published Sunday, July 31st, 2011

Middle school, middle age: We're in the middle of it all

In three weeks, my firstborn will enter middle school.

Cue the scary music.

Also, cue an intense sense of unreality as I weigh the idea that I am now the mother of a middle-school kid. Somehow, when I contemplated all the milestones of parenting (first steps, first words, first day of kindergarten, first graduate degree, first professorship, first Nobel prize) I just skipped right over sixth grade.

I probably don't have much to worry about from a parenting perspective. My oldest son is a focused and gentle soul, and he's staying in the same sweet little school he's attended since he was 4 years old.

But we all carry our own freight around with us on these topics, and my middle-school baggage is not helpful. My memories of middle school are all wrapped up in moving to a new city the summer before sixth grade and embarking on The Worst Year Ever as the Most Neurotic Kid Ever in the Most Awkward Stage Ever.

For me, sixth grade was a bewildering year of new-kid-in-a-school-full-of-old-friends, followed by yet another transition to a new school that housed only seventh and eighth grades.

Whose idea was that concept, anyway? A school full of 12- to 14-year-olds? You could not more effectively concentrate the exquisite agony of that in-between-everything time.

Middle school wasn't all bad, though. I'm pretty sure I learned some important stuff about math, history, literature, Duran Duran -- and I definitely became expert at teasing my bangs into a fashionable, mid-'80s tangle.

Most importantly, I met Karyn, my very best friend throughout eighth grade, whom I still adore so utterly that I am getting on a plane for Washington, D.C., this week so I can spend a few days just hanging out with her.

Karyn and I are both creeping up on 40 and have five sons between us. It's been 26 years since we wandered the halls of Sidney Lanier Junior High in our slouchy boots and skinny jeans (how weird is it that I just described current fashion trends?). But time stands still for eighth-grade best friends, and I would bet good money that we will spend the long weekend acting like a couple of high-strung 13-year-olds, only now with access to wine and credit cards.

(Our sons and husbands will be elsewhere and spared the experience of witnessing this; I feel certain that is what's best for everyone.)

Her oldest son -- born the day before mine -- will also start middle school next month. I'm sure Karyn and I will talk about the trepidation we feel as we enter this new stage of parenting, and about the experiences we had at that age that shaped the people we became.

We'll cringe our way through memories of the wonderful awfulness of that time and revel in a friendship that has survived years, distance and the kinds of intensely emotional fights that are the exclusive realm of teenage girls.

And I'll come home with a renewed sense of perspective and gratitude for the passage of time, ready to face the idea of being the mother of a middle-school kid.

Cue the scary music. (Maybe some Duran Duran?)

Email Mary Fortune at mkfortune@comcast.net.

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