Friday, September 14, 2012

Middle school events bring back old anxieties

From today's Briefing:

If you happen to be holding on to any middle school anxiety, it just might creep back when your own child reaches that level.
Take, for example, lockers.
A week before the first bell, our middle school invited incoming sixth-graders and their parents to pick up schedules, walk to classes and practice opening lockers.
What I learned that morning: There have been no discernible technological advances in lockers or combination locks for decades.
You still spin the lock to the right twice, then to the left a full turn, then back to the right again. And you still hold your breath as you simultaneously lift and wiggle the latch on the locker, silently praying that you got the numbers just right and that the door will open.
Or perhaps you’re still harboring some bus worries. From what I can tell, that situation hasn’t advanced much, either.
During the first week, when exact ridership was still in flux, Cooper’s bus was packed. On the first afternoon ride home, Cooper reported that he was squished against the window, penned in by two older and bigger kids.
On the second afternoon, there were three kids in every seat and some standing in the aisle. Another bus was dispatched, and crowding was relieved.
Now his route has been broken into two. The mass is more manageable.
Just as I remember, the rowdier kids sit in back. And the bus driver hollers if he hears unacceptably salty language.
For the full-on, face-your-fears middle school experience, though, nothing beats meet-the-teacher night.
Tuesday night, a whole bunch of parents crowded into the cafeteria, looking for the correct line to pick up schedules. Then we stood in cliquish clumps, waiting for instructions from the principal and a bell to send us scurrying to find first-period classes.
Would we know anyone else in the class? Would we have time to visit before the teacher began talking? Should we take notes? Dare we ask questions?
And then the bell would ring again, and we’d have three minutes to find the next room.
In one room, the teacher kept talking after the end-of-class bell. I resisted the urge to stand up, concerned that he’d scowl and grumble, “The bell doesn’t dismiss you. I dismiss you.”
Then I remembered that I’m 40 and that these teachers are human. I even convinced myself that there’s nothing to fear about the sixth grade.
That confidence lasted until fourth period, when the science teacher addressed other parents’ concerns about the previous night’s homework. Heck, I didn’t even know there was homework yet. What else was I missing?
I started taking notes more diligently. Major assignments make up 50 percent of a six-weeks grade, minor assignments 30 percent, daily work 20 percent.
If you turn in daily work a day late, the highest grade possible is a 70. Two days late? Nothing higher than a 50.
One teacher told us to take time to look at binders, in backpacks, even in lockers. To stress organizational skills and time management.
“Everything is coming at them fast and furious,” she said. No kidding, I thought, as my fingers barely kept pace with her rapid-fire advice.
“Tell them it’s OK to come in for tutorials,” she said. “Tell them to pay attention in class.”
Then the bell rang, and we scrambled out of desks and into the hall, searching for the next room. After eight abbreviated class periods, we were dismissed.
I stopped by Cooper’s locker. I braced myself for a tumble of papers and notebooks as I tentatively worked the combination lock.
Right-left-right. Lift and wiggle. Success! The door opened, revealing a library book and two binders, neatly standing on end.
I wrote Cooper a quick note, left it on his locker shelf, then gently closed the door. I’d like to imagine that I was also closing the door on any lingering middle school fears.
Not likely. My old worries have taken on a whole new life — two, actually. But that’s just part of the bittersweet job description of parent.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

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