Advice from Your Not-So-Elders

The angst in the room was palpable: Throats cleared. Heels tapped. Eyes darted. There was a sweaty silence when a woman raised her arm for all faces to focus on her. “I am the principal,” she said in a confident tone. “Welcome to middle school.”

The parents squared their shoulders and put down their phones. She meant business. Step Up Day at middle school. That’s the day when it really hits home that our not-so-little-kids-anymore are prepped to be tossed from their elementary school thrones back to the bottom of the heap. Most of us shudder recalling the purgatory of junior high, the awkward encounters, smells, spots, blurts and bodily misfunctions. And yet, here we are. Gathered, trying to imagine that maybe it will be different for our own kids.

“This is an exciting time for your child’s development,” Madame Principal boomed, clicking to a slide of a cartoon brain holding dumbbells. “Mentally annnnnnd physically!” A new picture of a tween wearing too small clothes popped up. “Get ready to buy lots of new sneakers. Hahaha.”

“Of course,” she continued as she stalked the room for inattentive faces, “These years are a time for discovery, curiosity and change.”

Change. Just the day before I had been helping my sick 11-year-old in the bathroom when I noticed pubes. Unable to look away quickly enough before my son noticed that I had noticed, he said proudly, “Look! I have pubicals! Just like they promised in that health video!” This was only two weeks after I realized the horrid BO in the car was in fact coming from him and he conned me into spending $28 on “hair mud” when I took him to pick out deodorant.

The room seemed to freeze in that moment, as each parent came to terms with their own awkward brush with this impending adolescence. Yes, Madame Principal. Change, indeed. Oh, to have a few more months of just hoping he would brush his teeth.

Q&A time was a bunch of nonsense about lockers and lunch. What we all really wanted to know: Have we done enough as parents to get our babies ready for all of this…change? They will be on the bus with seventh- and eighth-graders, who have beards and bones to pick with the world. What can we tell them during the panicked sunset of their literal childhood that will stick?

As if on cue, a new slide appeared: “What Our School Community Means to Us.” Here, the current middle schoolers submitted bits of wisdom to pass to the class of 2027. “The best part is the cafeteria. You get to eat whatever you want from lots of foods!” They went on about the number of clubs to join (chess, jazz band, nature writing). There were peppy suggestions: “Make sure you try something you don’t think you would like. It may be your favorite.” There were even some deep insights:

“I was so scared of the 8th graders in the fall. Now I realize they are just like us.”

“You will really start to grow up here. You are responsible for your locker and schedule and you don’t have to walk in duck lines anymore!”

“Make new friends. Meeting new people is a great part of life. People are nice and funny and you can learn new things from each other.”

Try new things. Take care of your own stuff. Meet new people. Ask for help. It seemed like the basics of being a good person are pretty well summed up by these tweens and teens who are all navigating their own phases of changes and transitions.

All of us reading the sweet quotes let out a collective sigh of relief in the room. Our kiddos will be OK when they climb on to the early (so darn early) bus come fall. They will sit next to someone new, steady their character-free backpack on the lap, and look down at their first of many new pairs of sneakers. Then, they will sneak a sideways glance out of the window to make sure we are standing there watching. Because even though they are now a whole year older—with BO, pubicals and hair mud—they still need to know that we are there and that we will always see them, even as we disappear in the rearview mirror.

Maggie Knowles writes about all things kid. She and her family live in Yarmouth, where she gardens, keeps bees and refuses to get rid of her stilettos.

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