There’s a scene in the new movie, 8th Grade, where two eighth graders, Kayla and Gabe, are on a Friend Date. They sit, by themselves, facing each other on opposite ends of the same table, eating microwavable chicken nuggets with eight (!) different dipping sauces, quoting Rick and Morty, and complimenting each other on how well their conversation’s going. You’re really good at talking. It’s wonderfully, perfectly awkward. At one point, Gabe gets up and pretends to stumble upon a certificate he won at archery camp:
“Oh this? This is so embarrassing. It’s so dumb. I think it’s pretty dumb.”
“Oh no, it’s awesome.”
“No, it’s really dumb.”
“I think it’s actually awesome.”
“It’s an award I won for getting five bullseyes at archery camp last summer. They just gave it to me. Pretty embarrassing.”
“…I don’t even know why I have it. It’s so dumb.”
I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard in theaters—laughing because, in the words of Ann Patchett, “humor is what happens when we’re told the truth quicker and more directly than we’re used to.” And here, the truth isn’t told so much as shouted, clearly and repeatedly, at an appropriately loud volume: that 8th grade is not just an academic year at the end of middle school but more of an ongoing, fragile state of being, an emotional dumpster fire of anxiety, magnified sensitivity, and wobbly self-worth. (8th Grade, the movie, is a huge-hearted, devastatingly real, brilliant debut from writer/director, Bo Burnham—and 93 minutes you don’t want to share with your parents.)
8th grade, the emotional state of being, for me, wanted to be seen—but not too seen. And in the right context. And on my terms.
Emotional 8th Grade was a continually draining, dull panic that began in 7th grade when I was 4’8’’ and a solid FOOT shorter than most of my classmates, including a few future NHL and NFL players who had more chest hair than I had hair hair.
The ideal Friday night during Emotional 8th Grade was avoiding school dances, retreating to our kitchen to read that week’s Sports Illustrated, cover to cover, with a bowl of cookie dough ice cream and the Red Sox game on in the background.
At Bar Mitvahs, Emotional 8th Grade would feel so debilitatingly uncomfortable during the slow dances that I would hide in the bathroom until “Beautiful” by Christina Aguilera was finally over. (Once, I avoided the slow dancing not by hiding in the bathroom but by riding in an elevator, up and down, with a senile old man who kept pressing the buttons.)
Emotional 8th grade became a crisis of Zac(h)s: wanting to be the generically hunky, well-liked, effortless Efron stud, realizing I fundamentally lacked said hunky-ness and general Efron-ness, but not aware or appreciative that I was/am actually, deep-down, the other, dweeby, improvising Zach—the Zach Woods of Zachs.
So, when did Emotional 8th Grade start to slowly dissipate? When did I start gradually feeling more empowered by my, uh, quirks? I think when I really started writing. When I started getting excited to write. When I’d read John McPhee for fun outside of school during 8th grade and LIGHT UP. When, in 9th grade, I’d print out Bill Simmons’ ESPN column in the library computer lab and then craft my own columns on the back side of the same page. When, in 10th grade, a few seniors asked if I’d be the featured columnist for their new, sports-only, weekly paper. I was floored. And beyond honored. And suddenly, I had an audience. And felt heard in the right way. And embraced for something I loved to do.
So, why am I drawn to 8th Grade, the movie, now—14 years removed from actual 8th grade? I think there are three reasons:
1. I was once in 8th grade, and I think a part of me will never not be stuck in delicate 8th grade.
2. The writer and director of the movie, Bo Burnham, has a familiar background to a certain dweeb I know: an out-of-place, creative dork at a (mostly dumb jock) all-boys high-school, 10 miles from Boston, who found a home making goofy videos.
3. Because being an artist, at any age, isn’t all that unlike being an 8th grade YouTuber. Kayla, the star of the movie, records self-help videos and posts them on her YouTube channel, where the self she’s helping is mostly herself. She acknowledges and thanks all you guys out there (despite having <10 views on all her videos), but, really, she’s talking to herself and working through her own neuroses and curiosities. It truly doesn’t matter that no one’s watching. What matters is that she’s expressing herself. To herself. For herself. To quote Kurt Vonnegut: “write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”
Kayla’s vulnerable YouTube sharing reminded me of something Yo-Yo Ma recently said on Krista Tippett’s podcast, On Being:
YO-YO MA: While I’m on stage, you are all my guests, because that’s sort of the unsaid agreement. While you’re my guest, if something bad happens on stage, I often think of Julia Child, “Oh, the chicken’s fallen on the floor! Yes. Oh, well pick it up and put it right back.” And you know what? Everybody’s with you.
So whatever you practice for on the engineering side that fails is all right, because we have a greater purpose. The greater purpose is that we’re communing together, and we want this moment to be really special for all of us. Because otherwise, why bother to have come at all? It’s not about proving anything. It’s about sharing something.
Thanks for being a fun community here with whom to share something. And thanks for being with me when the chicken’s fallen on the floor, which feels like a fitting metaphor for both 8th grade and creativity in general.