It’s nearly fall and while this season has a way of kicking up scattered memories, this year it’s kicking extra hard. It’s kicking up memories of awkward adolescence.
I have two kids in middle school this year—one just starting and one at the end. When people hear this, they say “I’m so sorry.” They’ll tell me how awful middle school was for them. Once a woman told me middle school “wasn’t really all that bad.” I assumed she was either lying or had an excellent therapist.
While it’s probably a healthy practice to keep our past experiences distinct from those of our children, they are their own people after all, I find it too easy to project my own tragic tales onto my kids. Mostly out of fear that if I don’t, they’ll develop tragic tales of their own.
My elementary school years, while generally unremarkable, were punctuated by moments of brilliance. I won a jump rope contest that earned me a free ice cream sandwich at lunch and was cast as the lead in our school play. Mostly though, I left that era as a shy, quiet kid with no friends, a touch of anxiety, and poor social skills.
But Middle School offered a new dawn. A new day. I could find my tribe and feel so good about belonging that I’d come out of my shell.
As an adolescent, I learned there were two types of girls: the cool ones and the quiet ones. I was the latter. The other girls around me were the former. Like many of my peers, the bulk of my education came from movies and television. We all knew the quiet girls were the unsuspecting heroes in every story. But their satisfaction came when the story was almost over. I did not have the patience for that. Time was short and being a quiet girl was exhausting. All the suppression took work. And so far, it had done nothing for me.
I needed to find my pack.
I was soft clay ready to be molded. Loneliness makes you pliable.
I started looking around. There were two groups of girls who seemed cool and traveled together. I wanted in. So I started doing what they did. I raised my hand less in class. I pretended I wasn’t a science aide who stayed after school to clean hamster cages and grade papers for extra credit. I tried harder to try less.
One of the group’s leaders noticed. A few weeks later, I was added to a three-way call. I started receiving invites to sleep overs. Success was mine. My future was bright. I was in!
Then things got real.
The thing about packs is that when they’re formed in the spirit of generosity and mutual respect, they can be great and kind. But when born out of fear and recrimination, they are cruel and terrible.
My suspicion was that I was in the second type but it never felt like the right time to ask for clarification. So I kept my concerns to myself.
Weeks passed and I grew more comfortable with the girls. I picked up their language and mannerisms. Who they hated, I hated. Who they thought was cute, I thought was cute. I was soft clay ready to be molded. Loneliness makes you pliable.
As a girl who felt completely unremarkable, the thought of wielding that amount of power was thrilling.
During a phone call, that involved multiple parties, my new friends said they were tired of being bored. I marveled at the fact that everyone else had their own line, conference calling, and call waiting. In my house, six people used the same phone. There was no money to pay for luxuries like call waiting or extra lines.
“Let’s do something.”
“I heard from Jennifer that Amy and her friends are going to the mall.”
“Ugh. I hate Amy. She’s such a snob!”
“Wait. Who’s a snob?”
“Let’s go to the mall when she’s there.”
“What did she do to you?”
“Okay, Melissa is that you talking now?”
“So should we go on Saturday? She’ll be there with Heather.”
“Yeah, let’s go.”
“Why are we going?”
“I don’t know.”
“Uh, because that mall doesn’t belong to her.”
“Right! The mall doesn’t belong to her.”
I found myself lost in the conversation but received the message: we were to show up at the mall on Saturday. Our presence was an act of intimidation.
I had never intimidated anyone in my life. The idea that I could? As a girl who felt completely unremarkable, the thought of wielding that amount of power was thrilling.
That Saturday we made it to the mall. We pretended not to notice the other group of girls even though we did a circuit to find them. They’d go into a store, we’d go into a store. They walked by us, we’d reach into the bag of jellybeans we bought from the candy store and lob one their way. We hated them. But really we hated ourselves because we believed the lie that this was all there was for us.
We were a toxic stew of sugar and self-loathing walking through that mall.
Later that evening, alone in my room, I descended into a shame spiral. Having “friends” didn’t feel like I thought it would. Yes I belonged, but to what? I didn’t want to admit that I knew the answer.
I’d love to say I learned my lesson after that experience. But I had to be reminded a few more times for it to stick. History has a way of repeating itself until we learn what it tried to teach us the first time.
At a time in our lives when we’re trying to make sense of our worlds and our place in it, it’s no wonder our heads and hearts are confused. It’s easy to lose our way. This is as true in adolescence as it is throughout our lives.
I’m a grown woman now. There are decades of distance between me and that kid who wanted so desperately to be seen; to have her voice heard; to belong; to matter. And yet, even with all those years between us, she still shows up every now and then. When she does I invite her in and we sit together. She tells me about her mistakes and misdeeds. I tell her it’s okay, she belongs. I remind her that she’s atoned as best she can. My children are kind and Middle School has been surprisingly good to them. Then I give her a hug and say with such fierceness it startles us both, “You matter.” Because she does. We all do.