I spent my entire childhood, from kindergarten through eighth grade, with the same group of kids. Once in a blue moon there’d be a new kid, and even less frequently someone would leave the school. For the most part, though, I spent seven hours a day five days a week with the same 20 or so kids for nine years. It was all spent in the same building with one classroom for each grade, a gymnasium, and a cafeteria. We didn’t switch classrooms and had one teacher for each grade. By the time we reached eighth grade, we felt like the kings and queens of the castle. That Catholic school building was our second home and the people in it our second family.
I’m deeply appreciative for that experience. While I don’t keep in touch with many of those kids, they all still hold a very special place in my heart. I follow many of them on Facebook and care deeply for them. We saw each other grow up and I believe the depth of care I have for them is a result of how much time we spent together. I remember wishing for a broader experience like what I would see in films about kids in school. I wanted to change classrooms and have different teachers and a homeroom and new faces from class to class. I wanted to have a middle school experience, a test drive for what I imagined high school to be like.
Finally at 37, I got my wish.
This year my oldest is in middle school and I’m getting a glimpse of what I never had. For her, sixth grade means a brand new building with sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, homeroom, several teachers in a day, and different kids she hasn’t gone to school with before in her classes. Did I mention mountains more homework and a level of academic expectation we naively didn’t anticipate? I hadn’t planned for a big middle school shift. With a hectic summer consuming us, I took it all as a regular back to school season. A few extra supplies and a heartier than usual pep talk about staying true to yourself and off she went.
Then I attended the middle school open house and I felt like a failure. The open house took parents on a mini-tour of what our children’s school day is like. Just like my daughter, I was grouped with a few familiar faces and a lot of new faces with teachers I’d never even heard of. After an evening of shuffling from class to class, I was thoroughly exhausted. I realized while my life is exactly the same as it was the last school year, my daughter’s life is entirely different. The rhythm and flow of her days are like nothing she (or I) has ever known.
She’s transitioned as well as can be expected for a neurotypical kid who is naturally social. There’s been excitement and stress, excitement and stress. The open house was a wake up call to remember that her life is changing as much on the outside as it is on the inside. More than ever, I have to remember this kind of transitional time in her life calls for me to be what she needs even if it’s at odds with what I want to be for her. For example, a couple of week’s into the school year I asked her if any of the sports or clubs offered at the school piqued her interest. She gave a vague huff of a sound from the backseat so I proceeded to talk about how now is the time to try new things and discover what she loves. How the choices she made now would build up to what her future would look like.
Writing that makes me want to gag. As soon as I said anything, I wanted to chase after the words and stuff them back in my big mouth. This was the exact kind of stress I had stressed about, thinking teachers and her peers and other family’s would impose this kind of pressure. And yet, here I was being the stage mom of her life.
I got quiet. I apologized. I acknowledged she was dealing with a lot of new things. I praised her for stepping so gracefully into this new chapter of her life. I told her I trusted she would try something out when the time was right for her.
Her middle school experience is so different from my own. The security and safety I felt being with familiar faces from kindergarten through eighth grade were the anchor that steadied me as my inner world blossomed. I felt a certain kind of freedom to explore and get to know myself because my outside world was always familiar. My daughter doesn’t have that exactly so I have to be that for her. I have to be that constant in her life. This is something parents always are but acknowledging it as a time that demands more of me takes work. I have to be more gentle and remind myself of everything she’s tackling.
That’s parenting for you. There’s no preparing. You face what you face when it’s right upon you. You readjust your sails with the wind.