We need to have a chat about middle school.
I’m getting real and cutting out the sweet stuff. If you want to read a saccharine post about sending love notes to your 13-year-old in his lunch bag and taking time to read Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul together in a porch swing, this is not it. You need to hear real truth talk as much as you need to be honest with your sixth-grader that he is going to hear about finger-banging from a 14-year-old with a mustache on the school bus.
And, if you’re unsure of how to broach this topic in conversation, may I suggest the following segue:
You are going to middle school. It is going to be terrible. I have started a Facebook prayer chain for you.
Seriously, do you even remember middle school? The place you had to go when your body was in full revolt against your futile attempts to control it? When you were hyper-self conscious, bled through your pants, your voice cracked, kids around you got kicked out of school for bringing drugs and Chinese stars, and your emotional level only operated at DEFCON 1? When you were 100% guaranteed to embarrass yourself in some fashion but had no sense of humor about it?
Middle school is crazy town. It is where you realize your deepest fears and anxieties, and you either come through the other side a survivor or you are effed up for life. It’s like every scene from the Saw movies, except nobody gets to be Jigsaw and everyone is in agony, screaming all at once at one another and into the deep, black vortex of puberty that sucks the sanity out of life. Middle school is run on fear, the most powerful of all feelings (except lust for French kissing): fear of rejection, failure, and embarrassment. It is the reason bullies make other kids miserable, the “cool” kids act like jerks, and everyone else hides in the bathroom. Middle school may not be horrific every day, but at some point everyone hates it, even if you’re the guy with good hair and a six-pack who’s five-foot-four and 95 lbs. whom all the girls like.
And, if your child is in parochial school and you think this does not apply to him, you’d better get praying that novena, because things are rough all over. Nothing cannot prevent your child from being bullied or overhearing a very confident 12-year-old state, “If a boy ejaculates in a swimming pool and a girl does a toe-touch off the diving board, she will get pregnant.” There is no safe haven from the perils of middle school.
You may also be thinking, “Middle school was great for me. This lady is nuts.” It’s true—not every moment is a waking nightmare. If you look at my middle school resume, you would think I had nothing to worry or complain about either. But you’re not remembering the rest of the middle school experience that wasn’t about grades, clubs, friends, sports, and accolades. It’s the other things that stay with you forever and continue to make you cringe as an adult.
Do you remember these worries?
Having nobody to sit with at lunch, on the bus, or in class.
Wearing the wrong outfit.
Your hair looking dumb.
Farting—and being called out for it.
Being the subject of gossip.
Forgetting your locker combination.
Not getting asked to slow dance.
Being rejected when asking someone to slow dance.
Getting beaten up.
Peers making fun of you.
Being too short.
Being too tall.
Not having a girlfriend or boyfriend.
A messenger being sent to tell you your girlfriend or boyfriend is breaking up with you and already going with someone else.
Wearing a bra.
Not yet needing a bra.
Having hairy armpits.
Not having hairy armpits.
All your friends suddenly ignoring you.
Changing clothes in gym.
Hiding feminine hygiene products and asking to leave class for the bathroom.
I know you don’t want to do it, but it’s your responsibility to validate some of your child’s worst fears because you know that a few of the awful scenarios she imagines (and also will never dream of until they happen), will totally happen. Tell her middle school is going to be exciting in a scary way, similar to how a roller coaster you’ve never been on before is exhilarating and terrifying because you can’t get off the ride once it’s in motion, you can kind of glimpse what’s coming up next but you’re not sure you can handle it, and you are going to vomit on yourself at least once and everyone will see it.
Please stop telling kids, “It’s going to be great. There’s no reason to be scared.” Don’t run on the ignorance is bliss path. Instead, be honest with them, prepare them for the worst, and tell them you’ll be there to support them through anything and celebrate even the tiniest victories, like having someone to talk to in the morning before the bell rings. Don’t freak them out ahead of time, but be honest about how crazy school can be. If they hear a few horror stories (I’ve listed some below), then perhaps they can feel they’re not alone if something awful happens (which it will), and maybe they can look at their days with perspective and say, “Well, at least nobody threw a Hot Pocket at my face and I didn’t get punched in the head on the bus, so that’s a win.”
If you’re not comfortable telling your kid the gritty details, then at least let her know you know it’s going to be a rough ride here and there, and you’re always around to talk about things. Kids don’t always like to open up to parents at this age, but if you make sure they know you’re on their team against the world of half-wits they’re going to be dealing with, it may go a long way.
