While preparing for middle school graduation this week, I was reminded of my older son’s orientation five years ago. Parents and children were separated, somewhat symbolically. We sat on the floor and listened as the principal described the enormous physical, emotional and academic changes that would transform our innocent fifth-graders forever.
He asked if we had any questions.
Stupidly, I raised my hand and asked if it was still okay to bring cupcakes to school to celebrate middle school birthdays. Wiser parents in the audience laughed. The principal shook his head and made it clear that not only were the cupcake days over, we very soon wouldn’t be taking our children to school or picking them up anymore.
“They are going to be riding the subway by themselves – get over it,’’ he said.
It seemed so harsh to me. No more hand-holding! No more chatting with parents at pick-up and drop-off. Time to let go, little by little, as I explained recently to a new middle school parent, whose little girl clung to her side at a welcoming dinner.<!--more-->
Not that letting go was easy. My older son, now a high school sophomore, believes he was last in his class allowed to ride the subway alone. He may never forgive me for calling the Jamba Juice near his school one day and insisting his name be called out aloud so I could find out if he was there. He still resents my insistence that he could not have a Facebook page until eighth-grade, along with the outrageous embarrassment of lugging his mother’s very old and uncool cell phone around.
Such are the slings and arrows of middle school, also known as the Age of Embarrassment. Parents are not to be seen or heard, although they come in handy for cash, keys, Metrocards and the purchase of electronic devices. Academic performance often slumps; educators have long argued over the best way to boost motivation.
Voices crack and change at the most awkward of times. Straight hair turns curly and curly hair turns straight. Growth spurts of eight inches a year or more are not unusual. Dreaded acne appears. The mirror becomes a friend and an enemy. Sweet girls become mean girls. Old friends may become strangers, or even enemies.
Suddenly, there are secrets of all kinds. And sometimes, outright, unexplained misery.
“Nobody gets through middle school unscathed,’’ a wise middle school educator once told me, during a particularly painful moment.
Some of us retain middle school memories that still make us cringe. The lucky leave buoyed by tremendous friendships and new self-confidence. Much depends on the chemistry of a particular class, or the sensitivity of teachers to the astonishing changes that take place during these crucial years.
Watching the eighth-graders at a pre-graduation event recently, I noticed some of the extreme height differences had started to even out. Some of the guys looked ready to shave. I was struck by the amount of time the soon-to-be graduates spent simply hugging one another.
“It’s what we do,’’ one young woman – for she could certainly no longer be called a little girl – said to me.
For a brief moment, it appeared she would get through unscathed.