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Middle school provides no middle ground


Thanksgiving vacation arrived just in time. I needed the break. My first three months of middle school were tougher than I expected.

I spent August thinking, "28 days to live, 27 days to live . . ." I thought there would be a fight the first day or an ambush in the lav.

Turns out, there were no "swirlies" in the john -- I'd heard that's what they did to sixth-graders. But the new gym uniform got ripped off and so did the novel for language arts. Got slammed into the locker once a day by some unknown jerk. Never found out who he was. Middle school is a big place. I knew everybody in elementary school.

My first report card was pretty good. Excellent, actually, when you consider all the arguments about homework. And the teachers said nice things at my parent-teacher conference. Looks like I have a shot at making it through sixth grade.


I did middle school once already. They called it junior high back then and I was in seventh grade, not sixth. But I did this once, and I never expected to have to do it again. Then my son entered middle school, and it was deja vu all over again.

But I do not recognize him. It's as though someone hit the delete key on 10 years of parenthood. All bets are off, all rules suspended. Clean slate. Back to "Go."

All our conversations are punctuated with "It's my life," "You can't make me," "This is my private business," "Yeah, right, whatever." There was so much muttering under the breath that I think I have lost my hearing. Who are you and what have you done with my son?

The stock advice when dealing with this phase of pre-adolescence is "pick your battles." But there are so many battles to pick from: clothes, food, personal hygiene, the phone, the TV, homework, church, bedtime, friends, music, video games. I have made compromises I am ashamed to admit.

He can wear anything he wants as long as it isn't a T-shirt that advertises drugs, booze, sex or says something rude. Personally, I am from the matching school of fashion, but I understand that that is not a value held by everyone.

Pop-Tarts eaten on the way to school are now an acceptable version of the most important meal of the day, as long as he takes something that looks like a vitamin. And it can't be a Skittle.

Coats, hats and gloves are very effective against the cold, but I understand now that if I am cold, I should be the one wearing them. I also understand that they will only get lost or stolen and then I will be mad, which isn't fair since I was the one who insisted they be worn.

I feel like I am living on the balls of my feet, dodging the pendulum as it swings. One day, I hear good grades are for losers and dorks. "A 'C' means average, Mom. It means you are like everyone else, OK? It means you are normal." The next day, I am told to get out my calculator and figure out what score is needed on a social studies test to bring up a grade.

Middle school carries some tough lessons, and I am learning them right along with my son, wondering all the while which one of us is more pained.

Joe found that you can't just show up for tests the way you did when you were one of the smart kids in elementary school. Studying is worth two, maybe three letter grades.

And in middle school, teachers don't pull you onto their knee and talk softly to you when you're feeling overwhelmed by homework. Turn it in when it's due or take the zero, pal.

In middle school, there are girls calling and there are friends betraying. In middle school, you notice if you are not the athlete you thought you were, not the brain, not the teacher's favorite.

In middle school, you're tired and cranky for no reason and hungry beyond satiation. In middle school, the weeks drag and weekends disappear like dew; on Sunday nights you're sick with dread.

In middle school, it seems as though you are fighting with your parents all the time over everything when every instinct tells you to curl up under their arm and ask for a story.

Even so, we made it, Joe and I, to Thanksgiving break. It will be Christmas vacation before we know it and then the first year of middle school will be halfway done. We may not be able to see June from January, but we will know it is out there, Joe and I.

He will do just fine in middle school, I expect.

I'm just not sure about me.

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