I have vivid memories of middle school. Although we called it “Junior High”, it was still the school we went to in the, well, middle. The whole thing feels like it happened five years ago. My brain is in a time warp that my joints haven’t gotten the memo about. While my body creaks in the morning, my head thinks the ‘90s just ended.
Middle school wasn’t five years ago, though. It was many years ago. That doesn’t make the memories any less intense. School dances in the back gym with a sea of girls covered in Aqua Net hairspray and boys adorned in gold chains, all standing around awkwardly as “Rhythm Nation” blares from the DJ table, live firmly in my memories. I can still smell the Drakkar Noir and communal Doritos crushed beneath our feet.
All the parents were old. I remember that too. No one knew anything about what the kids were doing and, the older we got, the more dimwitted most of the grownups seemed. They called Nintendo “Atari” and CDs “record albums”. The didn’t know about the bad words we said, naughty things we did, or the fistfights behind the drive-through Apple Bank on Wellwood Avenue. We were the cool ones. They were the old ones. Like Crystal Pepsi, we were the choice of a new generation.
As you may have guessed from all these incredibly dated references, my middle school days are long gone. I’m no longer that Dennis The Menace kid causing trouble and tormenting the teachers from the last row of the classroom.
No. Today, I’m the dopey adult. I may not yet be Mr. Wilson, yelling at Dennis through the back gate, but I’m definitely in the Mr. Belding zone. I’ve officially become the father of a girl in middle school. My daughter is in middle school. She’s a middle schooler.
I have to say that a few times to let it sink in because it sounds so ridiculous. If you think I see my own middle school experience as recent, imagine how recent her infancy must seem. My youth was five years ago. Her birth was five minutes ago. My sense of time is completely broken and , in typical dad fashion, I got all cornball about it on the eve of her first day.
She was packing her school bag in the kitchen. It was a serious visual that couldn’t be denied. My daughter was preparing for middle school. Yup. This was really happening. I had to get it together. So, I did what I always do in moments like this. I take a hard right from serious and go down a back road.
You’re really starting middle school tomorrow?
She didn’t look up. She just kept packing her bag. She didn’t answer.
Are they even going to let you in?
She stopped briefly and stared up at me.
Don’t they know you’re a baby? I mean, come on already. How are they gonna let my baby Olivia go through a school day in middle school? They’re gonna call me right away. I know it. They’ll be like, “Mr. Guttman, your baby is here trying to do middle school stuff. Please bring your car seat and pick her up.” That’s what’s gonna happen. I’m telling you. Aww. Sweet baby Olivia.
Then I stopped and waited for my thunderous laughter. There was none. She had gone back to packing her bag as soon as I said the word “baby” anyway. She did the vocal equivalent of an eye-roll.
Yeah. That’s great.
She still hadn’t looked up.
Mommy! Where’s my scrunchie!?
I backed out of the room and did the only thing I’ve done since this whole ridiculous process has begun. Nothing. I watched it happen. That’s the thing with kids growing up. Sometimes, you can’t do anything. You can’t stop it or slow it down. Most of your involvement is maintenance. You’re there to buy school supplies or meet a new bus driver. Everything else is automatic. You have to just endure it. It’s how I imagine it will be when she goes to high school…and starts driving…and goes to college…and then marriage…and…stop. Shut up. Don’t think about it. Don’t think about it. Just push forward.
That’s what I’ve been doing. Enduring it. Even after a week, her school stories have already changed. She talks about stopping at her locker, running into her friends in the hall, and other familiar tales. The days of secret parent book-readers, class cupcake parties, and one teacher to remember for the year are over. She will never have them again. That chapter closed at the start of the summer.
As of now, I’m still wrapping my head around it all. What’s truly confusing is that this mental roadblock is all about me. Every bit of it. Any gut wrenching feeling I have over the fact that she’s growing up is more about how her growing up affects me, not her.
Truth is, I’m not worried about her growing up. She’s going to be great. In fact, she’s going to be better than me. That’s something that you hope for when your kid is younger and then start to realize as they get older. She has all the natural gifts she was born with and all the ones that we helped instill in her since the day she arrived. She’s going to be a wonderful middle schooler, a better high schooler, and an out-of-this-world adult. I know this.
Her dad? Maybe not as much. He will, however, be able to brag that he played a part in making her the person she grew to be. When that day comes, she’ll still be rolling her eyes and I’ll be saying things like:
How are they going to let you in the White House? Huh? President Baby? Come on.