Wednesday was Middle School Orientation for M. She’s been super-excited about middle school for months now, and it was only, say, Tuesday night that I actually saw some low-level anxiety. Back in June parents had received the advice that we might want to get a combination lock for kids to practice opening, because kids are anxious about lockers. M laughed at this one: not worried, no problem! Then suddenly on Wednesday morning she said, “I actually haven’t ever opened a combination lock. . . .” Of course the delightfully organized Cute W retrieved not one but two combination locks he’d stored in the garage, complete with little taped-on notes with the numbers for the combinations. He so rocks. After only a small amount of drama, she conquered the combination lock. Phew! Crisis averted. Except that it wouldn’t even have been a crisis, because they don’t need to use lockers for orientation. Or for the first day of school on Monday. And on Tuesday, there will be some sort of gala locker opening event in which students will be assisted by a team of teachers and other educational professionals who, the principal promises us, have a perverse love of this particular age group. Actually, he didn’t describe this love as “perverse:” I did.
When I’m writing, I’ll often think of a word that seems to fit exactly, but then I don’t know exactly what it means, and then I look it up and, actually, it fits far better than I ever expected. And “perverse” is an example. I was hesitant to use it because, for me, it conjures up “perverted,” and that’s not what I was going for at all. I was really thinking more along the lines of “crazy-pants.” But I fear that I over-use that expression, and I also don’t want to insult teachers and middle school educational professionals, who work ridiculously hard all year and especially right now.
When I looked it up, though, that first dictionary.com definition was a little word-gift to me: “willfully determined or disposed to go counter to what is expected or desired; contrary.” Yes. What is needed, right now, is a perverse love of this particular age group. Because this isn’t a lovable phase, really, and so I am profoundly grateful to all of those who are willfully determined to love our kids in spite of themselves.
Middle-schoolers are prickly, emotional, and changeable: a helpful and conscientious mini-adult one moment, a foot-stamping toddler the next. Any moment can bring a fierce hug or a fiercer scowl or a glimpse of your child as grown-up. When my kids were younger, I remember parents exclaiming over how many inches their child had grown in a month, and I remember thinking that I don’t measure my kids’ height often enough to ever do that. Were these nuts really keeping such careful track? But I’m beginning to understand better. Their childhood feels like shifting sand now, and it’s unnerving–it feels perilous–and we’re waving our arms around, trying to grab onto whatever will give us a sense of where our kids are in the process of growing up, if they’re okay, on the right track.
Middle-schoolers are not so easy to love. Infants are exhausting, but asleep on top of us they are warm, fragrant creatures who give blissful purpose and meaning to the pillow of our stomachs–they’re their own little selves, but they confirm that everything is right in the world. Toddlers and preschoolers will lose it sometimes, sure, but they say the most hilarious things and give you a fresh perspective on the world all around you–their wonder is a gift to you. “Big kids” are increasingly competent and independent–they offer you the breathing room to take a break as well as a moment to reflect that your parenting mustn’t suck completley, because they’re turning out okay.
But those young adolescents! It’s getting too close for comfort. It’s too easy to remember all of that pain and adolescent angst, and it feels like I can find peril at every turn. When M’s having an excellent time with friends, I wonder if or when these friends will drop her, or who’s feeling left out, because I remember getting shunned and getting tired of my own friends. I see the first massive blackhead and wish that I could take care of it myself, splinter fairy style, and instead I make skincare regimen suggestions, knowing that when my mom did the same I found it both irritating and humiliating. Kids have crushes on each other, and the instinctive matchmaker in me wants to coach them until I remember that it’s really in my best interest if no one dates anyone for several years yet.
Middle school feels like a freight train coming. And again, we’re in suspense, wondering how it will work out. I’ve had a few different friends who’ve said that their kids were ignored by elementary school friends: literally, they’d say hi to someone, and the other kid would look right through them. If I were one of those mothers, I don’t know how I’d restrain myself from smacking down those kids. Seriously. Meanwhile other kids were walking around with such “we’re the shit” expressions on their faces that I couldn’t help chuckling affectionately, but I’m sure if I were their mom I would be worried that they’re slightly too cocky to be up to any good. I don’t know how it’s all going to shake out for M, but part of me fears that she is so excited and so convinced of her own awesomeness and invincibility that she’s bound for disappointment. And, okay, maybe that will be good and character-building for her. But it’s tough to act all nonchalant while I’m bracing for a freight train’s impact.