Friday, August 31, 2012

We've reached a new frontier: middle school

From today's Briefing:

My children are split between two campuses for the first time.
Katie has started the second grade at our neighborhood elementary school while Cooper has ventured into middle school territory.
I know exactly what to do on the first day of elementary school. We take photos on the front porch, walk a third of a mile to campus, say hello to friends along the way, walk through the front doors of school together, hug a few friends in the halls, take a photo at the classroom door, find a seat, take a photo at the desk.
All around me are parents repeating the same kinds of cheerful phrases, variations on “Have a good day!” and “You’ll be great!” and “See you this afternoon!”
The first day of middle school routine is new territory, though.
One non-negotiable: photos on the front porch. Cooper complied, taking his place in front of the bushes, on the front step, in front of the door. Some with his sister, some without.
His new school is too far for walking; most days he’ll take the bus. But on this first day I wanted to see him actually walk into the building (from afar, of course — moms don’t walk sixth-grade boys into middle school). So we drove — me, Cooper and his Uncle Jim, who never misses the first day of school.
On the way, I asked Cooper how nervous he was on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most worried. He placed himself at a 6.
So I asked him to list his concerns, and one by one we talked through possible solutions. My goal was to coax him to a 5, maybe 4. We were getting close.
Then traffic came to a stop. Lots of other parents had the same first-day-of-school drop-off plan; cars were piled up. Excellent! I was in no rush to push my 5-foot-4 baby out of the minivan.
I casually mentioned to Uncle Jim that backpacks aren’t allowed in the hallways and classes; they have to be stored in lockers.
Cooper asked why.
“Oh, you know, because of drugs and weapons,” I said with levity usually reserved for “cake and ice cream” or “rainbows and unicorns.”
Cooper wanted to know more. Would there really be drugs and weapons at his new school? That giant building we were inching toward?
This is the moment that my usual, trusty mom filter would have come into play. Not today, though. Nope, my thinking-mom filter was gone, perhaps pushed aside by a little bit of anxiety about the next three years and, more specifically, the next seven hours of middle school.
“Well, I don’t know, Cooper, but let me tell you about a young woman I just met.”
I proceeded to tell him about a ninth-grader who is a recovering drug user, who spent part of middle school smoking pot.
“What’s pot?”
Then I explain that it’s a nickname for marijuana; then I have to explain what that is, too. In my head, I was thinking, “You are about to deliver your firstborn child to middle school and your parting words are going to be about pot. You must turn this conversation around!”
Cooper was too far into the topic to be deterred.
“What if someone offers me drugs today?”
I regained some confidence: “No one is going to offer you drugs on the first day of sixth grade. But if they do, say ‘No’ and walk away.”
End of conversation? Hardly.
“But, shouldn’t I tell the police or the principal or someone?”
I was getting desperate. We were nearing the front doors.
“No. If — and this is extremely unlikely — you are offered drugs today, say ‘No’ and walk away. We can talk about more strategies later.”
I took a breath. There was a bit of silence. Then I launched into my more typical first-day-of-school litany.
“You’re going to have a great day, Cooper! I’m so proud of you! Do you know your bus number? I can’t wait to see you when you get home!”
Then I stopped the car directly in front of the main entrance and pushed a button to open the side door.
My freckle-faced son smiled, said goodbye and unfolded his lanky limbs from the backseat and out onto the sidewalk. He walked by a crowd of even taller kids and through the front doors. He never looked back.
There are no photos of him walking in, but it’s an image I’ll never forget.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

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