How to Stop a Boulder

The bell will be ringing soon, but there’s a different sound coming from the intercom in my classroom. It’s the triple beep of an announcement, followed by the voice of our head principal. Even through the tinny speaker I can tell she’s deathly serious. She even does the thing where she pauses mid-sentence to make sure everyone is listening. 

I stop handing out papers and wait. I’m just as curious as my students. We don’t usually get announcements directly from the principal.

You’ve probably heard of the latest trend on Tik Tok, she says. 

I haven’t, but I nod my head anyway because it doesn’t take much to lose street cred with middle schoolers.

The trend, our principal explains, encourages students to vandalize school property. Break things, steal things, deface things. I gather that you do these bad things and then post a video of said bad things online for other people to see. This is all new to me. I thought Tik Tok was dance videos. Or maybe it was cat videos. Isn’t there one that’s just cat videos?

Don’t get sucked into this trend, our principal warns. It’s a Level 3 Offense to vandalize the school. I look out at my classroom and gather that my students know very little about Level 3 Offenses but plenty about this Tik Tok thing. I can tell by the whispers that it must be popular. Maybe even more popular than cat videos.

I’ve done some research since that announcement (including trying to get my head around Tik Tok in general — the national PTA put out a very helpful guide for parents). Turns out the trend is very popular. Like, millions-of-views popular. Most of the videos are short. Kids ripping soap dispensers off walls or swiping things off teachers’ desks or breaking bathroom mirrors. I haven’t seen the videos myself — Tik Tok rightly blocked them and made searching for them on the platform much more difficult.

Even now, a few days after digesting all of this, I still can’t understand the appeal. All moral arguments aside, the risk/reward analysis doesn’t add up. You’re literally posting the evidence of your crimes online and hoping other people find it. How could you not get caught? I was a pretty savvy middle schooler and did plenty of questionable stuff, so this just isn’t making any sense to me.

But that’s the thing about trends — they don’t have to make sense to be popular. The momentum of a trend is enough to flatten most logical arguments like a boulder careening down the side of a mountain.

So did the announcement work? Did our school escape the clutches of the latest Tik Tok trend? We’ll see, but I’m not sure an announcement alone, no matter how long the mid-sentence pauses, can halt something with so much momentum. For that, change has to come from within. It has to be planted like a seed and grow into a sapling that grows into a tree that’s strong enough to stop a boulder. I only know of a few things that can do that in a person, and since this is a book blog you can probably guess what’s coming next.

Listed below are three incredible books that highlight the allure of trends, social pressure, and the power of transcending what’s popular for the sake of what’s right. Whether you’re a current middle schooler, a former middle schooler, or a very former middle schooler, I think you’ll be encouraged by the strong, sometimes refreshingly subversive characters in these books.

Shannon, the main character in this memoir-style graphic novel, spends most of the book trying to figure out whether she’s in or out. It could easily have been a story about a girl abandoning her moral compass for the sake of being popular, but instead it’s a much messier and more realistic portrayal of the delicate balancing act of fitting in and finding friends. Shannon is honest, self-aware, and painfully loyal. She’s also angry, scared, sometimes vindictive and confused. One thing she’s not is a follower, and that makes for a heartwarming and poignant story with a satisfyingly untidy ending.

 

Writing a story about a student with special needs is tough. Writing it in the first person is an even bolder choice, yet Leslie Connor navigates it beautifully. As a special education teacher myself, I started this book with some healthy skepticism, but I was quickly won over by Mason’s honesty, his charm, his way of seeing the world in such simple yet vivid detail. More than anything, Mason is who he is. He wrestles with his shortcomings, but he also has an elusive sense of peace about the kind of kid he is. He finds beauty in all sorts of things that others miss, and while other characters in this book are jockeying for popularity and approval, Mason is content in a world where there are simple truths like right and wrong. It challenged my own thinking more than I expected it to, which I’m sure Mason would not have intended but would be happy to know.

Jack Cheng set out to write an adult novel. He says as much in an episode of his Podcast about the development of See You in the Cosmos. In writing the story, he discovered the gentle, hilariously honest Alex Petroski. As the story developed, I’m so glad it eventually landed in the world of middle grade. Kids need to read more characters like Alex. He’s driven, but not in the cliche, success-at-all-costs way so many characters tend to be. His arc is refreshingly unique — an ever-widening net of relationships and perspectives, all set against the backdrop of a message to hypothetical aliens somewhere out there in the universe. Alex often plays the role of commentator, and it’s through this commentary that we see his resilience and his refusal to accept the things around him at face value. The story also serves as a reminder that bucking trends and pursuing truth doesn’t always have a perfectly happy ending, and loose ends don’t mean we were on the wrong path.

I’m sure there will be other trends. Something tells me Tik Tok isn’t going away any time soon. And not all trends are bad. Some of my educator friends were wondering if maybe bringing teachers coffee could go viral someday. 

It all comes down to decisions — I think that’s what our building principal was getting at. We balance the input of the world with the things we already know and hold true. Sometimes the decision lands us in the world of the Level 3 Offense, but on our good days we look more like the powerfully human characters in the books that shape our lives.

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Chris Low
Chris Low is a children's writer and elementary school teacher outside of Philadelphia, PA. He draws inspiration from the organized chaos of his special education classroom and the perpetually surprising wit of his own students. In addition to his middle grade book projects, Chris has published several award-winning short stories with Highlights for Children and Cricket magazine. Chris is married with two young boys and a dog who will eat literally anything. He spends most of his free time running, hiking, and negotiating with preschoolers.
1 Comment
  1. Loved this thoughtful and heartfelt post~ thanks so much for being an educator, Chris.

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