In mid-July, our deacon, another parent and I, took eleven boys from our church on a field trip to Denver to take in some sights. I was merely a driver and didn't know very many of these boys' names. The other adult sponsor rode with the deacon and four of the boys while I started the trip with the remaining seven. The first hour of the trip with these boys, ages ten to fourteen, was a middle grade writer's gold mine. It was quite the study of the middle grade boy mentality, to be sure.
There was the youngest, my son, reading his book in the back seat by himself. There were two other ten-year-olds, both quiet but one intent on every word the older kids spoke while the other was oblivious to everything inside the van - lost in his own world, daydreaming out the window. Two twelve-year-olds dominated the conversation, and two more boys, thirteen and fourteen, were busy being entertained by the others (usually correcting them.)
I found it funny that a few of them would often speak so authoritatively about things which they clearly knew nothing about. And the loudest two boys, the twelve-year-olds, dominated the conversations with ridiculous theories and anecdotes. You see, middle grade boys may not know the definition of cliche', but they understand that knowledge means power. And if you talk loudly enough, and with enough conviction, others will believe you (whether you know what you are talking about or not.) Or at least they won't argue with you.
At one point "Little Professor" said to the kids around him, "Yeah, if you see a guy wearing tight jeans and sandals, he's gay." This was better than eighties music, so I turned down XM to listen to LP and his buddies share more of their knowledge and wisdom. After learning that one kids' cousin knew Beyonce' and that another kid could drink four, two liter bottles of root beer in a day, and they all knew the lyrics to a certain Taylor Swift song, I wanted to change the pace.
Intrigued by this know-it-all attitude prevalent among some of my passengers, I decided to try a little experiment. During a rare lull in their banter, I pointed out my window and yelled "Hey, look! Is that a coyote out there?" The two loudest boys in my group looked in the direction I pointed and confirmed that, yes, indeed there was a coyote there. In fact, it had just killed a rabbit and was probably on its way back to the den to throw up into the baby coyotes' mouths. The other four desperately searched the hills for the coyote, but sadly, they couldn't see it. (My son didn't look up from his book.) When I said, "Oh never mind, I guess that's just a rock," the know-it-alls assured the rest of us that they did, actually see a coyote. But they got a little quieter.
At the end of the day when we stopped for supper, I witnessed LP and an older boy get into a scuffle. Apparently the older boy called LP gay. This was not the first time that a couple boys had used that term and other slurs as they joked and played, but I'd had enough. Luckily, before my hothead took over, the parent sponsor pulled the boys aside and lectured them on respect and proper use of the word gay. He did a nice job emphasizing that everyone deserves respect and explained that the derogatory use of words can help no one.
As we finished our drive home, the boys in my van continued their zany interactions with a noticeable difference. They dropped the slurs from their vocabulary. But what lingered with me was the fact that among their peers, using the word gay to describe something, someone, or to insult, was perfectly acceptable.
When I think of applying what I learned on the trip to writing for middle grades, I will bear in mind the language my seven passengers used on that trip. I will choose each word carefully as I write realistic dialogue and I will pay more attention to how this plays out in the books I read. What do you think? (Oh, by the way, is that a coyote over there?)