“Can you call the school and switch me into Mrs. K’s room, Mom? Please?”
It’s the hundredth time this summer my son has begged me to switch his 5th grade class assignment—his first year of middle school. Somehow, his three good friends have ended up in one class, and he is in another one with “a bunch of girls and some boys I don’t get along with that well.”
And I am left wondering what to do. Should I call the school and raise hell, momma bear style? Or should I just let the chips fall where they may, as my husband advised? “Let him have a bad year. It’ll be good for him,” he said. “Builds character.” (Neither option feels right.)
If I’m being honest, the scariest part about all of this — and the thing that keeps me up at night — are my own terrible memories of middle school, and the fear that my son will go through even remotely the same thing.
I was bullied in the years leading up to junior high by some girls in my class, and it continued into 8th grade. Like my son, I was also quirky and introverted—and, I have to admit, a bit of a know-it-all kind of kid. A late-bloomer, I looked like I was 10 when I was 14. I wanted to fit in, but I was awkward with kids my age and preferred the company of books, adults or my equally-quirky best friend.
My memories of middle school basically involve a lot of cringing, sweating, trying to avoid the bullies, and hiding in the bathroom at dances, desperately trying to flip my limp brown hair back like Farrah Fawcett’s.
In short, it was not a happy time.
And I know what you’re thinking: I’m putting my own experiences on my son, that my fears for him all stem from the bad experience I had in junior high — and you would be right. That’s exactly what I’m doing. I am “in his box,” as Debbie Pincus would say, and I’ve brought the Aquanet and my tattered copy of Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret with me.
And I’ve also brought some other stuff—memories of feeling unsafe at school, of being excluded, of feeling like an “other.” The truth is, it terrifies me when my son talks about these things himself, when he tells me he feels like he doesn’t fit in, and informs me that someone is picking on him (again).
I want to tell him, “It gets better.” I want to say, “School is not all there is, even though it feels like it right now.” I want to take him away, avoid the middle school experience altogether, home school him — or run off to Thailand with my little family and start over.
Instead, I take a deep breath and say all the things above (except the Thailand part). I tell him that he’ll make new friends, that this is a good chance to meet new people (even girls) and break out of his comfort zone. I tell him that “popular” is not the same as having true friends, that I’ve had both experiences growing up, but it’s the friends who stick with you that you’ll know forever, that they are the ones who matter, and that whether or not you get invited to this party or that one really doesn’t change your life one bit in the grand scheme of things.
And I remind myself that he has what I didn’t— the ability to swim upstream when everyone else is following each other down the river. Two parents (albeit imperfect) who love and support him. An extended group of family and friends who care about him and are there for him, no matter what.
I force myself to breathe and stay calm, and I make a game plan in my head:
- Arrange a time for my son to hang out with at least one kid in his new class before school starts.
- Email the principal and guidance counselor and let them know my concerns. Just in case.
- Take a tour of the middle school with my son before school starts.
- Stop “futurizing” — going to the bad place in my head — and start acting “as if,” as James and Janet Lehman say. In other words, I need to start letting my son know that I believe he can do it and focusing on what he’s doing right instead of letting my worries consume me.
I will hope for the best, and I will “keep calm and parent on.” Because sometimes, that’s the best you can do.
Elisabeth Wilkins is the Editor of Empowering Parents, and the mother of one son. She and her family live in Maine.