The kids start school next week. The younger kids have been sleeping until 11 am, and soon I’ll be waking them up a full five hours earlier to catch a 7 am bus to middle school. What could possibly go wrong? Note to self: Maybe I should practice ahead of time.
Neale, who is going into sixth grade, can hardly wait. Really. She’s so excited, and it concerns/baffles/terrifies me. I think she views middle school as some sort of tween nirvana, where girl drama has faded and boys aren’t as stupid*. I don’t know whether to warn her or just be ready for when the dream falls apart and she collapses in grief.
*Yeah, boys ARE kind of stupid. Neale reports that the boys laugh every time the teacher says the number 69, although she said she understood I wouldn’t know what that meant because I’m old and all. I asked her what she thought the number 69 means. “Duh, Mom,” she said, rolling her eyes. “It means sex.” So we’re going with that.
I think I’ve explained to you numerous times about the horror of my sixth grade year. I had switched from the neighborhood parochial school to the uptown New Orleans all-girls school where everyone already knew to wear straight-legged jeans and corduroys with Lacoste shirts. I wore bell-bottoms. It was the ’70s, for hippies’ sake! On the daily, though, we wore plaid wraparound skirts and white blouses with monogrammed Peter Pan collars. We could choose what color socks we wore: forest green, canary yellow, navy blue, or white.
Nobody liked me. I’m not really exaggerating. Most of the girls had been going to school together since kindergarten, and already had divided into cliques. There were only 50 of us, after all. My best friend at school was Sr. Lorenz, the religion teacher, who made us write IALAC (I Am Lovable And Capable) at the top of a journal page every class.
Every day, I rode the horrible bus home and walked through the door crying. I HATED it.
One day, my homeroom teacher sent me to run an errand, and when class was dismissed, everyone started being super nice to me. A couple of girls even invited me to have lunch with them. I enjoyed this turn of events for a day or two, then summoned up the courage to ask one of the meaner girls why she was being so nice to me. “Mrs. H told us to,” she said. “Your mother called her and said you were crying all the time and Mrs. H said we should be nicer.” Okay, Mrs. H, if you’re reading this, which you’re probably not doing, that was the exact wrong way to handle the situation, and although I forgive you, I’m using your mistake as an example to teachers everywhere. Teachers: do not help sad students by tossing them in a pity pool where everyone can see them floundering about in fear and despair.
The best thing about sixth grade for me was that it eventually ended. By seventh grade, I wasn’t the only terrified 12-year-old, and a few of us bonded over our shared status as nerdy interlopers. You know, in hindsight, I guess it prepared me for now; I’m still kind of an interloper, a leftist hippie-ish unshaven woman wearing cutoffs and tanks in a wealthy conservative community filled with Lilly Pulitzer and BMWs. (Actually, I shave sometimes.) I don’t want my daughter to feel out of place, but here in this town, she’s a brown-skinned girl surrounded by blonds, and she’s an immigrant among Trump supporters. She’s only 11, but she gets it.
I hate this about us. I hate class warfare and elitism and racism. I hate tween girl drama and cliques, those inevitable coming-of-age junctures which thrust us forward into our grown-up selves. I don’t envy the girls who shunned me, nor do I resent the girls who have hammered away at the self-esteem of my own daughters. I feel sorry for them. They will grow up short on empathy and full of insecurity, obsessed with eye makeup and unable to appreciate the freedom of uncombed windswept hair.
Nearly two thousand years ago, Caesar Marcus Aurelius said, To refrain from imitation is the best revenge. Marcus Aurelius followed the philosophy rooted in Stoicism, which teaches the use of self-control and fortitude to overcome destructive emotions. I hope my daughter can live this way. I hope she endures middle school with a grace and dignity and self-assuredness I never had. I will try very hard not to call anyone to complain about children treating her badly, although I can’t make any promises. But I started this blog intending to write about the end of summer and instead have ranted about the worst year of my life, which is a pretty good indicator of what’s still stuck in my head. Marcus Aurelius, give me strength.