not much just chillin': the 
hidden lives of middle schoolers
white x

At least they can’t shove me in

You can eat french fries for lunch every single day, if you want. There’s something really cool, too, about having a locker, your very own parcel of the earth to which nobody else knows the code. In middle school, you don’t have to walk through the halls in hushed, prissy lines. You get to cook food and saw wood and still make it home in time for the end of CatDog.

What else the kids filing into the half-lit cafeteria have heard about middle school: If you stand in the long line for fries, you might not have enough time to eat them before recess. The teachers can be mean, and the homework so hefty it really cuts into your valuable time. You have to change for gym, in front of everyone. Barely any fun stuff, like the gingerbread house your fifth-grade class made last Christmas. Worst of all: The eighth graders like to jam sixth graders inside lockers.

As the two hundred almost-sixth graders – girls with wet ponytails or freshly knit braids, boys with gelled spikes and droopy shorts – find their friends and settle into rows of blue plastic chairs for Wilde Lake Middle School orientation the Thursday before school starts, they greet each other loudly and think silently:

After finally persuading Mom to replace my dorky snakeskin binder with the black kind you can write on with milky pens, will those all of a sudden be out of style, leaving me one step behind the school-supply trends yet again?

Should I risk getting my butt kicked in lacrosse this year, since all the other boys look like they gained four inches on me this summer?

Can I wear my American flag shirt from Old Navy on Monday, even though Dale insists it really only works on the Fourth of July? "We have to go in looking cool," she said. "We have to go in with style."

Could I rig some sort of basket inside my locker door with suction cups, so my friends can drop notes in there? Will my friends be in my classes? Will my friends be my friends?

Am I really going to start thinking, "Eww, Mom, you’re weird, go away"? Is middle school really my last chance to be a kid?

The parents share those last two concerns, and others. Their minds are filled with equal parts worry and nostalgia about their children’s entrance into this baffling no-man’s-land between child and teen. Most adults say the most humiliating experience of their lives took place in middle school (or junior high, as it was called then), and many parents in the cafeteria remember their own preadolescence as the worst time of their lives: The awkward changes of puberty and the obsessions that entailed. The fumbling steps toward independence. The cliques. Being too embarrassed to sneeze in public. Constantly checking the armpit. Thinking everyone else was smarter, happier, better.

The men remember the time they asked out a girl they didn’t want to be seen with, and the women remember the time they showed up at school to find all their friends wearing matching jeans and matching sandals and matching blazers with matching patches on the elbows. "Guys," today’s mothers pleaded, "why didn’t you call me?" They remember blindly joining the boycott of the benevolent redheaded girl who went, in one school year, from eating lunch with the most popular clique to eating lunch with the special-ed students, for no reason she (or anyone, for that matter) could discern. They remember when they stopped doing homework for a month, because they discovered that in the all-important world that revolved around their friends, there was nothing cool about getting A’s. They remember telling their classmates that they’d been sick for a week instead of the truth – that they’d been in Greece with their parents – because if you’re eleven, there are seventy-three ways you could make fun of someone just because he went to Greece.

How strange they were then. When they were twelve, they couldn’t believe Styx would ever be oldies music; they were appalled at the gauchos they wore even one year before but couldn’t imagine that what they had on at the moment would ever go out of style; they actually wanted braces and glasses, until they had to have them.

Maybe they don’t remember. Maybe they’ve blocked it out. But at the parent meeting in the spring, they heard Wilde Lake’s principal, Brenda Thomas, warn, "There are some poor decisions made at this age. If anyone gets through unscathed – I don’t know them." When puberty’s all over, she said, you’ll get back a person much like the one you used to know, in personality much the same as before. "Eventually that child is going to be exactly who you raise it to be," she told them. "But in the meantime …" The meantime. While her own daughter was in middle school, Thomas called her Regan, after the possessed child in The Exorcist. Horror-movie mood swings, sudden demands for privacy, defiance, pushing away. Each public hug the parents have gotten this week is, they fear, the last. Will kids be mean to their child? Or worse: Will their child be the mean one?