Once your child starts school, keep in mind he has the maturity of a box of crackers, but he’s feeling adult emotions at unnaturally high levels. Because everything he feels is amplified, so are his reactions to those feelings. This results in: (1) Every single thing being an enormous deal; and (2) Your child not having the capacity to work through those feelings in a mature manner and instead screaming inside a Super Target a la Lewis Black about the injustices of his life. PLEASE VALIDATE YOUR CHILD’S EMOTIONS. A key way to help your child is to try to see things through his eyes. By all means, use reason and infinite patience to set him at ease, but don’t minimize his feelings or, worse, promise him that everything will turn out great. (It’s middle school; nothing turns out great until you’re 30.)
If you think I’m being too harsh, remember the hell pit middle school can be on a daily basis. As a parent, you are basically sending your kid into the Sarlacc for three years (if you understand this reference then you, too, probably had a rough adolescence). The impression your child has of middle school has a large impact on how she will feel about high school and can seep into decisions she makes socially, academically, and professionally as she matures. Living in fear and hating school is no joke, and it can affect the lens your child uses to see herself and the world for the rest of her life. Feeling alternately anxious, depressed, sad, angry, jealous, ashamed, and scared in school are all possible at that age, and as a parent it’s a good idea to be on high alert to identify when your child is struggling so you can help her work through those emotions.
I will end with the one big positive, which is if you can make it through middle school, you can essentially accomplish and conquer anything in life. You have run the gauntlet every day for three years and survived.
If you’re not rocking yourself in a corner and experiencing a flashback at this point (and especially if you are), please read the middle school memories below so you can rest assured that even though adolescence is terrible, you are and never were alone.
I asked folks, “What were your greatest fears and most embarrassing stories from middle school?” These are their replies:
“For the first six weeks of sixth grade I was in the eighth-grade lunch period. It was awful, and I had to eat by myself every day. I would never want to relive any part of middle school!”
“I slipped, just after a rain storm, on the concrete outside of the cafeteria. I bruised my tailbone so badly that I had to sit on a hemorrhoid pillow for a couple of days. It wasn’t fun having to carry it with me from class to class.”
“I was sitting in a circle with my group of frenemies, and the bully asked me if I had ‘discharge.’ I was shocked that she asked, so I leaned forward and said, ‘What?’ Then she said, ‘You heard me,’ and kicked me in the chest.”
“My friend got put on the high school bus on the first day of sixth grade! Can you imagine how terrifying that was? Then, her mom had to come rescue her from high school and drive her to middle school.”
(From Leslie Ann): “Well, I will just say life is so unfair that Ellen Degeneres had to come out on her show to another lesbian and that lesbian’s name was…Leslie Ann. Thank you, life. And 13-year-olds calling you ‘Lesbi Ann’ is just cruel.”
“I hid in a bathroom stall because of anxiety and accidentally got myself locked in there after the final bell rang.”
“I was walking to class holding a ton of books and a Trapper Keeper while wearing MC Hammer-style pants from Lerners and a maxi pad, I was ‘pants-ed’ by an eighth-grader. I couldn’t drop my books fast enough. Horrific.”
“My dad was dropping me off at the front of school in sixth grade, and as I was getting out of the car, he said, ‘Wait, aren’t you going to give me a kiss on the cheek?’ So I obliged, and as I was about to close the door, he began to yell/sing, ‘David kissed a man! David kissed a man!’ I was beet red as I walked to my locker hoping nobody heard.”
“Middle school dances! My mom always told me, ‘It takes a lot of courage for a boy to ask a girl to dance, so be kind in your response and, if possible, dance with him once.’ So then when the nerdy guy I had no interest in would ask me to dance, I felt like I had to say yes to at least one dance. Then I’d dance with him, mortified the entire time and scared everyone would think we were a couple.”
“My gym teacher felt I wasn’t playing Horse with enough enthusiasm and repeatedly asked what my problem was. Too shy to say a mandatory science fair project was setting off my anxiety, I cried in front of the whole class.”
“Someone unwrapped a maxi pad and stuck it to my backpack. Greatest fear realized. I still hate that kid, and I’m in my 30s.”
“Back in the day, we had to hold one person’s feet down while they did their sit-ups. When it was my turn, I had a fabulous audible fart on the way up. Curse of the Frito pie.”