lessons learned from middle schoolers

This summer, I was blessed to work with middle schoolers as a tour leader with school groups heading to Washington D.C.. I was nervous about this age group — Would they like me? Would they make fun of me? Would they turn me into a meme? I was so nervous…. but after my first tour, I knew that this age group had something profoundly wonderful. A perfect mix of childlike innocence and teenage sass.

I would typically drive all day or the previous day and greet the group in the dark of night. We’d drive through the night to arrive before the airport opened. We’d get situated and get to the gate (sometimes, just in the knick of time) and be on our way to the nation’s capital.

After just four short (and very, very long) days with 7 different groups of amazing individuals, I learned hundreds of lessons and shared many laughs, tears, Pinstripes cookies, and sweaty steps throughout D.C..

I learned so many things this summer. In no particular order, here’s some wonderful things I learned from many wonderful students who won my heart.


Seize the opportunity. • Sometimes, you have to roll with the unexpected. Sometimes, the unexpected actually turns out better than you ever would have planned for.

“I’m going to miss you when we all go back home to Wisconsin, but I will always remember this trip because of you.”

Abbie

Your attitude is contagious. • The students would always ask me, “How are you so excited this early in the morning?” and I would reply that there were so many things to be excited about in the day. Later, when I’d be dragging after walking 15,000+ steps, their excitement to see the Lincoln Memorial as the sun set (even on my seventh time this summer) made me forget about my achy legs and tired eyes.

Kindness makes you memorable. • I don’t remember the names of the students who made me want to pull my hair out. I do, however, remember the names of the students whose kindness and love impacted me.

“You were o.k”

unknown student in anonymous note

Monkey see, monkey do. • There was one particular group of parents and adults that left an impact me as someone who aspires to be a mother someday. These parents and adults were from a community where they didn’t necessarily know one another, but on the trip they were close-knit, loving, and inclusive of one another throughout the experience. It was beautiful to then see their sons and daughters doing the same, following the example set by their parents.

Be yourself & love yourself. • I will never forget when a student purchased a pride flag and twirled around with a smile that no one could take away. If a middle school student can happily live their truth in a world that may not be kind about it, I surely can too.

“You are such a girl boss and seeing a confident woman like you is very comforting.”

Nadia

You may be different, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be friends. • This was a present theme — unlikely pairs that appeared on my tours, yet made the trip so much better for one another. Don’t judge a book by its cover, because it may turn out to be your absolute favorite.

The world is wide and we are small — we should encourage one another to explore. • I had many students who had their first experience on an airplane on the way to Washington, D.C. with me this summer. I felt privileged to be a part of their journey at such a pivotal moment, hopefully creating a love of travel in them the way I have had the same love ignited in me. It was extraordinary to see the way the students take care of one another, laugh together, and hold each others’ hands while taking off and landing.

Appreciate the people who invest in you. • At the end of each tour, I’d offer many thanks to my students and remind them to thank the MVPs both with us and at home for making the trip possible for them. I believe this stands as a good reminder for us all to understand that others make investments in us and a thank you goes a long way.

A quiet person can be amazing if you allow them space to be. • One of my students comes to mind when discussing this lesson. He was a quiet student, very close with his dad on the trip. I knew I wanted to be his friend and open his shell. It all started with a nickname and kind smiles, and ended with an award at the end of the week and big smiles that melted my heart. He reminded me that while everyone isn’t like me, they still can surprise you with their warmth that happens even without words.

“I will never forget about you. You really touched my heart.”

Emma

Giving is a learned behavior. • As any of my students could tell you by the end of our four days together, my favorite memorial in Washington D.C. is the Vietnam Women’s Memorial – sometimes referred to as the Nurses’ Memorial. Often, young women place hairties at the feet of these women (nicknamed Hope, Faith, and Charity) to honor their sacrifice and women in service. The girls did so nearly instinctually — giving is a learned behavior in their lives, even if it may seem like just a little ponytail. (All things left behind at the Vietnam Memorials are collected and will likely someday be put on display in a Museum.)

“I wish I had more women like you in my life. In just these four days you have showed me what a real woman looks like and how she acts. You made me want to live my life in a more positive way.”

Sophia

Life may not be easy, but respect will get you places. • On one of my tours, I mistakenly thought an adult that accompanied a student was his grandmother. She forgave me for my mistake, she stated that she was the boy’s aunt. She then told me of his rough childhood and home life and the fact that a few years prior she had taken full custody of him to give him a stable and loving home. This student was one of the most thoughtful and respectful boys I had all summer. I will always remember him.

Work really, really hard for what you want. • There was a student on my tour who had worked her tail off for nearly two years to afford the trip of a lifetime to our nation’s capital. She proudly wore a sweatshirt on the trip — a sweatshirt her employer had gifted her just before the trip because they understood that her time and dedication was paying for this trip and wanted to give her a little something extra. She was a terrified flyer and was very ready to get home by the end of the four days… but I have a feeling that it’s a trip she won’t forget. I won’t forget her and her dedication to making sure she got what she wanted.

Don’t stand for something unless you know what it means. • While this summer had amazing highlights, you can also learn lessons from the moments that hurt your heart a little bit. It was hard for me to see young, impressionable minds symbolically standing for something that they don’t even have the capacity to understand fully. It is a reminder for us all to be informed in order to have educated and fully developed opinions.

Your smile can light up a room. • One particular student comes to mind… when he smiled, we all smiled.

“I love how much you show your true self and make us all feel worthy.”

Paige

Sometimes, you just need a hug. • I’m a hugger to begin with — but sometimes, words just can’t even begin to say what a hug can mean. Hug it out.

Memories are worth more than money. • I didn’t make a whole lot of cash this summer. What I did make felt like it disappeared quickly with personal travel and school expenses. However, the memories I made this summer will last a lifetime and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to make these students smile, share important pieces of American history with them, and have a plethora of dance parties and bus karaoke. (Some days, I miss this summer a lot and I watch all of these videos!!!!)

“Bust down.”

Rylan

You make a bigger impact than you realize. • I could recount tons of stories here. Text messages, photo captions, a birthday card, handwritten notes, a postcard… my students showed me love in ways that made me laugh and ways that made me cry. I really never thought about how this job would open a door for me to impact young people and be impacted by them at the same time — but it absolutely did. I could quote their words and speak of the gifts I was given, but it’s better to just say that I have the utmost gratitude for each of my students, their parents and adults, and the teachers that made my summer trips possible.

“You have made a difference.”

Katie

If you ever have the chance, hang out with a middle schooler.

You may just learn a few things along the way.

I know I did, and I am a better woman because of my experiences this summer.

“You weren’t just our tour leader, you are our friend.”

Colson

No words could be enough — but I’m a graduate student now, so it’s back to the homework grind. I just needed to make sure to document these thoughts before the summer fades.

always,

Alex

P.S. If you went to D.C. this summer with me & you’re reading this — I love you, and I hope you loved your trip with me.