When I was 12 years old, my family moved again, and I got a new dentist.
I was a lucky kid; going to the dentist was boring, not traumatic. I never had to wear braces (I never had a cavity until I was past 40) and don't remember much about any of the other dentists I visited when I was young. But I remember this one.
I was a freshman in high school. (I was going to be on the varsity baseball and basketball teams!) But as he clicked and speared with his sickle probe he addressed me in a faux cheery tone that veered dangerously close to baby talk: "Ah, widdle Philip hab good toofusses."
Mortified, I don't think I went back to a dentist until I was 26. I certainly never went back to him.
But these days, I have some sympathy for the poor guy. He was probably a decent dentist with good intentions. A lot of us find it difficult to talk to little kids. I'm not always sure what a little kid is--I look up and see what look like 9-year-olds piloting Subarus and Honda Ridgelines around the neighborhood.
I don't have all that much experience with children. I have a couple of nieces, who are now grown up. So are most of my friends' kids, who almost without exception seemed exceptional. They were all polite and smart and went to expensive schools that generally didn't do well in the NCAA basketball tournament (though a couple did go to Duke). Even as teenagers they seemed to have some plan for the rest of their lives; they had scholarships, internships and credit scores higher than their SATs and were perfectly happy to be ignored by the likes of me.
I get along all right with little kids, even though they often seem to present as miniature drunks on the street. Often they stagger up to us while we're walking our dogs, sometimes they say something we interpret as a request to pet them. (The children in my neighborhood are almost unfailingly well-mannered, though not always intelligible.) We always allow them to, because Paris, Dublin and Audi really seem to like the kids and because it's uncomfortable to refuse a child anything that you can reasonably provide. They're very easily upset and--pay attention, Walmart shoppers--it's never cool to make a child cry in public.
But small talk isn't a small person's strong suit. (Nor is it mine.) So after they've asked for the girls' names and done some comparative analysis about the dogs they have at home (or would like to have at home) that's pretty much it. I just stand there smiling silently. My whole thing is not to patronize them because, well, I don't want to be that dentist. My strategy with young children is to pretend they're underemployed adults who lack a few social skills. I'm good with nodding if they start talking nonsense, I refuse to be sucked into their game.
No habla bebé, friend. Go peddle that pledorable psghetti balderdash somewhere else, we're all stocked up here.
Anyway, it's the middle ground between little kids and teenagers that is more problematic. Almost any grownup can stare down a little kid who's never going to remember you anyway, and the bigger ones are too busy mean-girl texting or worrying about the crushing student loan debt they're soon going to assume to notice you. But if you catch someone in that sweet spot between the ages of 11 and 13, when they're just beginning to awaken to the wider world around them, then you might do something that marks you in their memory as the consummate dork, the Platonic ideal of cluelessness.
What's worse is that middle-school kids are especially vulnerable. They're just beginning to move from the egocentric world of childhood into what psychologist Jean Piaget called the "formal operational" stage, where they begin to understand that others might perceive the world differently than they do. Which means they may become intensely interested in you, and what you say and do (what you "model") might make a disproportionately large impression on them.
I still remember when Joseph Lobenthal, the author of Growing Up Clean in America, a sort of "know your rights" legal guide for young people, talked to my seventh-grade class about avoiding prison. I haven't looked at a police officer the same way since.
So I don't know why I accepted the invitation from Dustin Dearman, a sixth-grade literature teacher at Bryant Middle School, to come talk to these impressionable young folks as part of a film festival they held last week. (Probably because it was a long way off when he asked.) But I'm glad I did it.
Because it's really cool to see grownups who actually can communicate with middle school-age kids. Dearman and the other teachers seemed to have a Jedi's command of the energy in the library where their students gathered to watch and discuss short movies. They'd put their hands up and the room would settle into quiet as their charges followed suit. They had a way of hearing the smallest voices, and according respect to the most novel of ideas.
I decided to treat them as I do everybody else, though keeping in mind that for them the 20th century is as remote as ancient Rome is to us. I tried to let them know that Stranger Things had its roots in '80s cinema and that movies are another way of telling stories, which is the essential human activity. I wanted to impart a sense of possibility to them, to have them understand that the people who made the movies they were watching weren't very different from them. That if they wanted to, they could do it, too.
And I gathered from watching them interact with their teachers that at this point in their lives, what they're taught isn't nearly as important as how they're taught. Good teachers have to love their students more than their subject, and I got the feeling these kids are genuinely and deeply loved.
I just hope I wasn't their dentist.
Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.