Until college, I was never a big fan of school. I’m an introvert. People liked me enough, I guess, but I was never a popular kid. I had trouble fitting into large groups, I got nervous when confronted with new experiences and people, and I lacked confidence. The start of a new school year was hard. I dreaded it. It hung over the end of my summer like a fat kid about to disrupt a glassy swimming pool with an unwieldy cannonball.
Home was where I was comfortable. Home was where I wanted to be. I loved learning, but I didn’t fit in well with noisy, vulgar people. I had friends but often felt pretty lonely. I hated school.
In almost every way—from introverted personality to impossibly blond hair color—my daughter is just like me. On Monday she started middle school. A new place. With lots of new kids. New responsibilities and new challenges. And it’s been hard.
I knew it would be.
Because it was hard for me, too.
I don’t know anyone who looks back and says, “Middle school: those were the best years of my life.”
Everyone I know says something to the effect of: “Ugh. I hated middle school. Hated everything about it.”
Because middle school is when kids change. Their bodies change. They try on new personalities. They become desperate to fit in. No one is comfortable in his or her own skin, and it’s awkward for everybody. Everyone is fragile. All the edges are sharp, and everyone lacks the maturity to handle it. 6th grade and 7th grade are terrible times to jumble up a bunch of kids at a new school and ask them to excel. That’s why no one seems to have good memories of middle school.
And that’s why, as a dad, I feel helpless. My wife and I were/are fixtures at our kids’ elementary school. On the PTA, volunteering in the lunch room, on a first-name basis with most of the teachers. For legitimate safety reasons, parents can be less involved in middle school and high school. The campus is less open (and eventually our kids won’t want us around as often). And what all this means is that I’m having to give up control. I can’t fix her problems. I can’t make everything better. I don’t know the teachers or kids in her class or their parents. I’m a step further removed from her day.
In many ways, that’s a good thing, because I don’t want to be a helicopter parent. She needs confidence, and she gains it by doing stuff out from under our hovering shadow. From solving her own problems and fighting her own battles.
But she’s also still just an 11 year-old, and my little girl, and neither of us is ready to let each other go just yet.
That means we have to find a psychological and emotional balance to this middle school thing. Us as parents and her as a kid.
We have to be patient. We have to trust that the things we’ve been teaching her and modeling for her are imprinted solidly on her brain. That the solid friendships we’ve watched her develop and helped her cultivate will prove strong and beneficial. But we also have to be OK with the fact that we can’t fix everything: bad teachers, mean kids, 6th grade anxieties. We can’t fix, but we can always listen, and empathize, and encourage.
The most honest advice I’ve been able to give her is the same advice that has become a necessary, welcome cultural meme: It gets better. The new-ness and discomfort you feel gets better. The confusion gets better. The immaturity of the kids around you gets better. Middle school gets better, because it becomes high school. High school gets better, as you begin to realize who you are. Adulthood gets way, way better.
It all gets better—but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s hard now. And that period of difficulty—before it gets better, when all you can do is identify with the anxiety and be crazy generous with hugs and smiles and a welcoming home life—is a really hard time for me. To say It gets better is to acknowledge that NOW is not ideal.
Her first day was not so good. The second day was a little better. The third day was a better than the second, and maybe we’re seeing a constant upward curve.
I’m hopeful. It’s getting better.
It’s not much, but sometimes that advice is all we’ve got.