Middle School Orientation. It’s 9am, my clothes are too tight, and I’m not ready for this. I want more time to be the mother of a 5th grader who needs me and not a 6th grader who wants to get away from me. At least that’s how the parents with older kids tell me it’s going to be. “Get ready,” they warn. “He won’t even want to look at you.” Not my boy. Not the one who still likes to snuggle with me in bed, who’s afraid of ghosts in the bathroom, who doesn’t want me to leave him alone, even for a short run to Starbucks. What do they know? But inside, there is doubt.
I should have sent him to sleep-away camp, I think to myself for the thousandth time as I watch the other kids filter in. I should have given him that micro step toward independence so when this day came, it wouldn’t seem so huge to both of us. But I was too afraid to let him go. And so the summer was long and painful with small bursts of day camp but mostly stretches of too much time – time for my two boys to fight, time for my husband to worry about money, time for me to fear the place I now find myself in. We needed a big distraction, but Las Vegas was as far as we had gotten, front row center at Cirque du Soleil’s “O”, the water show a brief reprieve from the Hades-like temperatures of Nevada in August.
Yes, it was a shitty summer but I’d do it all again to not be here, among the hundred or so parents learning about brain development in the adolescent while my son gets indoctrinated with the other kids. “Think of us as Hogwarts,” one of the administrators says. And by that he means, not a boarding school for young wizards, but a place where your child can get away and discover his own powers – without you. A place where you can’t help him, or, as they seem to imply, hold him back. I hate what they are saying. I want more of my boy, not less. We could save a lot of money by homeschooling. For a second I convince myself that option isn’t completely nuts.
“Now close your eyes and imagine your own first day of middle school,” the counselor, who has now taken center stage, instructs us. As a writer of young adult fiction, I don’t have to dig too deep. I access middle school memories on a daily basis. The first thing that comes to mind is a pair of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans I wore throughout seventh grade. Specifically, kelly green velvet Gloria Vanderbilt jeans. I received a lot of positive attention wearing those jeans. Boys noticed me, girls wanted to be my friend. When the other parents share their own mental snapshots of middle school, they say things like “Who will I sit with at lunch?” or “Who will my friends be?” – vague generalities. I don’t share my jeans memory, even though I know it will get a laugh.
We are then asked to break down into small groups, to talk about our children to the other parents. We’re supposed to mingle with people we don’t know, and my husband frowns because he hates talking to strangers. This part isn’t so bad for me. One of my friends calls me over to her group and suggests that I go first. My boy is easy to describe: he’s a gifted visual artist and musician, wildly creative. He wears a lot of black. Last year he wore a black leather jacket and John Lennon hat every day to school. He isn’t afraid to be different. I’m proud of that. Most of the other parents give thoughtful descriptions of their kids. One mother seems exasperated with her daughter and suggests she might be better off in boarding school. As one who went to boarding school, I feel like telling her it’s not such a great idea. But I keep my trap shut.
I need to get out of here. And so, when we are given 15 minutes to go to the bathroom I escape to the Coffee Bean with my husband and another couple, feeling like a teenager who is breaking the rules. I hope my son doesn’t enjoy this feeling as much as I do, although I suspect that he will. Testing limits is one of the traits of adolescence, the counselor told us. We walk back to school, iced tea in hand, via a short cut behind a strip club. That’s right. A strip club is located within walking distance of our school and three others. I wonder when my son will notice the proximity of naked women. Or has he already noticed? When we return there are more speeches, but with less real information than I had hoped for. The top three middle school administrators are all new, and so it feels a little bit like the blind leading the blind. But they are earnest.
For the last part we gather in my son’s classroom to meet with his advisor. It is small and claustrophobic. We are asked to go around the room and list three adjectives to describe our kid. My husband says two things and I say one. The parents of a new boy use this opportunity to say six braggy things about their son. I immediately feel an intense dislike for them. When the teacher talks I am hanging on her every word, waiting for her to assure me that she will be the conduit between the warm womb of elementary school and the independence of high school. She seems strict, like a person who doesn’t stand for any B.S. She informs us of our duties as parents: make them go to bed by 9:30pm, make sure they come to school with enough food and water. She will dispense hugs. I feel slightly better, but I’m still not sold. “Are you okay?” she says, calling me out in front of the class. “You look sad.” I quickly paste on a smile even though I feel like I’m throwing my boy to the wolves (which is a perfect metaphor since the school mascot is a wolf). When we’re finally reunited with our son, I’m relieved to see that aliens have not taken over his body, that he’s the same boy I left three hours earlier. I wonder if the day felt as long to him as it did to me.
The next morning is his first real day of school. A coffee is scheduled for the parents, but I can’t find a parking spot so I drop him off and say that I’ll be right there. Seven minutes later, I’m inside the building. Parents and kids mill around; some girls hug their moms goodbye. I spot my boy mingling with friends outside of his classroom. He gives me a look like “What the hell are you doing here?” and I am crushed. I slowly retreat upstairs, each step wrenching me away from him. By the time I get to the parents coffee I am obviously a mess. People understand. It’s a tough transition.
We’ve survived the first two weeks. The worst parts for him were being teased about his lunch, ironically by his best friends who accused him of eating GMO strawberries (I assured him that I only buy organic) and not being invited to the birthday party of a kid that he’s not really friends with. Good things happened, too, compliments about his art and musical ability from his new teachers. He now signs his homework with his first and middle name only, his “artist” signature. He has yet to settle in to his signature look, his version of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans. It’s still too hot outside for the black hat and leather jacket. Instead he is focused on his hair, experimenting with different ways to comb and gel it, suggesting that it might look cool with a white streak in it. “Maybe I’ll get one, too!” I say. “Not a grey streak, a white streak,” he says. And I suddenly feel old and uncool, like the mother of an adolescent.