sent away to a military school looms on the horizon if he does not make it work at Hills Village Middle School (HVMS).
His first day of school does not get off to a great start. After staying up all night drawing cartoons in his notebook, he is stopped by the principal as he is approaching the front doors of the school. Principal Dwight informs Rafe that the clothes he is wearing violates one of many school rules. While he is droning on, telling Rafe to get to know all of the rules in his rule book, Rafe’s friend Leo shows up behind the principal and mocks his every gesture. Rafe is thrilled to see Leo, who says that he was pushed out of his old school, too.
In class, the first thing Rafe experiences is laughter from his classmates when they find out what his last name is, and then a student tells him, “Welcome to hell.” Bullying is baked into the environment at HVMS through the common structures of schooling, which include age-based segregation, competitive testing and grades, and the oppression of restrictive rules and abusive adults (e.g., Principal Dwight). The social conditions within the school and society also contribute to a bullying culture. While giving a pitch for his student council campaign at a school assembly, a male student encourages people to vote for him because “my dad is super rich and my mom is smoking hot.”
While bullying contributes to the misery of schooling, so does standardized testing. At the aforementioned assembly, Principal Dwight attempts to rally the students to focus on the upcoming B.L.A.A.R. (Baseline Assessment of Academic Readiness) test. Unfortunately for Rafe, a fellow student grabs his notebook while he is drawing up a sketch that mocked Principal Dwight’s focus on the B.L.A.A.R., and this brings the assembly to a tense halt. In retaliation, Principal Dwight destroys Rafe’s notebook.
Distraught, Rafe holes himself up in his room at home. Fortunately, Leo comes to the emotional rescue and encourages Rafe to seek revenge by engaging in a campaign to undermine Principal Dwight’s oppressive rule. Leo convinces Rafe to figuratively destroy Principal Dwight’s rule book. With eight weeks left until the B.L.A.A.R., Rafe and Leo begin to plan and execute elaborate pranks that systematically violate each of Principal Dwight’s beloved rules.
As Rafe and Leo carry out prank after prank, with the outcome always seen by an amused audience of students, many older viewers will be brought back to their middle school years, wishing that they could have done something about the needless limits imposed on their freedoms, while younger viewers may find themselves imagining taking on The Man in their schools in their own ways.
Just beyond the pranks, the B.L.A.A.R. is a constant, brewing threat. Not just for the students in terms of a stressful waste of time, but even more so for Principal Dwight and Vice Principal Stricker, who are judged based on the scores of their students. Rafe recognizes how pointless the B.L.A.A.R. is and comments at one point, “I’m learning more by breaking the rules than by preparing for some dumb test.” Principal Dwight, on the other hand, is willing to expel students in an effort to boost the test scores for the school, much like many public schools have been documented pushing out poorly performing students or those with disciplinary issues.
In the course of breaking all the rules at school, Rafe falls for a social justice oriented classmate named Jeanne while trying to navigate around a bully named Miller. At home, Rafe and his little sister Georgia have a complicated relationship, likely complicated by the passing of their brother, while they both suffer through socially painful interactions with their mom’s obnoxious boyfriend, Carl. The acting is not as moving as the story, although I doubt many people can get through it without shedding some tears, particularly during a moving plot twist toward the end of the movie.
All in all, the movie does a fine job of highlighting some of the problems inherent in conventional schooling. Rafe’s homeroom teacher asks at one point, “What is this obsession with testing and categorizing kids?”—which, hopefully, plants a seed in the mind of every student and parent who sees the movie. Unfortunately, the movie does not take this question to its logical conclusion, given the reality that traditional schools will continue to test and categorize young people for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, for those who are willing to pursue an answer, there are many alternatives to conventional schooling, including progressive alternative schools, homeschooling, and unschooling.
I encourage people to go see this movie, preferably as a family, and then discuss the themes it raises.