Middle School Done

And just like that, we have two boys in high school.

The last few weeks have been a busy flurry of music recitals, sports tournaments, graduation speeches, Field Day, and a giant international food fair involving a massive quantity of barbecued pork. There were yearbooks to sign, a brunch (with gummy bears?), and a story of a banana that had been buried in someone’s locker for months. There is a difference now though, that instead of the banana just being funny, the boys consider how it feels to be the custodian who has to clean it up? Hallelujah! They are in high school!

This past year has been huge. Embracing independence, asserting beliefs, challenging rules, but also still sticking together as we continue on this journey of being a family. Are families good? Not always. I’m definitely not sure that anything I’m doing is right, but I do think we are all doing our best with what we have right now.

Finishing eighth grade means moving past the confusing social dynamics of middle school. Still strongly guided by impulse and rarely tempered by wisdom, the early teenage years are a terrible time to figure out who you are, or who your friends are. Most kids don’t have the confidence to be nice, so relationships are based on a toxic mix of reactive feelings and hurtful insults, that are “meant to be funny.” Getting on the bus each day is an exercise in putting up armor, ready to defend against whatever unexpected arrow may be hurled in their direction. No wonder why they are sensitive at home, and no wonder why they need so much patience. But now, there is something in the air that already feels like a turn for the better….

This week we sat on the couch with the AAS Yearbook, looking at pictures of people who, after two years as classmates, now have personalities, names, and quirks. We hear stories about memories and shared experiences, like how many kids hid in whose closet during the 8th grade overnight trip, or how many towels got piled in the toilet. “We did this funny thing called water-boarding!” “If somebody spent their whole life building that thing, then they spent their whole life doing something pretty dumb.”

Even when things are a little cringy, Mike and I are learning to listen. We try harder now to keep our opinions and thoughts to ourselves, because they aren’t asking us for those. They’re just sharing the stories of their middle school lives and I’m grateful to still be included.

At the Middle School graduation this week, for the first time we were able to meet all the other eighth graders and their parents. It was the first time to put faces to all the names we’ve heard, and to feel the energy of what goes on during their days. Sometimes, it seems like our lives are parallel universes, an illusion of connection to others that is only rarely made solid and true. Now after two years in this school, we hear these new connections referred to as “friends.” The photographer takes pictures, the boys put their arms around the shoulders of their buddies, and the smiles are real. There is talk of next year, a sense of loyalty, and excited anticipation of what is coming next.

Our life is one of change, but even though this is our choice, I still think about what we may have lost by moving so much. I wish I had known all these kids as children, or had met their parents at after-school activities. I worry when my kids want to go to the mall or to a friend’s house, because I don’t know who they are? I question their judgment.

But then I get a text message telling me they arrived safe, or an unsolicited link to their phone tracker “so you know where I am,” and I think maybe I need to have a little more faith that they know how to make good choices. Every time they stand their ground at school in conversations about racism or politics or wealth disparities, I know this is worth it and we aren’t losing anything.

Reassurance goes both ways. We all need to connect to who we are, and to who we’re becoming. Becoming someone with independence (or someone taller than me!) does not have to mean my children turn into strangers. And giving them independence and the freedom to grow up does not have to mean letting go.