Middle school was a critical juncture in my life. Of course, this is only occurring to me now, fifty plus years after the fact. Here are five things I remember about middle school that I bet are still true today.
Changing classes meant I could change, too. In Science, I sat with my partner and prayed for invisibility. In English, I was reprimanded for interrupting and being sarcastic. In Art, I believed the teacher when she said it didn’t matter what my piece looked like. It was all about the technique. Each class in the day was a chance to shake off what had happened in the previous class, good or bad, start over, put on a new hat. I loved this because I’d spent the last months of elementary school waiting (in vain) to be called on to give a report on the Roman God Janus, each day was an agonizing build-up to the social studies hour, then the breath-holding to near black-out and then the relief, only to start anew the next day. So middle school was like going from the Pit and the Pendulum to Disneyland. Each class was a new ride. I think that is still true.
There were choices but only if there was courage. Middle school was my first encounter with the idea of ‘trying out’ for something. My elementary extracurricular experience involved playing Red Rover at vacation bible school and braiding lanyards out of pink and black plastic while sitting on the school’s terrazzo floor during summer recreation days. It was a turning point for me, reading the posters in the hallway announcing try-outs for various things and wondering in my head whether I was ‘that person.’ Was I the kind of person who could do that? I lost my nerve at JV cheerleader tryouts and watched my best friend launch what would become a six-year career of being very special, especially on game days. But I did score one of six spots dancing with an umbrella and singing “Singin’ in the Rain” in the spring musical. We wore puffy skirts with crinolines and danced in high heels. It felt like Broadway. Those choices – to lose one’s nerve or to try out – still exist.
Having a locker felt like the first step to a car and an apartment. The whole concept was amazing – first, that I would own anything that needed to be locked up, second, that we would have so much stuff to carry for each class that it couldn’t be done, we would have to make separate trips, and third, that I would have to remember the combination. The locker was also a real place as in ‘meet me at my locker’ or ‘I’ll walk you to your locker.’ It was a place where notes were left, slipped through the air vents at the top of the locker. ‘ I left you a note in your locker.’ It’s where friendships and romances started and ended. It was a place of significance. Social media notwithstanding, I bet that’s still true. Your crush can’t walk you to your Facebook page.
The halls were electric with attraction. Oh sure, kids ‘liked’ other kids in elementary school. There was the recess chasing and obnoxious, notice me, boy behavior. But in middle school, the currents of attraction ran everywhere, so thick a person almost had to spread them apart like a bead curtain leading to the fortune teller’s lair. Attraction was visceral, unsubtle, impossible to explain to anyone. ‘Why do you like him?’ ‘I don’t know.’ Keeping track, everyday, of the looks, the distance, interpreting intentions, laying meaning on every step taken in a hallway that could combust into flame with just one more 13-year old glance from the right person. Thinking this much about my place in various constellations was new to me, all consuming, preoccupying because nothing was ever as it should be. The choice, and I remember it so well, was to struggle with the maelstrom of the hallway and all it meant or back myself up against the lockers, make myself thin and flat and nondescript. I think that choice is still there now – to be in ‘it’ with all of ‘its’ risks or to stand aside.
What happened there would last a good while. Middle school was where I found out I was good at something (English) and where I made my first Jewish friend (Lori). I had my first boyfriend (Kent) who wrote me letters in the summer from his uncle’s farm in Nebraska, maybe four letters over three months, but I checked our metal mailbox at the road twenty times a day every day. He broke up with me the next year when a bout of mononucleosis kept me home for six weeks but I carried a torch for years, had other boyfriends but always looked out for his number (83) on the football field. At our 40th high school reunion, old friends buzzed around to tell me that ‘Kent is coming’ as if I should rush off to the ladies room and fix my make-up. This hasn’t changed. There is bizarre durability in first loves.
So that’s my wisdom about middle school. That little nondescript passage from elementary to high school had a lot more to it than I thought.