Last week, I was standing in the hallway of a middle school. I was part of a tour group, deciding where to send my daughter to 6th grade next year.
The bell rang and the empty halls filled with adolescent kids — slamming lockers, giggling, glowering, self-consciously fixing their hair. As they passed by me, I could see in a flash where each one fit into the social hierarchy. The girl with the long flowing ponytail, subtle makeup, and knee-high leather boots glowed with a golden aura as she led her followers down the corridor. The short chubby boy hurrying to class alone, wearing his pants pulled up too high — well, I said a little prayer for him.
Before I knew it, I was desperately trying to hold back tears. How embarrassing would it be to cry on a middle school tour?
Yes, there was the realization that my sweet girl, who still wants me to read her picture books at bedtime, is about to disappear forever. But that wasn’t really it.
Standing there in that hallway, I realized that this whole world still exists. This world I left behind so long ago, and gratefully allowed to fade from my memory. This world that left scars I still carry. The terrifying, high-stakes world of adolescent popularity.
Not only was it still going strong, but I was about to toss my only child into it. Maybe I should just feed her to a dragon instead.
A scene from my past:
Sitting in French class. The bell has not yet rung, and people are still straggling in. Allison (not her real name, or is it?), who occupies the highest tier of our school’s royalty, is sitting just behind me, chatting with a boy who is not in our class.
“I hate this class,” she sighs, rolling her mascaraed eyes and flipping her perfect ponytail.
“Why?” asks the Greek god of a boy, who I can only dream will one day glance in my direction. (Spoiler alert: He never does.)
“Look around,” she says, motioning to the entire room, snapping her gum. “It’s all losers!”
She doesn’t even try to say it quietly. I just sit there as if I haven’t heard. Because what evidence do I have to dispute her conclusion?
This power dynamic is my greatest fear about middle school. I don’t want my daughter to end up on either side of it.
I don’t want her to be one of the “losers” because, obviously, I don’t want people to be mean to my kid. I don’t want her to feel unpopular, invisible, unlovable — all the things I felt during those long, dark years.
But even more, I don’t want her to be the Allison. Because, at least from my view on the losers bench, being popular didn’t mean being happy and well liked. It meant excluding and hurting people. It meant constantly having to prove your superiority. It meant living in fear of losing your status.
In middle school, my girl will have to fight to hold onto her confidence, her uniqueness, her essential sweetness. I’m sending her into a battlefield where her true self will be under attack from all sides. I can only hope I’ve given her the weapons she needs to emerge victorious.
Do they sell bulletproof vests in child sizes?