I wore a red shirt, khaki shorts and hoop earrings, tame for a girl who went through an extended suspenders phase and coveted her best friend’s red, ruffled Spanish dancing dress. But this was 7th grade and I wanted to fit in.
I closed my eyes and pumped the hairspray until my bangs curled back like a frozen wave. Days spent watching kids at the mall convinced me this was a good look. (Because I had a past proclivity for making photo albums, this look is now preserved via photographic evidence for all time, see right.)
“You’re starting a new chapter,” my mom said as I shuffled out of the bathroom. Under her anxious gaze, I compelled a smile from my lips. It faded as I slung my backpack over my shoulder and walked out the front door, legs quaking, mind spinning, self-esteem plummeting. It was the morning of my first day of Middle School and I was terrified.
It was the morning of my first day of Middle School and I was terrified.
Fast forward several decades and I was now the mom holding an axious breath as my daughter woke up for her first day of Middle School. Already braver than me, she dropped her quaking legs to the floor and marched downstairs while the house slept. She made breakfast, drew a brush through her silky hair and packed a bag so thick most hikers would find it comical.
In a bathrobe and bare feet, I waited for her at the front door. As she approached, I flipped the lock and swung the door open, wondering if I should repeat my mother’s words from my first day of 7th grade.
Before I could speak, my daughter, sporting a much nicer hairstyle than mine at that age, tossed me her best attempt a reassuring smile. The familiarity of the reversed moment melted on my tongue and all I could mumble was, “Have a great day. I love you.” As she disappeared up the street, the words settled around me, feeling inadequate. I wondered if my mother felt the same way when she tried out her chapter mantra.
As much as I want to be the selfless mother and say it’s all about my kid, it’s not. Her experiences dig up my past, both good and bad. The jump from Elementary to Middle School is over a giant chasm and not all of us make it over unscathed. I’d dare say very few do.
The jump from Elementary to Middle School is over a giant chasm and not all of us make it over unscathed. I’d dare say very few do.
As I watched her golden hair sway back and forth and grow smaller and smaller through the window, I remembered my first day with my braces and my stiff straw bangs. At the time, it felt less like a new chapter and more like starting a whole new book.
It was the first time I felt the pressure of school pushing against me, squeezing my insides into an anxiety-filled ball. I had the same worries as my daughter: failing a test, forgetting my locker combination, sitting alone at the lunch table. These fears never left me. They’ve haunted my dreams well into adulthood.
My memory is episodic, experiences caught in brief pieces, like flies in a web. Eventually, they get devoured and I remember less and less. But, something is left behind, an emotion, a concept.
For some reason, the first day of Middle School, air thick with cleanser and teens squeezing through the front doors, managed to escape destruction. The brush of the 8th graders shoving me while calling out “sevies” still burns my shoulder. In retrospect, “sevies” was barely an insult. At the time, it made me feel even smaller than I already felt. Now I look back and it just reflects the between (“middle”) part of Middle School, before kids figured out how to sling the words that really hurt, when we were all still testing the limits of new freedoms and new friendships.
Back on that first day, I stood in the crowd, charcoal eyeliner trying to cover the fear in my eyes. I’d swapped out my suspenders for a more grown-up look, but I wasn’t comfortable. It was just a costume. As much as I wanted to turn and run back to the safety of Elementary School, I also wanted to run forward. The future was terrifying and I wanted to get past it as fast as possible.
The future was terrifying and I wanted to get past it as fast as possible.
So I took a step forward into the crowd.
“Hi, I’m Monica!” A girl with big cheeks and wide smile popped out in front of me. With her trendy clothes and sparkling blonde hair, she looked like she’d peeled right off the cover of Teen Vogue. It startled me, her forwardness and friendliness.
Kids whizzed by us. I looked around her, worried I wouldn’t make it to my locker in time for class. She didn’t move. Instead she aimed her smile at me and waited.
“Um, hi,” I said, curving up my lips.
“I’m new to school here. I wanted to introduce myself,” she explained. Her voice sounded like cotton candy, sweet and fluffy.
I sputtered something like “that’s great” and Monica hopped off to introduce herself to someone else. As I watched her light up the faces around her with her contagious bright white smile, I wished I could be like her, outgoing, friendly, beautiful, instantly lovable. By the age of 12, I’d mastered sullen, taciturn, quiet, at least until you got to know me. I’d never walk up to a complete stranger and say hello. At that moment in time, I didn’t like Monica. My dislike spurred by a jealousy of the ease with which she could befriend complete strangers.
At that moment in time, I didn’t like Monica. My dislike spurred by a jealousy of the ease with which she could befriend complete strangers.
As the weeks progressed I kept running into Monica. We started hanging out with same group of people and eventually became friends. I even remember helping her run for school President. The slogan, in anticipation of the upcoming Olympic Games, is written on the walls of my mind in smelly thick marker, “Go for the Gold. Vote Monica.” Why this memory hasn’t been devoured and so many other details of my life have, I’ll never know. Maybe it’s because it taught me an important lesson, I’m only understanding now.
My friendship with Monica didn’t happen overnight, friendships rarely do. However, at some point, I forgot that first jealous moment. It helped that, as advertised on our first meeting, Monica was easy to like and for some strange reason she liked me. I found myself at her house having sleepovers, stuffing our faces full of chips and watching The Power of One. (Seriously, I remember that exact movie. My memory web is odd.) I also recall she asked if I remembered her greeting on the first day. I told her I did. She blushed a little and admitted it had been extremely hard for her to go up to strangers and introduce herself.
This was the moment I realized we’re all just people, struggling to connect to each other.
This was the moment I realized we’re all just people, struggling to connect to each other. My hope for my daughter is that she realizes no one has it easy. Those people who look like they’re happy and perfect, surrounded by an endless loop of friends, are never as perfect as they seem. They struggle with self-doubt and a desire to find their niche.
Friendships take time to develop. And while you’re waiting, it can be excruciating. We all throw ourselves out into the world, hoping there’s a hand to grab onto. The best you can do is reach out your hand to catch someone else and rest will come with time.