Most of these parents have read the newspaper. They’ve read that middle school is an "academic wasteland," the new ground zero for state and national school-reform efforts, the point at which a child has to start thinking about college. In some ways, America’s twelve and a half million middle schoolers are growing up faster than ever, their workload piling on as quickly as their distractions.

A few of the parents have even read what little "literature" is out on middle schoolers. They’ve learned that their children are about to go through the greatest period of physical and emotional growth, after infancy, that humans experience – years during which no significant part of themselves will go unchanged. They’ve read that the irresponsibility, the selfishness, the boredom their kids are about to exhibit are signs of progression, not regression – no, really. They’ve read to expect contradictions: Children start to fix their values and figure out who they are independent of their families, at the same time they are too timid to set themselves apart as individuals. Twelve-year-olds are eager to turn everything into arguments but don’t have the cognitive skills to win them. They are at once submissive and defiant, idealistic and materialistic. The titans of commerce have started rearranging their world around the shopping habits of "tweens" – who are thrilled to be targeted, except they don’t make their own money. They want to be cuddled. Except when they don’t. …

The teachers in their matching white polos take the stage one by one to lay the first of a year full of transparencies on the overhead projector and lay down the laws of sixth grade: You may go to your lockers only before school, before lunch, and after school. No sticky book covers – they ruin the textbooks. Travel at all times with your agenda, a spiral-bound date book that serves as both assignment log and hall pass. Classes rotate every other day, four on A-days, four on B-days, eighty minutes each – don’t worry, you’ll get used to it. The kids are given orientation folders, and page through them.

"What’s on the next page?" a mother says to her daughter, who clamps it shut. "What, is it a secret?"

One little brother, a third grader with a sitcom child’s knack for one-liners, is not too young to sense the tension. "What if I skip middle school," he suggests, "and go straight to high school?" His mother is one of the many who linger at the sides and back of the cafeteria, clucking their tongues, shaking their heads, smiling frowny smiles: "It seems like yesterday he was graduating from kindergarten." …

"She’s worked so hard," one mom tells her friend. "I don’t want her to lose any gains."

"Is she going to get so defiant," the other says, "and not be my quiet, studious little girl anymore?"

Homerooms are announced by surname, and after packs of friends bless or curse the accidents of the alphabet that keep them together or separate them, they are sent to walk through their class schedules and – finally! – try their lockers. The lockers aren’t even sixinches wide, so everyone can’t fit at once. Some parents crowd in, some force themselves to stay back. Kids bounce on their heels trying their combinations ten times in a row. The parents stand mute, until they can’t any longer.

"We’ll stay here until you can do it five times by yourself." (Sucked teeth.)

"Abby, can I come in and help?" (No answer.)

"Why don’t we walk your schedule and come back and try when there are fewer people here?" ("One more time.") …

Lily Mason tries her locker combination several times as her best friend, Mia Reilly, sits next to her on a high ledge, paging through the papers they’ve been given. A newsletter called Middle Years gives instructions on Backpack Safety. Please, Mia thinks. Lily’s face practically touches the dial as she spins slowly – right, left, right, stop – and each time she tugs on the little metal handle, nothing.

"My camera makes little sticky pictures," she tells Mia. If she ever gets her locker open, she can paste them inside. Her father, standing a few steps behind, asks, "Do you want me to help?" Since it’s a matter of the locker being stuck, and not a matter of getting the combination right, Lily figures it’s not immature to let him unjam it.

The girls make plans to meet right here the moment middle school starts for real, and Mia goes to open her locker. Eight times she tries, quiet and serious. The crisscross of her swimsuit straps shows above her tank top. Her mother, Leigh, would like to help but can tell Mia wants to do it herself – which she finally does. Such an accomplishment, Leigh thinks. A bigger accomplishment is when Mia tries to sidle into the locker. All that fits of her four feet nine inches is one tanned leg.

"Well," she announces, "at least they can’t shove me in."

Copyright © 2003 Linda Perlstein

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Copyright © 2007 Linda Perlstein