Date: September 6, 2013
Place: Haldane School (a New York State public school)
Attire: Comfy-casual. “No tank tops, no flip flops, no gum, no hats.”
Setting: Brick, multi-level institutional structure built in 1936. The campus overlooks the Hudson River in the village of Cold Spring, NY.
Vibe: A tailgate party wearing your favorite team jersey and running shoes without the keg or grilled bratwurst.
Overall feeling: Nerves + Excitement.
In the run-up to the first day of school last September, it seemed hardly to matter that it was my son who would be starting the sixth grade. I was carrying around enough anxiety and dread for the both of us, plus three. There were supplies to buy and a new backpack to pick out. I had to be sure that each of the 376 forms that had come in the mail over the summer were filled in and signed and clipped together in a neat stack. I stocked up on organic fruit snacks and biodegradable waxed paper sandwich bags. I made a copy of Noah’s schedule and stuck it to the fridge. And then I realized my fervor was starting to sound quite similar to the chopping noise that helicopter rotors make.
It’s good parenting to pack a smiley-face love note in your first grader’s lunchbox. It’s ridiculous to consider doing it once his voice has started to deepen and crack.
But for many parents, Middle School in the U.S. serves as a zeitgeist for the very worst of adolescent behavior and development. We imagine lockers filled with drugs and booze and hallways brimming with sex, tattoo needles and bullying. I still remember the terrifying rumors about my own junior high school in rural upstate NY: tales of kids being dangled over the third floor railing for daring to wear a Red Sox t-shirt in Yankee country; speculation about why the tile floor in the tiny bathroom next to the boys locker room was always wet and sticky; the smell of Captain Morgan’s and Marlboros oozing out of the trash can by the pool. And that was the ‘80s! When the worst crime my parents could pin on my beloved Duran Duran Wild Boys was a mild concern that they might be gay. And they couldn’t even Google the band to find out for sure.
No doubt, middle school in America remains a precarious time for kids and parents alike. Readily available to adolescents in 2014: the internet, texts, sexts, free downloadable porn, violent video games, snorting Adderal, snorting Smarties, weapons for sale at Walmart and an abundance of fattening, sugary snacks that cost a quarter. And these are just the things that we have to look out for. What about the stuff that is missing? Classes focussing on character development & sexuality education, required foreign-language studies, (required) arts and music instruction, adequate physical activity and, maybe most important, unscheduled time so that those youthful, burgeoning imaginations can run free.
Luckily for Noah (and for me) our tiny village, along with its neighborhood school, are fantastically serene. From a safety standpoint, there’s really nothing for me (or him) to worry about (though we’ve both learned that even the most guarded innocence can be stolen in the blink of an eye). Sixth, seventh and eighth graders are housed in the same building as the elementary school kids (the high school is a bit further up the hill). Noah will have art class and music lessons and band and P.E. In fact, the middle school is really just a separate warren of hallways that are mirrored replicas of the ones the children have been scampering around since they were five.
Perhaps the one negative: the middle school day here begins an hour earlier than the elementary school. Class starts at 7:35am. Yep. 7:35. There’s nothing like kicking the day off with the queasiness of jet lag (and the near darkness that marks the frozen mornings of January). I cannot imagine the din of energy that trails a group of sleep-deprived, probably hungry (who can eat anything at dawn?) pre-pubescents as they rattle past and bang into one another every morning, fiddling with locker combinations and trying to find their math books. With warning bells and final bells and announcements sounding over the loud speaker at regular intervals it must seem like an air-raid at sunrise. It’s a good thing Noah had all that training with the helicopter last summer.
Even though it’s been several months, when I remember his first day of middle school I am happy to report it went, well, better than expected:
It was a bright Friday morning (don’t ask, something about state aid and snow days) when Noah and I made the short, silent ride up the hill to campus. En route, he checked his bag. I checked the lump in my throat (as well as my impulse to drive him, instead, to Chuck-E-Cheese). His knee bounced to the pop-rock radio station. I bit my lip and managed to tearlessly ask, “Are you ready?”
He said: Yes. Mom. I’m fine.
Great. Me too. I told myself.
When we got to the drop off circle, yellow busses were discharging hoards of kids onto the huge, impossibly green lawn. The sound of all those voices shrieking hello to one another and the sight of gangly, awkward bodies dragging huge bags of notebooks and folders behind them was enough to make me forget, for a moment anyway, my worries about the evils that might be lurking nearby. (I pointedly ignored the sheriff’s car that’s been tucked into a side parking lot since the day after Newtown as well as the ominous load of smoky teenagers roaring up the hill. I even made peace with the presence of the vending machine in the basement. One that dispenses bags of Doritos and cans of ice-cold Coca-Cola.)
Noah and I said goodbye and, as he got out of the car, his sweet face took on its countenance of nervousness, tinged with a brightening excitement I could see pulsing around his eyes. He slammed the door–his attention already immersed in that sea of friends and possibilities–and all there was left for me to do was go home. As I slowly drove back towards the river I felt, for that four minutes anyway, a sense of relief. We had made it. Inevitable though it was, Noah made it to Middle School.
There wasn’t a note in his lunchbox, of course, but he had tucked an extra copy of his schedule into the back pocket of his new cargo pants. In the corner, I had drawn a little smiley face.