Middle school is over, and apparently it worked


MY SON, JOE, HAS been released from middle school. I would say "graduated," but that's grandiose. They opened the doors on the last day of school, and Joe and his fellow eighth-graders walked out for the last time.

If that description recalls cons leaving the Big House, it is not unintentional. I think the principal even clapped them on the shoulder and said something hopeful about their not returning.

And I think I heard the building sigh as they left. I know the teachers did.

"It's like trying to teach hamburgers to flip themselves," one of Joe's teachers said once. The difference is, of course, that the hamburgers would listen.

Joe and his friends have been ready to move on for a while now. The end of the school year was merely a function of the calendar. "Senior-itis" swept through the eighth grade just after St. Patrick's Day, and Joe was showing all the symptoms of feeling trapped. He was so irritable, it was as though his skin didn't fit anymore.

But he's out of middle school now, and his mood is lighter. I can't believe we made it.

Joe pretty much slept and ate his way through middle school. And argued with me. He grew 9 inches and gained about 30 pounds, and his voice changed. And so, not surprisingly, I guess, did he.

When we started middle school, Joe and I, I realized that we wouldn't be reading "Evangeline" or writing 20-page papers or staging the ancient plays of Aeschylus. When I realized that middle school was more about being in the middle of things than about being in school, I had to adjust my expectations.

"Decent human being," I told my friends - and myself. "That's what we're shooting for here. A decent human being."

They don't give out grades in that category, and there are no test scores. But I think that's what I've got.

Oh, sure. His table manners will kill your appetite, and his bedroom actually smells funny. But Joe knows three things now that he didn't know when he entered sixth grade, and I can only assume that he learned them in middle school.

Joe often referred to eighth grade as "the last screw-off year of my life," and I think that means Joe knows he has a future and it requires work, and he's going to have to do that work.

I'd like to say that he "values education," but that might be overstating the case. I'm just grateful that he knows he has to get one.

Joe could have made some bad choices during the last three years. Some of his classmates did. Some chose drugs and drinking, others petty crime. Some chose to drop out of sports, others chose dating and hanging out.

Joe didn't make those choices. But he watched the others, silently taking in the results of those choices.

Joe learned one more thing: that I am two different mothers - one who loves him beyond all loving and one whose job it is to be his parent. He is starting to see where those two mothers diverge and to accept that divergence.

I learned something, too: that Joe is no longer a child whose behavior I can control, that I cannot make him do the right thing. More important, I have learned to believe that Joe wants to succeed and be happy and do good works as much as I want those things for him.

Funny. I thought middle school was nothing but respite care for adults.

I didn't think Joe would learn a thing in middle school.

And I never imagined that I would.

Pub Date: 6/07/98

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